From Flesh to Poetry

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

“The nude is not the subject of subject of art, but a form of art.” So wrote Kenneth Clark, who distinguished in his great 1956 book “The Nude” between a naked body — that is, one merely caught without clothes on — and a nude, “the most complete example of the transmutation of matter into form.” Throckmorton Fine Art’s exhibition “Classic Beauty” presents 31 black-and-white photographs by a dozen photographers in which they attempt to transmute the unclothed women before their cameras into works of art.

Four of the photographs are by Manuel Alvarez Bravo (1902–2002), including his well known “La Buena Fama Durmiendo/The Good Reputation Sleeping” (1938). This is an arresting image, one that immediately prompts close attention, and one with an interesting history and explication. Because the model, a young Mexican, is lying in the sun with her eyes shut the picture suggests languor, but in fact it was hastily set up by Bravo after he got a phone call from Andre Breton asking him for a photo to be used on the cover of a catalogue for an exhibition of surrealist art he was arranging in Mexico City.

Bravo quickly assembled the props for “La Buena Fama Durmiendo”: the bandages that swath the model’s feet and her upper thighs and waist, the four spikey abrojos (cactuses about the size of hand grenades) that rest menacingly next to the model on the side between her and the camera, the striped rug she lies on. The title of the work comes from the Mexican proverb “Earn a good reputation, then rest on your laurels,” and some of the symbolism in the image is derived from it, but the bandagewrapped feet were remembered from pictures Bravo had taken of a dance troupe a year before.

The image is too calculated, however fast the calculation was done, to be genuinely surrealist, and the midsection bandaging that left the model’s pubic hair exposed was judged too shocking for the picture to be put on the cover of the catalogue, but it works.The oddity of the bandaging, the right leg cocked over the left, the strewn abrojos, the shaded wall just behind the sunlit figure, and the beauty of the model fix it in memory. Bravo’s “Cuando La Buena Fama Despierta/When Good Reputation Awakens” (1939) has several of the same elements, but they don’t cohere, and it lacks the same resonance.

One of Bravo’s other nudes is “Venus” (1977), an image closer to the prehistoric “Venus of Willendorf” than the Greek “Venus de Milo.” Here we see the figure in close-up from the top of her breasts to the top of her thighs.The body is middle-aged, the skin textured, the breasts sagging, somehow vulnerable as the form emerges from dark shadows into the intense Mexican sun. Although not a beautiful body by contemporary standards, it captures “that landscape of the breasts and thorax” that Kenneth Clark wrote “is one of the most satisfying the eye can rest upon.”

Flor Garduño (born 1957) became Manuel Bravo’s darkroom assistant in 1977 and learned much from him. “Agua, Vale Nacional, Mexico” (1983) is a woman of distinct Mexican Indian cast standing up to her knees in a pool before a waterfall. She wears only a white sheet tied at the waist. There are some leaves in the foreground. Neither her figure nor her relaxed posture is that of a professional model, but she has an expressive face that stares at the camera with immense dignity.

“Lorena Alada” (1997), “Vestido Eterno” (1999), and “El Mundo” (2001), more recent works by Ms. Garduño, are highly stylized studio images. In the first, a woman seen from behind stands with two giant leaves on her shoulders where wings might be. In the second, a beautiful young woman with her head tilted back and her eyes shut wears a garland of white roses draped on her breasts. The third is an enigmatic picture from the side of a woman kneeling on one knee, and using both hands to hold a large stalk of some sort that rests on her back. In each of these, the nude and the props are a metaphor we are challenged to tease out. It has something to do with the appearance of women and the presence of spirits that are felt but unseen.

The five slick nudes by Lucien Clergue (born 1934) are quite different from Bravo’s and Ms. Garduño’s experiments with the archaic and native.The bodies involved in his nudes are the modern female figures of advertising and the movies. Mr. Clergue only shows their midsections or buttocks, and has them in splashing water or some dramatic setting. Kenneth Clark wrote that “no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling … and if it does not do so, it is bad art and false morals.” But there’s a difference between the gut-felt erotic and Mr. Clergue’s stylish titillation, his very refined “oo-la-la.”

A show like “Classic Beauty” lets one compare similar works by different artists. “Nude #1, Studio, NYC” (2002) by Valdir Cruz (born 1954) is a body without special character lying on its stomach seen from the shoulders to below the buttocks and washed in artful lighting. Edward Weston’s “Nude” (1925) covers pretty much the same anatomy, but Weston (1886–1958) has his figure’s body twisted. The nude’s spine is torqued in a way that is palpable, and the tension energizes the image.

Three photographers each have one picture in the show that extends our understanding of classic beauty. “La Gorda” (1960) by Antonio Reynoso (born 1923) is a heavy woman seen from behind as she contemplates her face in a hand-mirror. The bright sunlight on her hams makes them a sculptural element of the image. Fritz Henle (1909–1993) shot “Nieves, Model of Diego Rivera, Cuernavaca” (4/25, 1943) during his travels in Mexico. The statuesque model is relaxed as she poses, her head turned in profile, her long black hair draped over her breasts. But I like the unconscious gesture of her left hand with its thumb pressed against the curled fingers.

And there is the earliest work in the show, “Untitled [nude reclining]” (c.1850s) by Auguste Belloc (1800–1867). The model, recumbent in a 19th-century setting of drapery and linen, turns to the camera with a smile that expresses how pleased she is at having her matter transmuted into form.

Until September 2 (145 E. 57th St., third floor, between Lexington and Third avenues, 212-223-1059).

The New York Sun

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