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Naked or Nude? New portraits at Laing Gallery open debate

Polly Borland (1959-) Germain Greer. Photo (c) Neil Hennessy-Vass

In partnership the National Portrait Gallery, Newcastle’s Laing Gallery has assembled a unique collection of 86 paintings, photographs and sketches under the title Exposed: The Naked Portrait. Looking at the distinction between nude and naked it is designed to help us open up the debate between consenting nude and the more voyeuristic naked. It’s an interesting distinction that does deserve closer examination.

The relationship between artist and sitter is key in this collection as the majority fall into the nude category. For example there is a photograph by Patrick Litchfield of Marsha Hunt taken after the opening night of Hair the musical. It was a massive hit and a claxon for a generation of anti war and love but although she is naked there is nothing delicate on display. Is that the skill of the photographer or the modesty of the sitter?

Patrick Litchfield (1939-2005) Marsha Hunt. Photo: (c) Neil Hennessy-Vass

Another of Germaine Greer sees her naked on her bed. Her idea was to replicate how she is in that room most of the time in Polly Borland’s colourful photograph. But here again I feel the theme is being slightly misrepresented as the sitter while not wearing any clothing is not showing anything of herself as a naked form. Or is this a mature woman taking control of her body? Her arms and leg cover her modesty.

Norman Parkinson (1913-1990) Mick Jagger & Jerry Hall. Photo (c) Neil Hennessy-Vass

Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall are the ‘poster’ couple for the show – their photograph by Norman Parkinson is on all the promotional material, suitably cropped so to not offend. It was apparently taken at the end of photo session as ‘one for them’ by the photographer in 1981. It is in many ways the most representative of the collection as it shows two people perfectly entwined and open about their bodies.

The most important part of the exhibition for me were two prints taken from the contact sheet of Lewis Morley’s famous image of Christine Keeler, naked sitting behind an Arne Jacobson chair. The photograph was taken as publicity shot to promote Profumo Affair, a film about the revelation that Christine Keeler had had simultaneous relationships with a Russian Attaché and the British Secretary of State for War. Contractually obliged to appear naked it was Morley’s suggestion that she sat behind one of six chairs he had recently bought for his Greek Street studio. Housed in the same building as Peter Cook’s Establishment Club it was the epicentre of cultural modernity in the early 60’s. The image was so successful that it has been much parodied. He grew to resent being known for this one image but it is a perfect storm of circumstance, skill and notoriety. He later self parodied his work by photographing others in the same position such as David Frost, Joe Orton and later Dame Edna Everage (Barry Humphries) and even turning the camera on himself in 2006 but with the addition of a millstone around his neck.

Lewis Morley (1925-2013) Christine Keeler Contact Sheet. Photo (c) Neil Hennessy-Vass

Exposed: The Naked Portrait offers a thought provoking insight into a modern view of art. It would be fair to say there is something there for everyone in that traditional paintings are juxtaposed with what might be considered pornography in the form of a naked ‘stained glass’ portrait of Gilbert and George. Eclectic and far reaching this exhibition promises more than it can deliver but what it does deliver is of good quality and worth a look in.


Exposed: The Naked Portrait

Laing Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne

Showing until: 3 March 2019

For more information, CLICK HERE


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