The Victorians were obsessed by the nude in art. For many nineteenth century painters and sculptors the naked body, both male and female, was central to exotic historical fantasies and elaborate allegories of imperial power. In such contexts the classical nude could be seen as a moral and spiritual ideal. Yet inevitably the nude was also associated with sensuous indulgence and base passions.
In an enlightening introduction to the subject, sumptuously filmed at Tate Britain, curator Alison Smith explores the contradictions of Victorian attitudes to the nude. She considers the aspirations of artists who sought to create a specifically English idea of the nude, the differences between paintings for public display and private enjoyment, the spectacular "sensation nudes" of the later Victorian years, and the new ways of depicting the naked human form that emerged around 1900.
Central to Alison Smith's discussion are considerations of important individual works by William Etty, William Blake Richmond, Annie Swynnerton, Edward Burne-Jones, John William Waterhouse, Frederic Leighton, John Henry Tuke and William Orpen. Their sensual, vibrant paintings and sculptures remain strikingly fresh and, often, sexy. At the same time, they prompt provocative questions about desire and images of the body.