Last week the Arizona State University Art Museum opened an exhibit of photographs of naked men and women by Spencer Turick between 1997 and 2013. Press material for the show states that the figures challenge conceptions of nudity, privacy and the ideal body and explore the social, political and legal issues surrounding art in the public sphere. Really, Spencer? .
You once snapped 1,000 stripped-down people on the Jordan side of the Dead Sea, supposedly to make the point that the sea level was ebbing. Without your announced intent, it was hard to pay the sea any attention. Even with your announcement, it was hard.
Not that Renoir was any less full of it when he painted women in the buff, presumably to link them to nature. Who can forget his famous line, “Il peint avec non bitre” (I paint with my phallus). And he’s certainly not the only artist given to lechery. Few nudes posed in the Great Outdoors seem to have much to do with that setting.
In fact, when artists through history have bared the human figure, their images don’t necessarily come off as professed. Abraham Janssens’ “Cephalus Grieving Over the Dying Procris,” 1610 held in the Ringling Museum collection, depicts a woman in the altogether lying helpless on her back – allegedly to illustrate an ancient Greek myth. But by the look of the painting, the myth seems an excuse for Janssens to make a libidinous picture.
Unless he thought that the first though one would have on seeing a naked female speared would be grief. Even the dying woman holds the spear piercing her heart lovingly, tenderly, as if she takes pleasure in being penetrated by it, the blood dripping into her darkening crotch notwithstanding.
A quick read of the Greek myth makes clear that the painting has little to do with it. The goddess Aurora falls for Cephalus, who scorns her. Bitterly, she encourages him to test his wife’s fidelity by attempting to seduce her disguised as someone else. Embarrassed that she almost yields, Procris flees and joins the goddess Diana, who gives her a hunting dog and spear to give to Cephalus as a peace offering. Meanwhile a faun who has fallen for Procris fills her with suspicion about Cephalus’ fidelity, so she hides in some bushes to spy on him. As the leaves of the bushes rustle, he throws his spear at it and kills her.
It’s fair to say, then, that the female nailed by a spear like a pinned butterfly, celebrates the aged-old fondness for painting nude women in compromising positions. A press release from the Ringling asserted that the focus of the painting is on the husband’s realization that he accidentally killed his wife. Granted, the husband looks upset as he holds his dying wife, but he’s no more the focus of the painting than the Dead Sea is the focus in Turick’s work.