Victorian Britain was distinguished by an amazing number of monumental achievements. Its leading novelists and poets are among the greatest ever to write in the English language. Its leading critics and thinkers went far in setting the intellectual agenda for 20th-century debate on a whole range of social, political and religious questions that are still being argued in the first decade of the 21st century. Britain’s statesmen in the Victorian era were similarly distinguished, and its military leaders remain heroic legends in our own.
In science, too, the Victorians were intellectual pioneers. As for Victorian architecture, it has triumphantly survived its modernist critics to become even more highly prized today than it was in its own period. And not to be forgotten, either, is that the era also gave us Gilbert and Sullivan. There was only one field of high human endeavor in which the Victorians proved to be a failure, and that was in the art of painting.
If you doubt it, take a look at the fiasco called Exposed: The Victorian Nude , which has now come to the Brooklyn Museum of Art by way of Tate Britain in London. I cannot recall a period exhibition on this scale-it encompasses around 150 works-that has featured so many paintings utterly devoid of aesthetic interest, and so much handmade kitsch masquerading as high art. Even as an exercise in sociology-the sociology of Victorian sexual fantasy-it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. The documentation of Victorian sexuality is a flourishing academic industry, so it’s no longer a secret-if, indeed, it ever was-that the Victorians were as various and voracious in their sexual appetites as the Greeks or the Romans or, for that matter, 21st-century Americans.
What has changed isn’t so much our knowledge of Victorian sexuality as our standards in judging Victorian painting. This is the change that has made it possible for reputable art museums to embrace a carnival of comic horrors like The Victorian Nude . Chalk it up as another victory for the postmodern assault that has declared all distinctions between quality and its absence in the arts to be not only intellectually invidious but politically forbidden. Such distinctions are now condemned as elitist. Let’s face it: In an art world that has elevated schlock-meisters like Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons to the status of museum classics, there’s no longer any standard in the name of which the likes of Frederic Leighton or Lawrence Alma-Tadema can be rejected. Kitsch is now king, as every visitor to the recent Whitney Biennial and many similar exhibitions of contemporary art has reason to know, and kinky kitsch is the preferred variety.
What has also changed is the mindset of so many of our art museums: Marketing strategies have been elevated to a museological priority. This is certainly the mindset that now governs the exhibition program at the Brooklyn Museum, which has once again looked to London for the kind of provocative show that will guarantee success at the box office. In this respect, The Victorian Nude might best be described as a Sensation -type show in fancy dress-or rather, in fancy undress. The principal appeal is to a certain variety of prurience-prurience in the service of sentimentality-and what could be more dispiriting than that? But as the advertising industry taught us long ago, sex sells-and this is the philosophy, so to speak, that the Brooklyn Museum has now adopted as its guiding principle.
(After the Sensation and The Victorian Nude sex vaudevilles, we are promised the return of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Table , a postmodern icon of sexual politics that was first exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 1980-81 and will now pay a return visit beginning on Sept. 20. But wait! After this fall’s showing, The Dinner Party will return to Brooklyn yet again in 2004, this time to occupy a huge permanent space in the museum’s fourth-floor gallery. Well, you can’t say that the Brooklyn Museum has been shy about declaring its interests.)
There are many varieties of bad painting in The Victorian Nude , but some of the most odious specimens-and some of the silliest-are the pictures devoted to subjects drawn from classical antiquity. Compared to something like William Etty’s Canaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges (1830), Cecil B. DeMille’s old movie versions of classical antiquity look in retrospect to have been nothing but trifling travesties. Canaules is far worse: a solemn travesty. This painting is said to depict an episode from Herodotus, in which the Lydian king Canaules arranges for his officer, Gyges, to view his wife, Nyssia, as she disrobes. In her anger over this indecency, Nyssia responds by confronting Gyges with two options: either face execution himself or murder the king. So Gyges murders Canaules and marries her.
It isn’t either the murder or the marriage that’s depicted in the painting, however, but-what else?-the voyeuristic moment of Nyssia’s nude exposure to Gyges. Even for randy Victorians, this wasn’t regarded as a picture to hang in the parlor, but it was considered appropriate for private viewing. In Brooklyn, the public is given Gyges’ view of the naked queen. What fun!
It should also be pointed out that there are lots of things in this show that have only a marginal relation to the art of the Victorian period. Walter Sickert, a wonderful painter of the Edwardian period, must be turning in his grave at the thought of being included in The Victorian Nude -Degas was his touchstone of excellence. Gwen Johns’ Nude Girl (1909-10) is similarly devoid of the Victorian taint. But who cares? Peep shows ask only for enough naked skin to show.
The Victorian Nude remains on view at the Brooklyn Museum through Jan. 5.