In praise of the female nude: wealthy art lovers take on cognoscenti with new bid to signal return to Rubens

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If you love the sensual beauty of Rubens and detest Lucian Freud for making a pregnant Jerry Hall look like a blubbery lump then you are not alone.

Traditionalists distressed by the alleged distortion of the female form in modern art are hitting back by launching the Society for the Appreciation of the Female Nude (SAFN) to encourage artists who depict beautiful female nudes, whether in a classical or modern style.

The founders, a group of wealthy art-lovers, believe that contemporary artists who follow a tradition stretching from Botticelli to the Victorians Leighton and Millais are being sidelined by Britain's national galleries.

They fear that an aesthetic of ugliness is favoured by the new arts establishment - even though conventional attractive nudes are always much in demand at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition and are a staple for commercial dealers.

To counteract what they see as the dominance of unattractive female nudes in contemporary art, the SAFN has established the Venus Prize. It will be presented annually to an artist who "expresses the beauty of a woman wholly at ease with her own body while communicating a female sensuality openly but non-provocatively".

Ulla Plougmand-Turner, a self-taught Danish-born artist, will be the first recipient at a ceremony tonight. She will receive a £500 Fabergé-style jewellery box from Knightsbridge jewellers Mozafarian, presented by the Marquess of Bath, a man renowned for his appreciation of women. Her brightly-coloured, almost kitsch nudes, partly inspired by her own former career as a model, will then go on display at the Luke & A Gallery in Mayfair, London, until Saturday.

The society hopes that future prize ceremonies will be marked by a Celebrate The Female Nude day. Jonathan Rush, their spokesman, said "the rot set in" in 1907 with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Picasso, which depicted a number of women in a brothel and went against all previous notions of feminine beauty.

While it is widely regarded as one of the most important paintings in the history of modern art, and praised as a radical break with tradition, Mr Rush said the painting had inspired many followers who distorted the female form in a most unappealing way.

He said: "A tour of any leading modern art gallery from New York's Solomon Guggenheim to London's Tate Modern, or the recently opened Saatchi Gallery, confirms that much modern art continues Picasso's legacy with its depictions of grotesque female nudity."

The society conducted a poll of 300 people who had visited galleries in the last two years and found that forty per cent disliked the modern female nudes on display. Sixty per cent said they would rather see beautiful female nudes.

If the attitude seems conservative, it is true that the people behind the new venture appear as old British Establishment. There is a Rothschild (Oliver) and more than a smattering of titled worthies such as the Marquis Francois-Eudes de Louville de Toucy, an art dealer and caviar supplier. But the argument they raise is only the latest round in the popular debate over what constitutes "proper" art and who dictates contemporary taste.

The success of Tate Modern and regular queues at Tate Britain to see the Turner Prize exhibition indicate that the public appetite for even the most challenging work has grown considerably in recent years. Yet others remain unhappy with what is on show.

'The Stuckists' are the most strident critics of the contemporary arts scene as dominated by conceptual artists like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst and encouraged by the likes of Sir Nicholas Serota of the Tate and the collector Charles Saatchi. Charles Thomson, a founding Stuckist, said he believed we are living in a time which is the mirror image to the Victorian art establishment.

"The Victorian values were moral, so now we have everything anti-moral. Victorians had beauty so we have to have ugliness and they had craft so we have to have anti-craft or rubbish, junk art," he said.

Furthermore, while Hirst grabs the headlines, it is artists such as the self-taught Scot Jack Vettriano whom the public buys, even though he is despised by the cognoscenti as sentimental and trite.

But Stuart Pearson Wright, a BP Portrait Prize winner whose previous commissions include a portrait of Prince Philip which outraged the belligerent royal, also stressed that, for his part, beauty was not the point of a painting. Idealised versions of the female form were less interesting than, for example, Gwen John's picture of a scrawny female nude which is in the Tate collection.

"I've never made any attempt to try to depict beauty in any way," he said. "One of my main interests in drawing people is trying to come to grips with character instead. It may be quite a whimsical notion but I think that one's history is written across one's features".

By coincidence, he was working on a female nude yesterday - a portrait of his girlfriend in a bathroom scene where he is in the foreground brushing his teeth.

"She's beautiful anyway, so I don't have to make any effort to make her beautiful. But I'm more interested in achieving a kind of truth. It is a very commonplace theme, it has a very domestic feel to it," he said.

Mr Pearson Wright said he was always cautious of any position that was a reaction to something else, as appeared to be the case with the Society for the Appreciation of the Female Nude. But he added: "If, as an enterprise, this society helps to produce some interesting paintings that would certainly be a good thing."

A spokesman for the Tate galleries disputed SAFN's description of its collection, stressing that it includes more than 1,000 female nudes ranging from the 16th to the 21st century.

"Tate Britain recently mounted an exhibition dedicated to the Victorian nude and a whole suite of galleries at Tate Modern is devoted to the development of this genre over the last 100 years," he said.

The aesthetic divide

BERYL COOK: Cook, 77, took up painting to show her son how to use watercolours and proved expert at depicting ordinary life. After her first exhibition, her works were reproduced as prints and greetings cards but she won critical appreciation with a show at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool

MACKENZIE THORPE: A former steelworker who left school at 15 after struggling with dyslexia, Thorpe, 47, first achieved fame when William Hague, then Tory leader, chose one of his Yorkshire scenes for his Christmas card. His vivid landscapes are enormously popular though he claims to have faced snobbery from the art market

JACK VETTRIANO: Born in Scotland to Italian parents, Vettriano, 47, left school at 16. He is self-taught as an artist and has achieved huge commercial success with his romantic works. A study for his The Singing Butler made £90,000 at auction this year

SARAH LUCAS: Born in 1962 in London, the Goldsmiths graduate took part in Damien Hirst's ground-breaking show, Freeze, in 1988. She became known as one of the bad girls of Brit Art, from her confrontational attitude and for her cheeky use of food to represent body parts - such as fried eggs for breasts.

SAM TAYLOR-WOOD: Married to the influential dealer Jay Jopling, Taylor-Wood, 36, is a Goldsmiths College graduate who specialises in photography and film. She fuses religious imagery from the Renaissance and Baroque with the secular, urban landscape in which she lives. She was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1998

MARC QUINN: Quinn, 39, once shared a flat with Damien Hirst, but is a graduate of Cambridge University, not Goldsmiths. His most famous work is Self, a self-portrait made from nine pints of his own blood, frozen