To peep or not to peep
A new voyeuristic exhibition at the National Gallery has hit the headlines, inviting people to watch a naked woman. Ania Ostrowska has had enough
The basement of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London is currently hosting a special exhibition as part of the Cultural Olympiad’s London 2012 Festival. The Festival is bringing to the nation (and the tourists flocking to the Olympic Games) a multitude of cultural events, many of them featuring artistic titans (Damian Hirst at Tate Modern, Alfred Hitchcock at BFI, Yoko Ono at the Serpentine Gallery and Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal at Barbican and Sadler’s Wells).
Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 celebrates “British creativity across the arts” and is a collaboration between the National Gallery and The Royal Ballet. It features visual artists, choreographers, composers and poets all responding to three paintings by Titian, the 16th century Italian painter, seen together for the first time since the 18th century after joint acquisitions by the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland. The works, occupying the central room, were painted between 1551 and 1575 and are part of the series of mythological themes revolving around the Goddess of the Hunt, Diana, and inspired by Ovid’s epic Metamorphoses. ‘Diana and Callisto’ depicts the chaste Goddess’ rage on discovery of her nymph Callisto’s pregnancy. ‘Diana and Actaeon’ captures the moment of the young hunter Actaeon stumbling upon Diana and her companions bathing. Finally, ‘The death of Actaeon’ shows Acteon, turned into a stag in the act of divine revenge for his trespass, torn into pieces by his own hounds.
Three contemporary British artists are responding to the Italian Master in the most original and creative way, yay! (Of course they are all male; wasn’t the Master a man himself?)
Three other rooms host response pieces by painter Chris Ofili, mechanical sculptor Conrad Shawcross and conceptual artist Mark Wallinger, while in the Exhibition Cinema you can watch the video of 14 poets reading their works inspired by the paintings. Four further rooms display costumes and set designs for three new ballets written especially for the occasion and the film documenting the work of choreographers. In other words, there is plenty to take in within this relatively small space.
Ostensibly, there is also plenty to celebrate. London 2012 Olympic Games, yay! (Please keep it quiet if you disagree and install your Union Jack on the balcony if you haven’t already.) Three mythology-themed Titians are back together, yay! (Please don’t shout too loud if you are surprised they are displayed in a small dark room in the basement and not in some other spacious well-lit hall.) Three contemporary British artists are responding to the Italian Master in the most original and creative way, yay! (Of course they are all male; wasn’t the Master a man himself?)
However, one July morning, I cycled to the National Gallery on the wings of feminist rage and not in an especially celebratory mood. Shortly after the exhibition’s opening on 11 July, I read some of the press coverage of the event that, surprisingly, focused on one artwork only and not even by Titian: ‘Diana’ by 2007 Turner Prize winner Mark Wallinger. ‘National Gallery puts on a peep show with Mark Wallinger’s nude Diana’! ‘Voyeurs welcome: Nude bathing woman in National Gallery display’! ‘Peeping Toms can see naked woman through keyhole!’ shouted the headlines.
Voyeurs? A peep show in the National Gallery? “Mark Wallinger, what new storm have you stirred?” I wondered, preparing for my visit on the following day.
Assessing a show that includes works whose production span almost six centuries is a tricky task. The design of the gallery makes you start chronologically, with centrally placed Titians. If you appreciate traditional figurative painting, they remain strikingly lively and impressive and it really is a pity there is literally not more light shed on them.
There are very few rules the models have to follow but they have to behave “suitably goddess-ish”. First question that comes to my mind is: would that involve turning unruly men into stags to be eaten by their dogs?
To the left, there is a room with Chris Ofili’s seven paintings inspired directly by Ovid rather than responding to Titian (the burden of replying to the Master was too much, said Ofili). His pieces are classical scenes executed in vibrant colours with Trinidadian flavour. Highlighting sexual desire as the driving force behind the fate of mythological characters, a curvaceous figure raising a giant phallus resides at the centre of his engagement. Ofili’s bathers, morphed into colourful shapes, take on somewhat unreal, dreamlike quality. But the question remains whether this departure from a classical female nude goes far enough (and, ahem, there is a massive green phallus in the middle…).
Across from the entry to the Titian room, there is Conrad Shawcross’s ‘Trophy’, my absolute favourite. In a contemporary twist on both the ancient motif and the title of the show, Shawcross’s Diana morphed into a gracious robot with a light at the end of her wand with which she is examining her trophy: a single antler symbolising Actaeon mauled by his hounds. This is a triumphant Diana but her robotic moves are seductive and mesmerising, perhaps even hinting at her vulnerability in the bath scene.
This is the same bath scene on which Mark Wallinger is riffing in his work. As he is an artist famous, among others, for his recreation, it comes as no surprise he did not pick ‘The death of Actaeon’: there would be no end to animal rights defenders’ protesting. In the middle of the dark room there is another dark chamber with one set of closed doors and two small hazy windows. On closer inspection you learn that a mysterious room can actually be peeked into through the keyhole, the broken window, the not-completely-drawn Venetian blinds. When you look inside, you get snippets of a bathroom and its naked (but wearing some jewellery, funnily enough) female inhabitant, washing her hair, painting her toenails, or perhaps cleaning her face in front of the mirror. Who is she?
Her name is Diana, even though she is not always the same person: Wallinger found six women called Diana to perform the role in two-hour shifts. There are very few rules the models have to follow but they have to behave “suitably goddess-ish”. First question that comes to my mind is: would that involve turning unruly men into stags to be eaten by their dogs? The answer is no, as they are confined to a small locked space, severely limiting their divine powers, wearing necklaces and moving slowly has to do.
I need to admit that my initial rage, fuelled by the sensationalist articles, subsided a bit on confrontation with the piece. There weren’t hordes of prurient men queuing to look at the naked woman, elbowing and pushing each other aside. The atmosphere in the gallery that weekday morning was rather tranquil and visitors were spending as much time in other rooms as in Diana’s. There was an agreeable young man who eagerly moved away from his peeping hole, directing me towards the broken corner of the window that allowed the best insight. “Nice,” he whispered confidentially.
I looked in. I saw a foot and a hand applying nail varnish to toenails. I moved to another wall: Diana was nowhere to be seen from this position. Next wall: a naked woman seen from behind, with her face reflected in the mirror. The last viewing point: breasts, belly, a hint of pubic hair. This is hardly porn for the gallery-goers. The titillation of the whole peeping exercise seems to be the combination of the fact that there is an actual naked woman in there and that very little of her can be seen at any given point.
It is also instructive to remember that back in the 16th century, the three Titians on display used to be covered by a curtain in the presence of ‘ladies’, considered too obscene for their sensitive eyes even though the only nudity on display was female
True, it is highly unlikely that the situation in the gallery will morph into Rembrandt’s Susanna and the Elders, even though as the word spreads and more visitors descend upon London this Olympic summer, there will no doubt be a fringe of obsessive voyeurs spending a more than reasonable amount of time at the peepholes (though, paradoxically, the very idea of an illicit wank in the National Gallery is more on the exhibitionist than voyeuristic side).
However, many people will come to see the show drawn by the thrill of “naked woman locked in a peep show”, as advertised by the press. This is not far from any outright sexist marketing strategy of selling anything by means of exposed female flesh. Shall I suck it up because it’s done in the name of High Art and will enable viewers/voyeurs to see the rest of the show? Maybe I would, had it not been for the fact that at least three other paintings in the show feature naked women as well (it’s harder to say with Ofili: he’s not that literal).
And even if such critique gets dismissed as outdated nitpicking, there are other things wrong with ‘Diana’. In the case of conceptual art, it is always interesting (some say necessary) to let the artist give their reasons for creating the piece. “‘Diana’ is about watching and being caught in the act and evolved out of my desire to find a way of representing Diana bathing in a contemporary way,” Wallinger told the Telegraph. The “contemporary way” means not only that Diana’s body type conforms to contemporary rather than classical canon of female beauty but, more importantly, it transforms the scene from Actaeon accidentally stumbling upon naked Diana (he was only a voyeur if you can be an accidental one) to the systematic, institutionalised collective surveillance of a locked up human being at the hands of willing purposeful voyeurs. This is worse than omnipresent CCTV cameras, I offer; on the streets of Great Britain you can at least move relatively freely (just like the Roman goddess did in the woods) in hope that at least sometimes you are not being caught on them. Wallinger’s Dianas only get out of the room to take turns of being inside, and only then the audience is asked to leave the space.
But Wallinger offers a contemporary take not only on the activities of watching and being watched. He is aware of the art history’s gender bias (well done, Mark!) and apparently wants to address this issue too: “This building, after all, is all about the history of the male gaze and the female nude,” he said. It is also instructive to remember that back in the 16th century, the three Titians on display used to be covered by a curtain in the presence of ‘ladies’, considered too obscene for their sensitive eyes even though the only nudity on display was female.
If you want to challenge the centuries long history of the male gaze and the female nude in art, you do not do that by putting a naked bejewelled woman in a peepshow in the National Gallery in London
When Guerrilla Girls in their own cheeky take on this history of exclusion asked in 1989: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”, they meant that representations of naked women made up 85% of all nudes on canvases painted in 95% by male artists. Could they have predicted that in 2012, real breathing women would need to be naked to get into the high profile show featuring four male artists (including Titian) and not a single woman?
If Mark Wallinger thinks he has challenged the status quo enough by enabling female visitors, unlike their 16th century counterparts, to become voyeurs on par with men, I beg to differ. What is at stake here is much more serious than gender equality in peeping: it is the perennial question of whether art should change the world or merely describe it.
Perhaps if you want to problematize the surveillance culture we live in, especially in the UK, you should consider alternatives to turning all the gallery visitors into Peeping Toms and Susans. And if you want to challenge the centuries long history of the male gaze and the female nude in art, you do not do that by putting a naked bejewelled woman in a peepshow in the National Gallery in London.
Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 is in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing until 23 September 2012. Admission is free.
This exhibition is part of the London 2012 Festival. We’ve also reviewed Yoko Ono’s exhibition and the Art in Action Festival at Tate Modern’s The Tanks, which are also part of the London 2012 Festival.
The first and fourth photos are of Mark Wallinger’s ‘Diana’, © The artist, courtesy of Anthony Reynolds Gallery. Photograph, The National Gallery, London.
The second photo is Titian’s ‘Death of Actaeon’, © bought with a special grant and contributions from The Art Fund, The Pilgrim Trust and though public appeal in 1972.
The third photo is of Conrad Shawcross’s ‘Trophy’, © Conrad Shawcross Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, London. Photograph, The National Gallery, London.
The Guerilla Girls poster is copyright © 1989, 1995 by Guerrilla Girls