Underneath our clothes, we’re all naked. We’ve seen ourselves naked maybe thousands of times - some of us pose and stare, some cringe and cower, others barely notice their own flesh. The point is we’ve seen ourselves nude—what’s familiar is rarely scintillating. But how many other people do we get to see fleshy and exposed? I mean really see: ogle, stare, study. (Family doesn’t count.) When can we comfortably glare at the angular lineaments of a woman’s back, or the elegant arrangement of muscles surrounding a man’s pelvis (yes I know, besides Brad Pitt in “Fight Club”)? Objectification and fetishization aside, when do we get to see ordinary people doing ordinary things, like sitting on couches or jumping into a lake distinguished only by being in the raw, unveiled and threadbare?
From ancient Greece to the pages of Playboy, images of the bare-skinned form are timelessly in vogue, and painters, photographers and filmmakers have been capturing that bodily essence for our viewing pleasure. Since early October, the Getty has displayed a small collection of nude photographs representing 29 photographers and spanning 160 years as part of their “In Focus” photography program, which highlights works in their permanent collection.
Man Ray, Ed Weston and Thomas Eakins seduce with their distinctive styles while Alfred Stieglitz exposes the petals of Georgia O’Keefe. Some of the works are elaborately staged and set, and others are simple portraits. A few photos challenge the body politic and distort common perceptions about nakedness. Unimpressed with a photo of a woman’s behind, my friend sought to prove his own artistic skill with a bit of mimicry and snapped a close-up of his thumb pressed against his pointer finger. It only incurred the dismay of the curator who scolded him for using the flash.
Though not reason enough to venture to the castle on the hill (as if we need an excuse), it does make for an intriguing half-hour or so among the museum’s more traditional fare. From the painterly to the natural, the real to the ideal, and even the grotesque, the photos offer a glimpse into the permutations of fantasy and form that reveal the body and captivate the mind.
(Clockwise from top: Man Ray, “Le Violon d’Ingres,” 1924; Edmund Teske, “Nude, Davenport, Iowa, Composite with Leaves,” negatives 1941 and 1946, printed 1960s; Chuck Close and Jerry Spagnoli, “Untitled Torso,” 2001. All images courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.)
“The Nude” is on display through February 24, 2008. The Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. (Tues-Thurs and Sun), 10 a.m.-9 p.m. (Fri and Sat). Free. $8 parking.