The Unsins of the Flesh …the Genius of British Art – Victorian Nudes


The Genius of British Art Flesh Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson

Flesh was a revelation to me. Flesh was part of the Channel 4 2010 series The Genius of British Art presented by English author Howard Jacobson. I had bought the clichés about our Victorian era too – that it was provincial, prurient and prim, the eternal ambivalent marriage of sensual repression and hypocrisy.

That if I wanted to see the joys and the projected sins of the flesh I had to look to the wider European continent – to Italy and France in particular…that our British shores were barren ones.

When it was all around us all this time. The nude in British art began in the Victorian era in the 1820’s with William Etty, and Queen Victoria was a keen collector of such art herself. Though not entirely clear whether an embarrassed and shameful regal secret – at least from her subjects.

The Genius of British Art was a six part series examining various facets of British Art – Royal Portraiture,  the Common People – that’s we the prole subjects again – our Imperial exploits and the art  of war all the way forward to Modern Art in the anarchic forms and sensationalist works of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin among other art misfits.

The Syrinx Arthur Hacker

The Syrinx Arthur Hacker

It was this episode though Flesh that I found most revealing and rewarding. The other episodes were more familiar both in their content and context, this episode on the otherhand was full of artists and art  unknown to me.

This was Flesh in art both longing and longless.

Howard Jacobson makes a distinction between British and French depictions of the nude – for the French it is enough to be for its own sake, at hedonistic ease with itself. The British on the other hand if they must show flesh must provide it a moral context

We don’t just do the fires of love today. We think about the ways we will feel tomorrow.

This breezy and thoughtful prose reminding that it is a writer – and a novelist at that – who is presenting this program and this colourful narrative style made this program an especial pleasure. If you were not able to see this program but just read his narrated text the visual picture it would likely conjure up in your mind would not do disservice to the actual visual content.

He starts with the claim

If you want to understand a culture see how its art tackles the subject of sex.

And goes on

It is only in our Art that we tell the truth.

And then

I paint with my penis the French painter Renoir is said to have said. The too-too moralistic British so the story goes paint with everything but.

And with this pithy summation of the perceived distance between British and French Art the program proceeds to demonstrate otherwise, debunking at every turn.

Florinda by Winterhalter

Florinda by Winterhalter

With artists such as William Etty, Arthur Hacker and Walter Sickert such myths and prejudices get dispelled.

And it was not just the home-grown English artists and their nude subjects but the naked bodies portrayed by other European artists that the Victorians took pleasure in, again including Queen Victoria, herself commissioning many paintings with naked subjects, such as ‘Florinda’ by German artist Winterhalter, which hung pride of place in her office as she went about her daily business.

Patricia Preece by Stanley Spencer

Patricia Preece by Stanley Spencer

Flesh also looks at the genre of Fairy Art but this is no out of place diversion as the Fairy Art is no sentimental chocolate box banal expression of the physical and metaphysical human and not so human form but rather as outward projections of deeply felt but mute inner thoughts and sexual desires. The safety to explore all sorts of dark desire under the mask and metaphor of witches, changeling’s and other goblin pixie monsters.

Later Jacobson’s prose gets ever more climactic as he describes Stanley Spencer’s painting of his second wife Patricia Preece (who in fact it seems only married him for his house and was herself a Lesbian and continued to live with her lover Dorothy Hepworth and so a painting also of unrequited love) ending in eulogy

If there is a more cruelly voluptuous piece of painting anywhere in art I don’t think I could bare to see it.

The latter part of the program brings the British portrayal of the Nude in Art up to date – in his words current artists almost mocking the naked form ‘the end of the body in Art’ in Jacobson’s typically forthright words pointing out the 1997 work Pauline Bunny by Sarah Lucas which he admires for its conception rather than its treatment of flesh – a disillusionment rather than a delighted celebration of the human body.

John William Waterhouse - Hylas and the Nymphs

John William Waterhouse – Hylas and the Nymphs

Suggesting that we Brits today are far more scared and timid of the body and sex than we were in these Victoria times of a century and a half ago.

The recently departed Lucien Freud was not lingered on long nor Francis Bacon (perhaps Freud’s spiritual cousin) but then the focus of this program was the nude in unlikely places and times – this being in the provinces and in the Victorian era and not where we expect and know we can find it, certainly not in the abundant arena of the here and now.

This program is a cerebral pleasure but mostly like the fleshy subject itself it is a carnal pleasure – not so much to be contemplated as consummated.

And Howard Jacobson should be given a commission for a whole series about British art – or any Nation’s art for that matter!