Stripping portraiture bare

Zoe Whitfield

Zoe Whitfield on the ‘Exposed: The Naked Portrait’ exhibition at Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery

02 November 2018 08:00

In a modest box, affixed to a blue partition, David Beckham is sleeping. Some metres away, Naomi Campbell, her face adorned with bold black sunglasses, holds a cigarette close to her head; beside her Nell Gwyn’s pale, pert breasts are unclothed. George Mallory’s ‘body of an athlete by Praxiteles’ is next in the line-up, while a 19-year-old Kate Moss concludes the group. Through a set of doors Chantal Joffe stands with her daughter, as Vivienne Westwood reclines against a set of tangerine cushions, and members of The Slits hang about in loincloths.

A mixture of video, painting and photography, ranging from about 1670 to the latter half of the noughties, the works described here – by Sam Taylor-Johnson, Mario Testino, Simon Verelst, Duncan Grant, Mario Sorrenti, Joffe, Juergen Teller and Pennie Smith respectively – comprise a small but revealing chunk of a brilliant new show to arrive at Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery, Exposed: The Naked Portrait.

‘I love the Chantel Joffe – the huge Chantel Joffe,’ curator Amy Barker reflects, alluding to the scale of Self Portrait with Esme (the piece, from 2008, is over three metres tall). ‘I hadn’t seen it in the flesh, but when it came out of its packaging and onto the wall… there’s something incredibly immediate about the work. It’s so huge and feels almost poster like in its simplicity, but there’s so much more to it than that. It’s a very clever painting.’

Many of the pieces in the show could be talked about in a similar vein, each performing something deeper than what is immediately displayed. With such an interpretative topic, context here is supreme, manifested in the groupings devised by Barker and her co-curator Julie Milne: ‘Bodies of Desire’ opens the two-room exhibition and explores the role of gender and sexuality, showcasing portraits that observe the idea of the nude, and ‘Reclaiming the Body’ introduces postmodernism and feminist theory to the visual conversation.

Mick Jagger; Jerry Hall by Norman Parkinson, Jul 1981

Outlined by Barker as we talk, and clarified by the accompanying show notes, The Naked Portrait – which boasts images of more than 80 sitters, building on a smaller exhibition of just 12 pieces hosted at the National Portrait Gallery in 2016 (the Laing’s show is a collaboration with London) – is concerned not with the nude and its affiliated splendour, but nudity. ‘Nakedness,’ we’re told, ‘is associated with authenticity. In contrast, the nude belongs to a tradition of idealised figures.’ There is some crossover, naturally, but the gaze and the bond between the relative parties, sitter and artist, are what we’re invited to examine here.

‘I was conscious that there were images in the exhibition that were more titillating, more for private enjoyment, and then there were other images that were quite at the opposite end of the scale,’ explains Barker. ‘Very powerful images, particularly of women, where it was clear that they’d reclaimed the authority over that image.’ Going into the show, she says, she keenly observed the current social climate, coupled with a strong awareness of female artists’ place in galleries, as well as ‘the historic lack of their voice, and the fact that, traditionally, it’s all been about the male gaze on the female form.’

So how does one implement this in a show like the Laing’s? ‘There’s quite a strong proportion of women artists in the exhibition,’ she says. ‘When I was looking at the marketing, I was conscious of a balance in terms of the artists, because shows about portraiture are more women heavy in terms of sitters and male heavy in terms of artists. Trying to redress that is difficult when the subjects are so strongly female.’ Ultimately, she stresses, the outcome is down to what’s available in the already consolidated gallery collections, in which women are sorely underrepresented. ‘It’s the same across the whole country, and the importance in finding them and making sure they’re on walls… hopefully we explore this in the show.’

The aforementioned marketing comes illustrated primarily with a Norman Parkinson photograph of Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall – selected as something that would resonate with everyone; ‘it’s quite joyful, it’s very attractive, it’s not overly graphic’ – while a portrait of Jacqui Agyepong by Alastair Morrisson from 1996 was chosen to complement it, exercising something away from celebrity, representative instead of a powerful body. While both dip into themes toured within it, neither quite divulges the fantastic breadth of the exhibition, not least the employment of colour, found in much of the work on display. ‘There was always an awareness of the need to have a mix, and what I describe as texture,’ Barker considers, ‘this need to not have a complete exhibition of black and white photographs, because that’s not enough.’

Johnny Vegas as Demi Moore by Karl J. Kaul, 2006

‘It was about having a mixture of bodies, of different skin, male and female, and also getting a bit of humour in there. Some of those images take themselves quite seriously – I don’t think they’re any worse for that – but some of those photographs of women by women, they’ve had to fight really hard to get that position as an artist. They’re recognised and respected for it, so there’s something quite serious.’ Amongst those positioned nearby the mammoth Joffe portrait are further self-portraits by Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas; a Maggie Murray, for Format Photographers, image of Jo Spence also hangs in the same room.

Contrasting with these, Barker highlights Karl J. Kaul’s portrait of Johnny Vegas – a re-enactment of Annie Leibovitz’s famous Vanity Fair cover with a pregnant Demi Moore – as an example of the comedian making fun, simultaneously at his own expense and that of the industry. Elsewhere, she points out a holiday shot, by John Swannell, of the controversial Benetton photographer, Oliviero Toscani and his wife Kirsti: ‘When did I ever see a picture as joyful as that? I mean it’s just so much fun.’ Wildly different from one another, not least in how staged the former feels and genuinely relaxed the latter appears, it’s not difficult to concur in regards to the jolly perspective the pair bring.

It’s in this essence that she hopes people are able to relate to the show, describing a desire to attract visitors ‘who are interested in the multi-layered approach, but also people who come just to see the famous faces and have a bit of fun.’ The exhibition’s takeaways are a more nuanced consideration of exploitation and ownership of images, a fresh sense of pride in our own bodies, and ‘simply a recognition that everybody’s got them, and perhaps that it’s not something to be embarrassed or snigger about. It’s about identity and that’s exciting as a viewer.’

One of the art world’s most enduring subjects, the naked body is habitually in vogue, subject to our endless curiosities and universal fascinations with other people. ‘Portraits are something people can identify with,’ suggests Amy by extension. ‘If you get a portrait of a person you’re interested in, it doesn’t matter what the art movement was or which country it came from, because what you’re inherently interested in is the picture of the person. Nakedness and nudity is part of that. Figurative pictures, one way or another, [are] always appealing, and I don’t think that will ever go away.’ With an exhibition that taps into and foregrounds the array of arenas referenced throughout The Naked Portrait – the personal and the public, fashion and advertising, history and philosophy, controversy, aesthetics, music, literature and comedy – it doesn’t take much thinking to comply.