Ireland: a country emerging from a past dominated by the censorious and repressive Catholic Church into a bright new liberated future, where sexuality and bodily autonomy are celebrated.
That’s the generally accepted narrative, but a new and staggeringly diverse exhibition of Irish nudes at the Crawford Art Gallery goes some way towards adding shades of grey to this black and white depiction of our past and our present.
‘Naked Truth: The Nude in Irish Art’ sees work from artists like Francis Bacon and William Orpen visit Cork for the first time, on loan from galleries including the Tate and the Irish Museum of Modern Art.
But these visiting treasures are just the tip of the flesh-toned iceberg. Ranging from James Barry’s 18th century neoclassical paintings to Dorothy Cross’s video art, the exhibition flies in the face of a long-held fallacy that Irish artists have traditionally shied away from nudes, co-curator William Laffan says.
“It has often been stated by people who should know better that the Irish nude did not exist,” art historian and critic Laffan says.
On every visit to the National Gallery, I would see dozens of nudes by Irish artists. So the idea of the show came from the constant denial of the very existence of the Irish nude.
There’s no denying their existence in this ambitious show of 80 pieces spanning nearly 300 years and
including paintings, sculpture, photographs and stills from video installations.
Gallery management says guidance is recommended for under 16s for this unflinching, full-frontal exploration of artists’ relationship to the human body, but Laffan says the universal power of the nude in art extends far beyond explorations of sexuality.
“We have been deliberately broad in our definition of the nude; it is a classic genre of art,” he says.
How you react to the body is so central to human experience and that’s why I downplay the sexual elements, the naughty elements if you like. This is much more a celebration of artists engaging with the human body.
Contrary to popular perception of Ireland as a country where censorship has abounded, Laffan says he hasn’t encountered a single tale of church or state censorship of fine art in his research, although the censorship of literature, film and theatre was common.
Yet there’s no denying that there are many pieces here that courted controversy, from gallery censorship and condemnation to, in the case of printmaker David Lilburn’s ‘From the Forceps To The Chains of Office’, one of the few inclusions to portray an erect penis, an actual physical attack on the artwork when it was exhibited in Limerick in 1984.
When Billy Quinn’s Aids-inspired photographic collage, depicting the artist nude and pointing at his condom-clad penis, was first exhibited in New York in the 1990s, it was condemned as “pornography masquerading as art.”
But Laffan and co-curator Dawn Williams don’t agree. Navigating the terrain between occasionally erotic subject matter and the outright pornographic was, Laffan says, not a problem.
Arguably, the pornographic depicts sex acts, but I’d be shy of the terminology: some people’s pornography is other people’s high art. I certainly hope we don’t offend anyone; we certainly haven’t set out to.
Offence is, as ever, a question of context. The most modern works in the exhibition are not necessarily the most risqué.
Amongst the most deliberately titillating of the art works is William Jones’ 18th century painting of a young woman clad in stockings and pink heels, playfully lifting her dress to expose her bottom.
Again, Laffan is keen to argue that the reality is more complex than an over-simplified and linear narrative, where Ireland has steadily progressed towards increasing bodily liberation.
“I don’t see this as linear, or as a progression where we all get more liberal over time. There are high moments, from all periods. Think of James Barry, who goes and shocks 18th century London with his Adam and Eve in the National Gallery.
“You have this total reversal where a Cork, Catholic artist shocks the advanced morés of Georgian London.”
Another spanner in the works for a linear narrative is one of the more current exhibits: digital-era censorship reared its head last year for Dublin-based photographer Dragana Jurisic, whose relatively chaste and tasteful self-portrait, part of her 2015 100 Muses series, was removed from Instagram.
Jurisic had even taken the measure of censoring her bare breasts in the version of the image she posted on the social media platform, with the addition of a leaf over her nipples.
Yet her photograph was deemed to violate Instagram’s community standards and removed.
When Jurisic created a Facebook post in protest, juxtaposing her image with a sexually provocative nude selfie posted by voluptuous celebrity Kim Kardashian, considered acceptable by Instagram’s moderators, this too was removed.
“It must be said that this is the most innocuous image, and it’s very interesting that a California-based tech giant imposed this censorship,” Laffan says. “It’s a great surprise and it changes the narrative of ‘this is all fine now, what we were worrying about.’”
There is one progression which certainly seems linear, and that’s the broadening and diversifying of the viewpoints represented over centuries. Dragana Jurisic’s contribution is one amongst several 20th and 21st century additions by female artists.
Early works from the 18th and 19th centuries certainly reflect art’s history of presenting a male gaze directed towards a passive and idealised female form, such as in Robert Laffan’s Portrait of a Lady as Hibernia, but more recent works include female artists reclaiming bodily agency by utilising their own bodies in their work.
Any political intent lies with the artist and not the curator, Laffan is keen to stress: “We have not overly emphasised any kind of neoliberal values.
“Some of our artists are much more politically inspired, but that will be for our critics to decide; it wasn’t our objective.”
Laffan and co-curator Williams may intend to celebrate rather than proscribe, but they did choose to balance the gender of artists and sitters throughout the exhibition.
Laffan says this process unfolded naturally, helped along by the gender balance of the curatorial duo themselves.
“Some of the strongest works in the exhibition are by women artists using the body in exciting ways, and there’s certainly an appreciation of gay artists that there wouldn’t have been 50 years ago,” Laffan says.
With just 10% of the artworks coming from The Crawford’s own collection, Laffan says one of the most exciting elements of putting the exhibition together has been the response of other galleries and collections.
“We have some fantastically generous works on loan,” he says.
“William Orpen’s ‘The Holy Well’ is in Cork for the first time and we have these super Bacons from the Tate. We’ve been given almost every painting we asked for, which affirms that other collectors and curators believe in what we’re doing. It’s really exciting.”