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The Newport Nude

By Association Member Paul Woods.

D.D. V (a) Nude Study (the Newport Nude) painted in 1924 by Sir Gerald Kelly – Newport Museum and Art GalleryI can't help it, I love this painting. It has a painterly quality I like. Her skin is painted in delicious pinky flesh tones reminiscent of the alluring sweets of childhood and, like a craved for candy, I want a taste. Her illuminated body is pleasingly naked and exudes a tangible sexiness that I want to enjoy as a voyeuristic delight that time dims and surrenders to tactile pleasures. This delightful painting has a dash of wit and a splash of daring. It looks of its age, post World War 1, the 'Roaring 20s'. Painting by Sir Gerald Kelly who was an Academician and attained the position of President of the Royal Academy in 1949. The painting is entitled 'D. D. V (a)' said to be the models initials the V or 5 is a series number and the 'a' is a size reference. It is now also known as 'The Newport Nude'. It isn't a 'Masterpiece' and it isn't hanging in a major international gallery. It is in the public collection of the Newport Museum and Art Gallery who bought it in 1947.

She has about her the naughtiness of being, outside of modelling, a respected housewife or secretary. A young woman constrained by society. A society where vicars and bishops posture the moral high-ground. Away from a judgemental and hypocritically oppressive society, as a model, she strips naked, poses, smokes and reads to educate herself. She is empowered and returning can engage in society a stronger person, a stronger woman.

It is a simple composition depicting a life-model taking a break from sitting for the artist. In the background is a painting that the artist has been working on prior to the model taking time-out to relax. It depicts the model in quite a different pose.

The main pose shows a woman enjoying a cigarette emphasising her modernity and confidence. She looks composed and at ease with her nudity here gaze is assured, almost questioning “I am confident and happy with my body. I am not embarrassed., are you? Do you have a problem? Because I don't.”

Being nude and posing nude for artists is an empowering experience, for some women. So often, as a life-drawing tutor and facilitator, I have encountered models who have been debilitated by shyness and feelings of low self-esteem. Modelling they find helps them to overcome and improve this situation. Catholicism is seen as another debilitating problem and many ex-Catholic girls turn to modelling as a means of exorcising encounters with strict Catholic teachings enforced upon them while too young. Teachings and preachings that have confused and sometimes traumatised impressionable minds with layers of Catholic guilt. Modelling helps them to rid themselves of the confusions and guilt enabling them to rebuild confidence, to think clearly for themselves and wrestle back control.

The second pose is more classical, gentle, sensual and quite acceptable and would not court much in the way of controversy. Sir Gerald seems to be saying that “This is the usual fodder for an academic art loving public but I am giving you something more, something racy that reflects the new beginnings of Women in this post World War 1 era. The status of women is changing and change they will. They have earned it.”

This is 'Between the Wars' Britain. Women had won the right to vote, with restrictions, in 1918. During the '14 – '18 war many women took on work and status normally the preserve of men and the role of women in society changed dramatically further eroding inequalities between the sexes.

I love this painting for the models defiant and self-assured stance. I find it refreshing and uplifting, quite a joy. It is a pity a lot more people are not like this and more accepting of the joys and beauty of the naked form.

When D. D. was exhibited at the Newport Museum and Art Gallery it caused a minor sensation. The painting elicited written petitions for its removal from over 150 local residents and supported by Dorian Herbert alleged to be a self appointed Bishop who after seeing the painting blasted it as 'brazen, abandoned and vulgar.' thus insuring a vast increase in the number of people attending the gallery who probably would not have otherwise bothered. But at least he did make the effort to see it before condemning it, an act quite rare these days as moral and religious bigots quite often condemn by hearsay without ever encountering the offending artwork they so readily claim to be 'shocked' by.

Public health and morels were a concern to some who clearly thought the painting would corrupt adolescents and contribute to the growing problem of 'girl mothers' and the growing spread of VD, the ending of which was a current government campaign. To the credit of Newport Council they argued in defence of the painting and the debate carried on for a number of years before the painting was eventually demoted to the the gallery vaults. I doubt many if any Local Councils today would argue for and defend the purchasing and display of erotic art in their public galleries.

And what of that too often misused word 'Shocked' when looking at erotic art? Are paintings of nudes or acts of sexuality ever shocking? 9/11; Religious fundamentalists atrocities; Innocent women and children being killed by allied bombings; Bloody slaughter in the name of religion and sanctioned by God; Starving, diseased and abused children. These sickening events and many more can be considered as shocking.

Art dealing with sexual issues are rarely truly shocking. I think the emotion people should express is one of embarrassment. Parents being confronted by an image of eroticism, fearful of the potential awkward questions from open young enquiring minds, fake shock. They tell the children “It's disgusting” and hurriedly move on. They are embarrassed not shocked. To be embarrassed implies some kind of problem or inadequacy in the person who is embarrassed. Admitting the problem is within oneself is difficult so to cover up for the squeamish sensations the emotion of shock is evoked an act that is perpetrated by one person against another negating any responsibility to the one being shocked. To be shocked is to be a victim - but a morally superior victim, of course.

A couple stand in front of an erotic painting of two people engaged in a sexual act which evokes memories, desires, other thoughts and emotions that may be too difficult to confront, accept or talk about to each other so terrible feelings of guilt, awkwardness and embarrassment awaken.

I am never shocked by images of sex and sexuality but I have occasionally been embarrassed by them but my uncomfortable feelings are my problems not the problems of the encountered artworks or the artists who produced them. I look to resolve my problems and not to feign shock and insist on censorship or banishment.

The Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens – National GalleryEven shocking events depicted in art are rarely actually shocking. The Massacre of the Innocent by Peter Paul Rubens depicts a fictitious event from the Bible that should be shocking but the painting of the event is not. The Crucifixion of Christ, another depicted event that would have been shocking is not shocking as a painting. And if we are shocked by an image is it a requirement that it be banned or censored? If so then there are many great icons of Western religious art that would have to be removed from great collections throughout the world.

To the right is a Pope 'approved' acceptable piece of erotic art. It is Adam and Eve enjoying themselves. Eve has beenAdam and Eve by Michelangelo part of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City distracted immediately prior to the Great Deception and Expulsion from the Garden of Paradise. (I can't imagine what Eve was distracted from doing). If only she had ignored the serpent and turned her head back again, we could all still be enjoying ourselves unashamed in the Garden of Eden savouring our God sanctioned nakedness.

If God exists I don't think God would have a problem with sex, it is religion that has the problem with sex. After all, the God of the Bible was quite happy with Adam and Eve frolicking around naked in the Garden of Eden until that fateful deception by one of God's created creatures. Religions have used this biblical story to punish and repress women ever since.

Once I have undertaken my pilgrimage to see the Sistine Chapel ceiling “I will recommend they ban it!” (An apology to Tony Hancock).

In 2008 D. D. was on exhibition again and a sign of changed times the painting no longer 'shocked' the public for being 'brazen, abandoned and vulgar.' but because she is smoking!

If the all too easily shocked 'general public' and 'religious guardians of our morality' would acknowledge embarrassment not shock as the root emotion and if they would accept that they themselves are the ones with issues to address and allow the rest of us to make-up our own minds, confront and deal with our own demons then perhaps we can cease from silly spurious reasoning for censorship and banishment in the Arts. Art should be allowed to explore and question issues that are difficult, shocking and embarrassing. Any issue that affects and impinges upon our lives be it political or religious should be scrutinised by artists and not be beyond questioning. As humanity we need to confront and deal with difficult issues and in the process improve ourselves and our society.

If politics and religions want to interact with and shape my life and have a fundamental bearing on my right to pursue a happy, respectful and peaceful life then as an individual and an artist I have the right to explore and question their methods and ideology. I do not accept things on unreasoned blind faith.

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