THEY may have been considered shocking in their time, but a collection of nude sculptures and paintings are the subject of a new exhibition at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth.
Stripped: The Body Beautiful looks at how the human body has been represented and portrayed in art and celebrates the naked form from the Victorian era to the present day.
Based in a Mediterranean classical garden the exhibition looks at the modern attitude to body image and features items from the museum’s own collection alongside contemporary works by artist Jonathan Yeo and sculptor Jon Elgar.
“In the first gallery we’re looking at the classical work, the pieces owned by the museum’s founders, Merton and Annie Russell-Cotes,” explained Helen Ivaldi, collections officer (interpretation).
“They would have been quite shocking in late Victorian times, but the way the artists got around the shock factor was that it could be justified if they were naked and classical, like Greek mythology.
“The second gallery is more contemporary, so we’ve brought in more modern works. Some of the pieces are our own. The sculptures are by Jon Elgar, they’re for sale, and two have been loaned to us by the Metropolis Art Gallery, they’re by Jonathan Yeo.”
The latter pieces are collages of naked women, made up of smaller images of body parts. The pictures are in keeping with Yeo’s reputation for taking something and putting a twist on it.
He was famously appointed to create a portrait of George W Bush. The appointment was, however, rescinded, but Yeo continued with the work, producing an image of the then President using pictures from Playboy magazine.
The pictures in the exhibition sit well alongside other more contemporary works of art, including a video illustrating how body image is portrayed in the media, featuring an interview with Twiggy – whose waif like frame shot her to fame in the 1960s – and the Triumph bra advert.
“The idea of the exhibition is to use what’s in the collection,” explained project manager Tricia Walker. “The Russell-Cotes were very wealthy. They travelled the world, as people did in those days, and they collected a lot of art and already a lot of work now is extremely collectable and iconic.
“What they bought then was very shocking, outrageous, but provocative.
“We are collating this exhibition to provoke debate gently, without shocking.”
Highlights include a bodice dating from the 1600s and a model, made from an original cast, of the hand of Lady Emma Hamilton, Lord Nelson’s lover.
Like most of the temporary exhibitions, the display includes pieces from Merton and Annie’s own collection.
“With trying to choose an element that’s part of the Russell-Cotes collection, looking through the things and looking at what wasn’t on display, the human body came out as a really strong element,” explained Helen.
“We are trying to put a more modern twist on it.
“Merton and Annie were not pigeon-holed in their taste, it was just what took their eye. I think they had quite a modern eye.
“This is probably one of our more progressive exhibitions.”
The museum is hoping to put on more such displays, with those planned including an exhibition of war photographs and interviews from Afghanistan sitting alongside a collection of photos of the First and Second World Wars which were gifted to Merton and Annie.
• Stripped: The Body Beautiful is open to the public Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm, until January 1. Admission charges apply. To find out more visit russell-cotes.bournemouth.gov.uk.