The nude is a frequent feature of classical figurative painting and sculpture, but its presence has always stirred emotion, debate and controversy, not least in the Victorian era. This book, and the exhibition which it accompanied (the first to tackle this subject), explores this subject in some depth, using a sensible balance of images and words. With such a broad subject, there are any number of artworks one could use as examples, though this book obviously concentrates on the works that made it into the exhibition.
The book covers, so to speak, the English nude, before moving on to the classical nude, and then to artworks created for private exhibition. Each artwork is described in a few paragraphs, but generally does not have much to say about the nudity or its context. The text tends to focus on artistic technique, influences, training and so on. That's fine but it doesn't tell us much about the purpose of the nude in the composition. However, what we do see as we leaf from page to page is a gradual change in style, pose, context and and meaning in artworks, from classical to modern. It is a fascinating history nonetheless, and makes apparent, to the non-artist anyway, that nudity had a firm and a largely accepted presence in Victorian art. The controversy seems to come later, when we begin to see nudity used more obviously for entertainment, in artworks that either use flimsy intellectual contexts, or make no attempt at all at justifying the nudity in any higher sense. This is evident particularly in Victorian photography.
Putting the subject aside, the book amounts to an excellent collection of Victorian art, featuring large prints of many great artworks. It also includes many academic studies of the kind that will be familiar to anyone studying classical portraiture.
Overall, it's a pleasing coffee-table book that, far from being shocking, is actually rather beautiful.
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