St Gallen museum reveals the art of striptease
Visitors to St Gallen's fine arts museum may feel a little overdressed, as a new exhibition celebrates the art of striptease.
“Striptease – concealment and revelation in art” takes a close look at how we’ve been undressing for the past 500 years.
From seemingly traditional nudes to avant-garde video art, not to mention the presence of a real life, gyrating male go-go dancer, the exhibition also reveals plenty about changing attitudes to the portrayal of nudity in art.
“Usually, people have a completely different idea of what a striptease is about,” says museum curator Konrad Bitterli.
“They might think of it as something that only goes on in a red-light district or at a strip bar. But we wanted to look at the role of striptease in art, how the artist tries to make you see things or draw your attention.
“It’s actually a lot more sexy when the body is shown with some form of covering still on, because then the action of stripping is not only in the painting but also in the mind.
“It’s left to the public to finish off the picture – something an Austrian artist once described as ‘eye sex’.”
Despite the impressive time-span of the works on display, Bitterli is keen to point out that this is not a chronologically ordered art history.
Nor is “Striptease” merely an attempt to dress up in new clothes any previous examinations of the artistic nude.
“This exhibition isn’t concerned with a strict chronology of the nude but rather with the way in which artists have confronted their public across the centuries,” says Bitterli.
“When you look at the role of striptease in art, it’s not just about the nude, but more about the actual act of disclosure or revelation.”
Though clearly not one of Switzerland’s biggest cultural centres, the St Gallen museum has worked hard to explore this theme, complementing its permanent collection with several impressive loan works.
The merging of pieces from differing time periods works with particular effect in the exhibition’s central room where one such loan piece, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ 1991 “Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform)”, squares off against another – Lucas Cranach’s 1525 oil painting, “Venus and Cupid”.
Despite their differing ages and formats, the two works are aptly juxtaposed. Cranach’s Cupid is stood on a low, square table strikingly similar to the stage on which Torres’ dancer jugs to the private accompaniment of his personal stereo.
And while Cranach’s Venus may resemble a classical nude, the translucent veil wrapped across her bare waist is no less provocative than the silver lamé hotpants sported by the go-go dancer.
Two oil paintings by the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler hang in the same room. One depicts four classical women in various stages of undress (or perhaps one woman in four stages) and has clear parallels with the Torres piece.
The second painting is less obviously related, depicting a fully-dressed woman with arms outstretched.
Drawing attention to the title, “Music from Afar”, Bitterli points out that both Hodler’s subject and Torres’ dancer are moving to beats which the public cannot hear – presenting an aural tease alongside the visual.
Similar interaction can be seen in an adjoining room where a once controversial painting by Franco-Swiss post-impressionist Félix Vallotton faces four works by the contemporary South African artist, Candice Breitz.
Vallotton’s 1913 painting, “La Blanche et la noire”, shows a well-dressed black woman sitting on a bed with a cigarette in her mouth, while a naked white woman stretches out beneath her gaze.
The work subverts the racial stereotypes of the time in a similar way to the pieces by Breitz, who mixes photos of native South African tribeswomen with white body parts from pornographic magazines to make her disturbing “Rainbow Series” montages.
But while the theme of stripping, or being stripped, is clear in all the works on display, the element of teasing is not always so apparent.
Not all visitors to the museum are likely to agree, for example, on the inclusion of a classical depiction of Christ on the cross.
Wearing only the traditional loincloth, the Christ figure in Albrecht Dürer’s 15th century painting has clearly been stripped. But can this really be seen as a striptease?
“The teasing element can be seen in the attractiveness of the naked, or nearly-naked body, for painters of biblical scenes,” insists Bitterli.
“The naked body is a major theme in church paintings and I think it would be a major mistake to omit the example of Christ on the cross, where his nudity is used in an existential way to show that he is completely human.”
Although it aims to provoke serious questions about life, death and religious existentialism, the St Gallen exhibition is just as likely to send visitors home with a reaffirmed belief that sex sells – and has been doing so for centuries.
Given the current spate of exhibitions such as “The Art of Love” at Zurich’s Rietberg museum or Basel fine art museum’s “Exposed”, it could certainly be argued that sex and nudity are helping to sell museum tickets during the current economic downturn.
Money in mind?
But although he admits that “Striptease” has attracted more interest than any previous exhibition at the museum, Bitterli is adamant that ringing cash registers weren’t his main motivation.
“The interest from the media has been astounding – we’ve never had so many reviews,” Bitterli grins. “But that wasn’t the reason why we put this exhibition on.
“We’re coming at it from a very classic art-history point of view. It’s about the body, how we disclose it, how we cover it up, and it’s about our own existence. I think these are essential questions.”
At the same time, Bitterli says he didn’t want the exhibition to be too academic, and he has tried to include a good deal of fun and lightness.
Those who like their art to raise as many giggles as questions will no doubt enjoy an excerpt from the Gelatin project’s 2002 film, “Grand Marquis”, in which the four male artists do a spot of housecleaning – dressed only in some fetching high-heeled shoes.
More mainstream cinematic strips are also on offer, with the museum screening a themed series of movies – from “The Full Monty” to “Basic Instinct” and “Last Tango in Paris – to accompany the exhibition.
“Striptease” runs at the St Gallen fine arts museum until August 24.
swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in St Gallen
“Striptease – concealment and revelation in art” comprises 54 works from 31 different artists and spans 500 years.
Traditional nudes contrast with avant-garde video art in a thought-provoking look at the role of striptease in art.
The exhibition runs at St Gallen’s fine art museum until August 24.
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