The Body Laid Bare – Masterpieces from Tate is currently on exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery. Hamish Coney describes the exhibition as a once in a lifetime experience – but repeat viewings reveal that “body language is the language we speak when we are not speaking at all”

The temptation when a blockbuster art exhibition opens is to rush along and dash off a review in an effort to be first off the block. I attended the opening night, and then the evening presentation by co-curator Justin Paton from the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Since the opening in mid-March I’ve been back another four times and before the show closes on July 16 I’m sure I’ll revisit many more times.

But I’ve taken my time penning this review for the simple reason that the exhibition is so compelling, so packed with highlights, so full of painterly eye candy that it has taken the best part of a month to process the exhibition in its entirety. The problem has been that on my visits to date I’ve got a bit stuck. I’ve become transfixed by an individual work, to the exclusion of whole rooms. On night one I sprinted to see Stanley Spencer’s 1937 canvas Double nude portrait: the artist and his second wife – the one that includes the leg of mutton in the foreground. Next trip, I spent some quality time with Balthus’ Nude on a chaise longue from 1950.

The exhibition spans nearly three hundred years of nakedness from the early 19th century to the present day – in its totality TBLB is a hymn of praise to art’s greatest subject: us. There in all their fleshy, gorgeous, covert, overt and somewhere-in-between glory are some bodies that look both familiar and spectacular. This finery from Tate bears witness to American artist Willem de Kooning’s famous phrase, ‘flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented.’

Whilst there is a chronological roadmap that begins with the academic nude of the sort that used to embellish history painting, the curatorial intervention is understated and designed to highlight natural kinships of ideological and stylistic direction. There is also a superb catalogue that will help join the dots before and after the main event. I imagine most visitors will find themselves wandering off-piste pretty quickly because some masterpieces, notwithstanding having been viewed often in reproduction, just burn brighter ‘in the flesh’. On the other hand for a subject that is so universal and emblematic there is every chance you might be drawn to a painting that seems to have your name written on it. One suite of works by French post-impressionist Pierre Bonnard (1816 – 1947) dating to the 1920s of his wife Marthe, speaks so volubly to the silent intimacies of domestic partnership that I saw observers drawn into their spell, many visibly moved.

So much of the power of this exhibition is in the ability of these works to communicate to us directly of our loves, lusts, fears and dreams without the aid of any external support: eye sees, heart feels. One of the criticisms of contemporary art is that the art object is heavily reliant on an expositional text or reference material that sits well outside the parameters of the piece itself. No such trouble here, what you see is what you get and it has to be said this ‘old school’ art cuts like a knife through the hot butter of more cerebral, intellectually based practice. Just sayin’.

The communion between image and observer of these Tate nudes is heightened by the directness of both the message and the medium. The expressive power of the human form operates with equal force whether the subject is some arcane mythological tableau , surrealist dreamscape or a high wattage object of desire.

Many of the these works originate from that humid locus of fantasy ‘the artist’s studio’ but as the show moves toward the present day issues of gender, sexuality, sexual politics and the ‘male gaze’ are dealt with sensitively by the curatorial team whilst still allowing for the show’s central theme to remain constant. This means that ideas of the exotic, the erotic, the vulnerable and the feminist nude are all addressed with candour, humour and joie de vivre.

For a show that is so singularly themed the viewer will find individual works that speak to them personally. Here are some that did just that for me from The Body Laid Bare.

J. M. W. Turner (1775 – 1851) Sketchbooks. The smallest works in the exhibition pack a mighty punch, revealing as they do the artist’s erotic daydreams and just how the artist might have enjoyed some downtime in the studio in between painting some of the 19th century’s most spectacular masterpieces. These fluid sketches dating to the 1820s were clearly a private pleasure, the murky depths revealing all sorts of hanky-panky not fit for the rarified airs of the Royal Academy.

Auguste Rodin’s ‘The Kiss.’ Photo: Tate

Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) The Kiss, 1901-04. Depicting two lovers from Dante’s Inferno this massive tonnage of marble sculpture has a stupendous presence, and it’s a miracle that it is here at all – The Kiss is the anchor stone of the exhibition. Rodin’s ability to depict the tremulousness of the lovers embrace and the softness of flesh in marble is simply magic. Those that failed to be moved must be made of stone themselves.

Pablo Picasso’s ‘Nude woman in a red armchair.’ Photo: Tate

Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) Nude woman in a red armchair, 1932. No nude show is complete without a Picasso. This canvas of his lover Marie-Therese Walter is all curves, marshmellow colour and loved-up painterly flourishes – the very definition of curator Justin Paton’s phrase ‘the loaded brush’*.

Sylvia Sleigh (1916-2010) Paul Rosano Reclining, 1974. Sleigh was a key player in the New York feminist art scene of the 70s so this work comes freighted with the ‘female gaze’ as a counterpoint to the objectification of women critique that gets laid at the door of male artists such as Picasso. Sleigh manages to downplay the inherent polemic and informs her subject with the same dreamy eroticism that pervades many female nudes.

Tracey Emin’s ‘The last thing I said to you was don’t leave me here II.’ Photo: Tate

Tracey Emin (b.1963) The last thing I said to you was don’t leave me here II, 2000. Emin’s candid nude image is one of the rare examples of an artist putting herself in the picture. In a grotty seaside cabin in Margate the artist squats, perhaps in the aftermath of a raw lover’s quarrel. Such a candid, courageous image is the hallmark of an artist who has placed the confessional as the centre of her practice. 

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