Tuesday, July 19, 2011

William Etty: art and controversy

This fascinating exhibition is currently running at York Art Gallery. William Etty RA was a York-born artist (1787-1849), and his statue (in need of a bit of love and attention) stands outside the gallery which is currently holding this major exhibition of his work.

The paintings themselves are fine, but the exhibition is primarily of interest as a document of social history. Etty's work was, at times, highly controversial. His devotion to the female nude gathered him plaudits and criticism in equal measure. This was a period when the female nude was not at all uncommon in art, but a strict iconography was in place to ensure that nothing too lascivious was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. Etty's work often crossed the line of respectability.

The paintings in this exhibition represent, in equal measure, Etty's triumphs and critical failures, paintings of female nudes which were highly praised for their 'voluptuous beauty' or damned for their 'voluptuous excesses'. Voluptuous appears to be a highly charged word in this era, either wonderfully good or horribly bad, depending on, it seems the girth of the women or the extent to which they appear to be enjoying themselves. Too much of that and the paintings are dismissed as being bad for morality. It is a curious society, indeed, which considers a painting of two naked men fighting each other to the death to be morally uplifting while one of a young girl dancing happily on her own is condemned as a work of depravity.

But the most extraordinary thing about these painting is that, to modern eyes, it is almost impossible to discern which ones are examples of high morals and which of low morals, or why. My partner and I ended up playing a game, trying to guess for each painting whether the critics' reaction, as described in the painting's commentary, would be positive or negative. Mostly, we got it wrong.

The first painting in this post, Britomart Redeems Faire Amoret, is apparently wholesome and suitable for letting the servants see. The second, Youth on the Prow, and Pleasure at the Helm, is apparently lascivious.

They both seem to be rather fine, if very stylised, female nudes to me.

But it's a very good exhibition, worth a visit. Just one criticism: the lighting is pretty poor. There are a couple of paintings behind glass which it's all but impossible to actually see because of the glare.

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