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5 February 2020

Mary Beard’s Shock of the Nude was both weird and exasperating

If Mary Beard docs involve any shock, it stems not from their subject but from the presenter’s conviction that her own ideas are vastly more thrilling than those of the artists she is investigating.

By Rachel Cooke

Mary Beard’s new documentary series is called Shock of the Nude, a title that alludes to not only all the marble bottoms in front of which she so obligingly stands, but also to Robert Hughes’s 1980 series about modern art, The Shock of the New. For this, if for nothing else, we must give her top marks for chutzpah; 

Beard has many qualities, but alas, she’s no Robert Hughes. Not only do her films want for his amazing breadth, wit and pizzazz; if they can be said to involve any shock at all, it stems not from their subject matter – in this case, all the pubic hair on the walls of our public galleries – but from their presenter’s seeming conviction that at this point in her TV career, her own ideas are vastly more thrilling than those of the artists whose work she is purportedly investigating. 

I accept that our culture rates self-involvement increasingly highly. But still, I find the way that Beard keeps putting herself, almost literally, into the picture both weird and exasperating. In Shock of the Nude, which explores the idea of the male gaze, she is the star and Michelangelo, Courbet and all the rest of them can go hang. Early on in the first film, for instance, she asks us if Titian’s reclining nude, the Venus of Urbino, is “playing with herself” (answer: I don’t know, Mary, but even if I did, I would prefer to use a less coy expression for that particular practice). Having planted this notion in our minds, she then offers another thought. “In my fantasy,” she announces, “I’m with this naked lady and we’re both giggling at the men leering with us.” Such a statement would be odd even if it were true. But her delivery rather suggests that it isn’t. Why, then, did she (not to mention her director) include it? Answers on a postcard of Manet’s Olympia, please. 

What irks me about this solipsism is that it comes at the expense of facts, context and inquiry. At Manchester Art Gallery, she meets Sonia Boyce, the artist famously responsible for temporarily removing JW Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs from its walls in 2018. Boyce tells Beard that the painting is “symbolic of some problems”; that she wondered why the gallery should be a space where it was “normal” to look at breasts. This (I’m being polite) is a point of view, but I still think Beard should not only have challenged it, but explained a little of what’s going on in the painting (once you know the myth, you may come to believe that it is the nymphs who have agency, not the youth, Hylas). When Boyce shows her notes from members of the public in which, angered by the painting’s removal, they complain of censorship, why does Beard only nod and snigger? Isn’t it fair to ask whether they might have had a point? 

Naturally, Beard’s travels take her to Paris to see Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (1866), a painting of a woman’s genitals once owned by Jacques Lacan – and yes, this piece does further her argument that the line between pornography and art is at times non-existent; Courbet was commissioned to paint it by a Turkish diplomat who collected erotic art. But there are other things at play here, too, none of which she cares to mention. Courbet worked in defiance of what he regarded as repressive bourgeois taste; his paintings were often deemed unexhibitable on political grounds; if he embodied his time, he was also at odds with it. 

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My point isn’t only that it’s misleading to look at L’Origine du monde through one lens (though it is). It’s also very boring. Great art is multifaceted, its meanings changing all the time. Beard will say that this series is a provocation, not a survey. 
But if this is the case, why is she so lily-livered? Why does she say that she cannot make up her mind whether Hylas should come down again or remain safely on the walls of Manchester Art Gallery? If you want to goad people, or even just make them think a little harder, at least have the courage of your convictions. Make your case – even to those of us who consider it muddle-headed and, if pursued to its natural conclusion, highly dangerous. 

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Shock of the Nude