ART / Seen with the naked eye: James Hall on richness and bondage in 'The Painted Nude: from Etty to Auerbach' at the Tate Gallery, London

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The silly season is in full swing, but that doesn't entirely explain why William Etty is back, why William Etty is it.

William Etty (1787-1849) is a Neo-Classical artist whose main claim to fame is as England's only painter of unapologetic, full- blooded nudes. Etty's hotly-coloured brush loitered with singular intent, and so did his titles: 'The Destroying Angel and Daemons of Evil, Interrupting the Orgies of the Vicious and Intemperate'; 'Hero, Having Thrown Herself from the Tower at the Sight of Leander Drowned, Dies on his Body'; 'Youth on the Prow and Pleasure at the Helm'; and the unforgettable 'Phaedra and Cymochles, on the Idle Lake'.

After many years of being referred to only in passing (Pevsner in 1956: 'The nude, for instance, in spite of William Etty, has been a rarity in English painting over centuries - and is now'), Etty's stock is on the rise. Indeed, he is the latest beneficiary of the revival of interest in art that centres on the human body. Two recent shows have situated him, respectively, as a terminal and seminal figure in English art.

Last year, there was a major exhibition in Nottingham and London entitled 'The Artist's Model: Its Role In British Art From Lely To Etty'; and now we have a much smaller, almost complementary exhibition at the Tate Gallery, 'The Painted Nude: From Etty to Auerbach'.

The ground rule for the Tate exhibition, which claims to be the first of its kind, is that each picture was executed with the nude model directly in front of the artist. In the accompanying leaflet, the curator Judith Collins explains that Puritanism 'resulted in an almost total absence of the nude as a subject in British painting prior to the 19th century'. But nudity became marginally more prevalent after the establishment of the Royal Academy Schools in 1768, since drawing and painting from the male and female model were a key part of the curriculum.

There are 22 paintings in the exhibition, and Etty is the only artist to be honoured with two works. Though Judith Collins makes the insightful claim that his 'Standing Female Nude' (1835-40) is 'the earliest work in this display to show naked breasts', 'Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges' (1830) gives us Etty at his Eldorado-esque best.

The subject is a ludicrous orientalist fantasy taken from Herodotus which became a staple of Flemish and Italian Baroque painters. Candaules was so obsessed by his wife's body that he persuaded one of his bodyguard, Gyges, to hide in the Royal bedroom and give a second opinion. The morning after, the Queen summoned Gyges and told him he had a choice either of being killed, or of killing the King and marrying her, thereby making up for the impropriety. Needless to say, Gyges got the girl . . .

Etty shows Gyges peering round a screen in Candaules' bedroom as the Queen's last garment is shed. She stands in the centre, upright, her back towards us, one knee resting on Candaules' couch. She is almost as tall and unadorned as the Doric columns in the background, and her creamy skin is at least as smooth. Draperies of Rubensian richness seem to fall away from her like flying buttresses. In her vampish way, she is as dramatic and dominant as the sailing ship in Turner's 'Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus', which was exhibited the year before.

Then there is nothing uninsipid to report (Calvert, Roussel, Merritt, Steer) until we get to Sickert's haunting 'La Hollandaise' of c 1906. In its cool pathos, this picture sets the tone for almost everything that follows. We, the viewers, are situated at the bottom of a black iron bed in a gloomy room. A naked female, probably a prostitute, lies on the mattress, propped up on her right arm, looking towards us. We do not see her seeing, for she is eyeless, her face plunged into darkness. All cardboard browns, frigid greys, pale blues and mossy greens, we pick her up imperfectly, as though she were a reptile suspended just beneath the surface of a stagnant pond. Most of the light gathers round her left breast, transforming it into an almost admonitory beacon.

Sickert's prevailing metaphor is the body in bondage. Limbs are measured against the curves of the black iron bedstead, and her head is tightly braced by its bars. The fact that a vertical bar cuts across her ear, and a horizontal bar cuts across her hair, suggests that a part of her is behind bars. For Sickert, the tragedy of human nakedness is that it exposes animality, and society says that animality must be be cooped up in cages.

The exhibition includes four other notable pictures. 'Reclining Nude' (1942) by Victor Pasmore is a weirdly androgynous portrait of his wife: viewed from behind in a foetal position, her body's tautness and terseness is decidedly phallic. The scudding purples, reds and blues that constitute David Bomberg's thrown-back female 'Nude' (1943) seem to be lurid expressions of the bruising rough and tumble of Bomberg's desire. In Frank Auerbach's 'EOW Nude' (1953-4), the reclining figure floats, a mummified chrysalis embedded in thickly encrusted paint, and in Lucian Freud's 'Standing by the Rags' (1988-9) a ruin of a woman looms up before us in a state of suspended animation.

As a whole, this exhibition is entertaining, but misleading. Its argument is confused by the inclusion of two sculptures - Lord Leighton's insouciant 'The Sluggard' (1885) and Glynn Williams' 'Morning' (1987-8), a ghastly homage to the entwined male and female toe that calls for a U-cert and a sick-bag. This is confusing not so much because the show is supposed to be about the painted nude, but because the arguments put forward about the nude in English painting do not apply to sculpture.

In the Neo-Classical and Romantic period the nude was frequently sculpted in stone, and thereafter both in stone and bronze. The most likely explanation for this double-standard is that there was a Greek precedent for sculpted nudes - ie the Elgin Marbles - whereas the precedent for painted nudes was largely Italian. Greek art was regarded as noble and pure, but Italian was Catholic and corrupting. Paintings of the nude were often compared with Greek sculpture, and thus made to appear more respectable. Etty attests to this 'painted nude equals Catholicism' equation. He wrote to his brother that 'we are indebted to the Catholics for most that is great or good which our Ancestors have handed down to us,' and was a close friend of the Catholic architect Pugin.

The second reason why this show is misleading is that it could have been curated by the late Peter Fuller. The emphasis is wholly on traditional media, and the 20th- century artists have almost all been claimed for the School of London. Overall, the mood of these pictures is withdrawn, still and solemn. They give the impression that taking clothes off in England is a prelude to dull pain rather than to fierce pleasure - in other words, a prelude to death, the final undressing.

This may be why there is no Bacon, Hamilton, Hockney or Allen Jones (though few will lose much sleep over that). And although you could argue that Glynn Williams is a Pop artist manque, there is none of the more flagrant or flamboyant figuration that emerged out of both Pop and Performance art - none of the photo-pieces of Helen Chadwick, Gilbert and George, or of the Seventies porn-deconstructor Cosey Fanni Tutti; none of the direct body-casts of Leonard McComb and Anthony Gormley, and no video-art. This is a shame, because 'The Depicted Nude: From Etty to Cosey Fanni Tutti' does have a nice ring about it.

See facing page for details.

(Photographs omitted)

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