The naked truth: Nadav Kander, Bodies. 6 Women, 1 Man, Flowers Gallery, London

  • @ZoePilger

Nadav Kander was inspired by ideas of Elizabethan purity to create these stunning photographic portraits of six nude females and one male. 

Their alabaster white skin and red-gold hair recalls the colour scheme of Queen Elizabeth I’s portraits. Her Majesty famously painted her face with Venetian ceruse, a cosmetic paste made of lead that could cause premature ageing, hair loss, teeth loosening.

The pursuit of beauty and eternal youth, the erasure of blemishes at all costs, has in the 21st century reached a new pitch of hysteria. The quest for physical perfection has changed form but it is now perhaps no less deadly.

Kander counteracts the prevailing body fascisms of today by choosing models with two attributes that are often ridiculed: they are mostly ginger and voluptuous. Against a black background, the females hide their faces while the lone male stares out at the viewer. This is a complicated kind of shame. 

Reclining, curled up, or standing, their mounds of chalk-white flesh are luminous. Their skin is covered in a fine white powder that might be chalk but is in fact marble dust. The allusions to classical and renaissance sculpture are strong but not overdone. These are pictures – large and reverentially lit – in their own right.

Born in Israel but raised in South Africa, Kander, 51, has lived in London since the 1980s. He has photographed celebrities from Eric Cantona to Erin O’Connor posing as Millais’s Ophelia, and designed album covers for Take That and Snow Patrol.

He won the Prix Pictet in 2009 for Yangtze, The Long River, which explored China’s “unnatural” pace of development and the risk of estrangement from the past.

While those photographs showed nature violated, la peinture vivant, nature violated, the living painting that hangs in the stairwell of this exhibition is more ambivalent. It is a film of a reclining female nude with her back to the viewer. She too is violated, at odds with herself, but in a more subtle way.

As she begins to move, it transpires that she is composed of two films, playing in disjunction. Her top half moves at odds with her bottom half, evoking the magician’s trick of cutting a woman in two. A white mouse crawls across her thighs in profile.

Terms such as “sculptural” and “monumental” are often applied to artworks that are neither. But Kander has created an unnerving stone-like serenity in these portraits.

Until 9 Feb