A chat with Dawn Williams, co-curator of the Naked Truth; The Nude in Irish Art.

From July until October 2018, The Naked Truth art exhibition ran in the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. Perfectly timed with the curating of University Express’ special edition magazine, Sexpress, I took the opportunity to interview the woman who co-curated this exhibition for the magazine as I felt it fitting. Here is the conversation I had with Dawn Williams, with a friend of mine with a far more extensive knowledge of art than myself.

This interview was originally published in University Express’ 2018/2019 edition of Sexpress magazine.

It was a miserably wet Tuesday morning when myself and my good friend Thomas Daly met with Dawn Williams in the Crawford Art Gallery to talk about the Naked Truth: The Nude in Irish Art exhibition, which ran in the gallery from 13th July – 28th October 2018.Curated by Dawn and London-based Irish art historian William Laffan, the exhibition was highly successful; the gallery were up five thousand visitors a month in comparison to figures from last year since the running of the exhibition. Our chat with Dawn was fascinating; we learned about the motivation behind the exhibition, interesting facts about the art, and had some very interesting discussions about the representation and reception, both historically and contemporarily, of the naked body and the nude in Irish art and in Irish society in general.

The idea that there was no real history of nude in Irish art, an idea which was coming through contemporary scholars, was the main motivation driving this exhibition as Dawn and William believed this was simply not true. “When you look at the facts,” Dawn explains, “you’ve got the likes of Robert Fagan, Daniel Maclise and James Barry from the 18th and 19th century who were lorded in England for being the best artists to depict the nude and the naked – that got us thinking.” Noticing that there hadn’t been an exhibition on the nude in Irish art since the one curated by Brian O’Doherty in 1971, Dawn says “We got our thinking caps on and started researching.” Dawn went through some of the many instances of the nude being represented in Irish art throughout history, right through to the contemporary, “You can go back to the medieval works such Sheela na gigs; we have a male and a female Sheela na gigs [in the exhibition] brought from the Cork Pop museum… we have Amanda Coogan, and other emerging artists such as Pádraig Spillane to prove the crux of the exhibition, which is to assert the existence of a history of the nude in Irish art.”

Dragana Jurisic ‘100 Muses’ (2015) © The Artist, courtesy of Caoimhe Lavelle

As Dawn explains, “It’s not that there has been a lack of representation; the exhibition is just a small sample of how the Irish artist and indeed artists all over the world have used the naked and the nude in their practice.” Rather, it is a lack of celebration of Irish art that features the nude or naked body. I asked Dawn what she thought of this rejection of the nude, traditionally, and what it said about Irish society. Was it a comment on the conservativeness of Irish, Catholic society and its tendency to turn away from the sexualisation of the body, and thus the nude? “That’s a big question,” says Dawn, “It does of course raise the question of why there hasn’t been this thematic [presented in exhibitions] in such abundance before, and yes that is probably down to the restrictions placed on society by the church and State.”

It is no lie to say that there was a stigma placed on nudity and the naked body in Irish society, but I wonder if this stigma still exists in some way. Is it still a problem and something we need to work on as a society? “I think it depends on how you contextualise the representation,” explains Dawn. “For anything, the context is always an important thing. Of course I would hope that we’ve gone beyond the body being shamed. We all have them, and it’s strange that we still don’t have the language to talk about our bodies and how they function. There is still a lot of work to be done, but it’s always to do with the context and how you mediate discussions around the body and sex and sexual behaviour or bodily functions.”

A lot of thought goes into curating an exhibition; careful consideration of factors to determine what works you select to feature in it, but also the very particular layout and order you display the works in. Dawn explains why they selected the works that they did, and the reasoning behind the non-chronological ordering of the works in the Naked Truth exhibition; “We wanted to select works that were either important within regard to the artist’s overall body of works or that were particularly relevant to theme. The way that we’ve hung the works is not chronological, and that’s important in order to create dialogs and, for want of a better word, juxtapositions between the centuries. As you come into the exhibition you’ve got Robert Fagan’s 1886 Portrait of a Lady as Hibernia, and on the flipside of that you’ve got Patrick Grahams 1982 portrait of My Darkish Rosaleen (Ireland as Young Whore), both showing these themes of using the woman as a sort of mythical mother of Ireland or a bastardised version of a woman to offer the same political standpoint within the work, so it was important not to have a chronological layout.”

Robert Fagan – Portrait of a Lady as Hibernia © Private Collection.

What is the message, the bottom-line note, that you wanted to send to the public with this exhibition, the reaction you hoped to evoke?

It was interesting to hear from Dawn as a curator herself what they were hoping the reaction would be from the public. Every exhibition aims to display or portray a particular message or evoke a particular feeling or thought, and this exhibition undoubtedly had many implications, both intentional and unintentional. “The reaction has been incredibly positive,” reveals Dawn, “We see families with younger children, we see teenagers – it’s brought a younger demographic in. We see people talking about the body. A woman came to me after seeing the exhibition to say that she doesn’t feel so body-conscious anymore. I didn’t think the exhibition would have that kind of an impact – it gave me gooses bumps; this woman looked at various different woman and men and thought about herself, how she evaluates and criticises herself, and she walked away feeling quite free of those constraints afterwards. If you can do that to just one person, your job is done.”

This brings up the idea of the idealised body. We see it in media and in the fashion industry all the time. Even in art, there seems to be idealised body trend throughout the centuries, but many artists have attempted to challenge this idealised form in their work. A striking aspect of this exhibition was undoubtedly how raw and real the body was represented. What this exhibition seems to have achieved, perhaps unintentionally, is a more realistic, honest and raw representation of the real body. As Dawn explains, “While you do have Hibernia, the idealised creature, there are many instances of how bodies truly are – there is no ‘norm’, there really isn’t, and there’s certainly not an idealised form presented here as much as there is in media.”

This idea of an honest portrayal is suggested in the title of the exhibition. I asked Dawn why the exhibition was called the “Naked Truth” – the word ‘truth’ being key to my interest. What does ‘truth’ mean in the context of the exhibition? “It’s called Naked Truth; The Nude in Irish Art because it was important to have the word ‘naked’ and ‘nude’ in the titles; there are discrepancies and different meanings when these two words are applied in different contexts. The word ‘truth’ is there as the crux of the exhibition is to assert that there is a history of nude, naked painting and sculpture in Irish visual art, to assert the truth that it does exist.”

Thomas brought up the point about British art critic John Ruskin being horrified by his wife’s naked body on their wedding night when he discovered that she had pubic hair, explaining how this was a pointing out of the difference between ‘naked’ and ‘nude’, a difference John Ruskin clearly did not understand. “If his only reference point was art historical women painted,” Dawn suggested, “and the idealised Greek and Roman forms, sculptural forms, then there is a complete lack of pubic hair in all of those. Quite naïve, possibly.”

Amanda Coogan ‘After Manzoni’ (2000) © Amanda Coogan

I pointed out how this reminded me of the way in which the modern-day porn industry has skewed the expectations of young men, and even women, when it comes to what the bodies of the opposite sex will look like and how sex and sexual acts should or will go. It’s interesting how art back then had the same impact. “There’s nothing new about sex,” explains Dawn, “and how bodies are perceived and misconstrued and so-called idealised. But then you look at Ruben’s work in the seventeenth century and what’s become referred to as the Rubenesque body – a much more rounded, voluptuous, and, in some ways, honest figure – that was the form to be admired. Then you go to the nineteen twenties and it’s all a kind of androgynous look. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and it seems as though, if you wait long enough, your body will be in fashion. It fascinates me, and also irritates the hell out of me as well.”

There seemed to be a strong theme in the exhibition of a kind of defiance or rebellion against particular conservative or constricting aspects of society. There is a strong element of feminism, with pieces that challenge the ‘male gaze’ and very little pieces depicting the ‘male gaze’ (depictions of woman in historical paintings, often painted by men for men, where the woman is made an object, with an averted gaze never looking directly at the viewer). Some pieces offer comments on religion and Catholicism with religious iconography,  and at times a strong sense of homosexuality is depicted. This echoes a powerful statement by Alice Maher; “when you reclaim imagery, you take the power back”. As outlined in the exhibition booklet, “Maher’s delicate watercolours all challenge mythological representations of ‘the docile sexuality of the gender’, positing instead a more complex, experiential, self-aware embodiment of the naked female.” Thomas asked Dawn if perhaps they felt responsible for defining this kind of a perspective on these works.“I think redefining is too strong a word,” said Dawn, “We’re not setting out to do that – all we’re trying to do is encourage people to look at and consider each perspective. I think Dragana Jurisic’s piece 100 Muses is a very powerful piece in terms of not being the male gaze because it was devised by a woman artist and inviting woman to come forward and negotiate their own poses, choose their own format. She left it for a year before asking permission for those works to be shown in public. She gave each individual a year to consider, which is generous and proper – seven of those women declined, which is why you’ve got 7 gaps in the 100 Muses work. But she still honoured their presence by having those gaps there. That work is a very strong work because its woman on woman, and all the women are looking directly at the camera – they’re not doing the ‘male gaze’.”

Some would say that Ireland, at least traditionally, has a different and distinctive, attitude to the nude and the naked body in comparison to other European countries, or even other countries around the world in general. Thomas points out how there seemed to be, not a rage but, a sort of undercurrent of anger in a lot of the pieces, an almost punk attitude, particularly in the more contemporary works, stemming from the oppressiveness that has been present in Irish society for such a long time. “Think of Nell McCafferty in Mark Daniel Duffy’s piece, standing there proud and defiant,” Thomas says. Dawn agrees that “there is a defiance but, at the same time, it is a considered one”. She explains how it took Nell McCafferty, Irish journalist, playwright, civil rights campaigner and feminist, weeks to decide to be a model for Mark Daniel Duffy; “she just phoned him up one morning and said ‘right, I’ll do it but I’m doing it now and you have to bring coffee’… in the painting there’s a coffee cup lid, and that Duffy calls his own self-portrait.”

Daniel Mark Duffy ‘Portrait of Nell McCafferty’ (2008) courtesy the Artist and Private Collection

On this subtle point of rebellion, we also discussed in depth the series of large-scale photographic works, grouped under the title Icons, by Billy Quinn, which deal with broad issues of sexual orientation and sexual abuse and were created by Quinn to honour friends of his who had died from AIDS. Interestingly these pieces have been accused of a mockingly anti-Catholic tone in the way that they seem to feature some very prominent and powerful religious iconography, but, as Dawn explains, “Billy Quinn, in his writings about this amazing work, expresses how even he was surprised about how iconographical it was, how much gold there was, how much it did look like an icon from a Church. One of the reasons why Billy Quinn created his series was that he was fed up of his friends not being treated as humans because they had HIV or AIDS. It was a way to literally expose these people as humans.” Raising eyebrows and being described by Jack Meehan, national treasurer of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, in an article for The Irish Echo, an Irish American newspaper, as “basically pornography masquerading as art”, these works were first showcased in New York in the early 1990’s and were apparently shocking even there, “which is kind of mad because you think of that place as a liberal place, so it’s not necessarily an Irish thing.”

“What’s more shocking about those Billy Quinn images, in particular that image [one of the images in the series, Billy],” explains Dawn, “is not the image but probably the text; what’s written in the text reflects back on the image and makes it even more shocking because of what you’ve read.” Underneath Billy is written: “Aids pushed me…It pushed all of us into the realisation of our own mortality”.

The naked body is a universal image. It says something about all aspects of society; it deals with the objectification of woman in art through challenging of ‘the male gaze’ as is done by Dragana Jurisic in her 100 Muses series, it deals with issues of health as in Billy Quinn’s series in honour of friends who had died of AIDS, as well as offering subtle comments on religion as we see coming through in Quinn’s work and William Orpen’s 1916 The Holy Well, and much more. The Naked Truth; The Nude in Irish Art exhibition is an excellent example of the many comments that the naked body and the nude have to offer on a personal level and on a societal level, and beyond.

“It’s not just about representation; it’s about how you feel, the context, what you bring and what your own histories are when you see a work, and what questions the work asks of you. A work should ask you a lot of questions if it’s a really good work – that’s my own point of view.”

Dawn Williams

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