Before women had pubic hair

Scholar Peter Gay talks about "Exposed: The Victorian Nude" at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

By David Bowman

Published September 13, 2002 7:39PM (EDT)

If you've never read eminent Victorian scholar Peter Gay, you'd assume the Victorians were as repressed about naked bodies as Attorney General Ashcroft.

The neo-Puritanical Victorian era lasted as long as the reign of Queen Victoria did, 1837-1901; it was a time when a woman had to wear bathing garments for convention's sake -- even in the privacy of her own bath. The hems of Victorian skirts touched the floor because the sight of a woman's limb would be shocking beyond belief. Victorians even pulled stockings over the legs of their pianos.

Famously, Victorian art critic John Ruskin had been to Venice and Paris but had no idea that women possessed a triangle of fur above their genitals. Thus on his wedding night he went into apoplectic spasms when presented with his naked wife Effie's tuft of pubic hair.

During the mid-20th century, pornography became legal, then respectable, and Victorian Puritans were accused of hypocrisy for hiding the legs of their pianos by day, and engaging in unspeakable perversions behind the locked doors of private clubs by night.

Writer Peter Gay discovered a different crop of Victorians, however  bourgeois folk who were sexually aware, sexually active, just discreet about it. Gay's revisionist vision of the Victorians is confirmed by an art show that originated at the Tate Museum in London, and is currently showing at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. "Exposed: The Victorian Nude" is not an exhibit of a few daguerreotypes of naked piano legs. Rather a viewer wanders among more than a hundred paintings and sculptures and photographs of naked women, men and children. This art doesn't redeem the Victorians, exactly, but we can see proof that they were at least as sexually knowing as the average modern subscribers to HBO.

Gay argued this same point more academically in 1984 when he wrote "Education of the Senses," the first volume of his Victorian saga, called "The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud."

Not that Gay had anything to do with curating the Brooklyn show. The 79-year-old scholar wanders the exhibition as an outsider, but freely admits he feels vindicated. "I don't want to sound impossibly gracious about myself, but the exhibition is what I've been saying for quite a long time. I argued that certain views of Victorian sexuality were quite wrong. After 1901, Edwardians like Bertrand Russell and so on began lambasting the prudish Victorians. Then after World War II, quite a bit of literature took the same position, suggesting that there was an underground obsession in sexuality with mistresses and whorehouses and all the sexual entanglements that nobody knew about. And so on. I argued that this second view was even more wrong than the first."

Rather than study what historians said about the Victorians, Gay went to the original material  autobiographies, medical reports, letters and diaries. What he discovered was a split between what people publicly talked about and what they did privately. "It was not hypocrisy or prudishness, but a highly developed sense of privacy," Gay says. "A separation from the public domain and the private. And in that private domain, [Victorian] people enjoyed a great many things that weren't publicly talked about. So from that point of view I developed this simple thesis called the 'Doctrine of Distance.'"

Victorians needed such a doctrine because they were not without hang-ups. They were very concerned about thinking "pure thoughts." And the way to think such thoughts while viewing, say, a sculpture of a naked woman was to give the lass a historical context. "Give the work a name from mythology or ancient history," explains Gay. "Or something symbolic. For example, you could have a very naked model surrounded by leaves and called it 'Spring.' That was fine. Or you could deal with the camp of Alexander the Great and a nude could be a famous Greek courtesan."

The Brooklyn Museum has more such naked women than can be digested in a single day of gazing. Naked medieval women stand chained to a tree, rescued by embarrassed knights. A naked siren (or "syren") embraces Goethe's fisherman. Lady Godiva mounts her mare. Venus slips off her robe before slipping into a bath. All of these women have a languid, small-breasted, Gwyneth Paltrow-type body. All these women possess a shaved mound of Venus  no wonder poor John Ruskin was horrified by wifely fur!

That said, the Victorians did not skimp on naked men. In fact, most of the guys like Icarus or Perseus have their penises exposed in lieu of a fig leaf or tunic.

Even more interesting is the fact that the Victorians had no problem with their children viewing such images, let alone unescorted ladies. Says Gay, "In the exhibit is a copy of a famous statue by Hiram Powers (1805-60) called 'The Greek Slave.' This is a full life-size nude looking very beautiful, looking rather mournful. One version has her in manacles, and in another her hands are tied together. This was done in the 1840s, and this statue was shown in the American wing of the Great Exhibition in London." Gay found a newspaper engraving (the Victorian equivalent of a news photo) that showed men, women and children looking at the Greek slave. "No one objected. No one put her away. The point was that the name of the statue was not 'My Girlfriend' or 'My model.' It was 'The Greek Slave' -- and the legend was she was one of the few survivors after a Turkish attack on a Greek village and she had been left alive so she could be auctioned off. Once you had this, you had a certain distance from the model, and you were supposed to think pure thoughts, not impure ones."

These brightly colored paintings can make even us moderns think pure thoughts because most of them are kitsch. Not necessarily bad kitsch, as art critic Hilton Kramer claimed recently in the New York Observer: "One field of high human endeavor, in which the Victorians proved to be a failure ... was in the art of painting." He then compares a 2002 appreciation of Victorian nudes to digging "schlock-meisters like Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons." Wait. There is a wide gulf between Warhol and Koons -- Warhol paradoxically has depth and was striving to be nothing but surface, while Koons is just wet Kleenex. In kitsch terms, these Victorian nudes are the noble grandmothers of the Vargas girls -- those curvy 1930s pinups. The Victorians had their paintings of Venus taking her bath while the G.I.s of Iwo Jima had pinups of hourglass-figure babes shampooing their hair. Both are good "low art."

Not that the Brooklyn show is all kitsch. After all, there's a highbrow painting of a naked boy painted by John Singer Sargent in the show. One of the most beautiful paintings is a nude by New England impressionist Theodore Roussel (1847-1926) simply titled "The Reading Girl." This is no Greek maiden reading a scroll. Instead, a contemporary lass slumps naked in an elegant folding chair reading a magazine, her discarded kimono draped behind her. The girl's body is long and lean, her hair is pulled up and she is beautiful in a real-life way instead of some Arthurian comic-book way.

The painting was done in 1887 and no one liked it. One criticism went: "[This is a] picture ... of which we feel inclined to speak in terms of severe depreciation, if only because of its wantonness in taking a beautiful subject and making it all at once odious and ugly."

"Nowadays, the Victorian distancing of nude sounds quite ridiculous," says Gay, defending the Victorian "nude in history" aesthetics. "In a sense of 19th century, this was a very intelligent way of handling it. This explains why [French impressionist] Manet's 'Olympia,' painted in 1863, aroused so much controversy. She was not an idealized nude. She was clearly some sort of courtesan. She had a black servant bringing a bouquet of flowers. And her face is that of a recognizable person, not an idealized one. We even know the name of the model, Victorine Meurent. Anyway, the point is that what you have is a culture that makes room for -- if you wish -- sanitized nudes. In any case, I think what the exhibition shows is what I had been saying all along, which is this is not to be regarded from our point of view as hypocritical. I looked at the pictures and enjoyed them, but they didn't surprise me."

Gay goes on to explain that although Victorian women were not necessarily sexually savvy, they were well versed in most other biological aspects of the human body. Women gave birth at home. Relatives died at home, their dying bodies often cared for by female family members. The Victorian equivalent of Martha Stewart, "Mrs. Beaton's Book of Household Management," had a chapter on how to strip a wet nurse to her waist in order to inspect her nipples to make sure that she was healthy. Too bad Ruskin wasn't in on this.

"Ruskin is a wonderful story," says Gay. "I would have to say it's probably true. I know the event because I followed it through his wife's letters to her parents. They were married for, I believe, six years and he never touched her. She indicates something like that so it was probably true." Then he adds, "Ruskin was not your average Victorian."

Most Victorian men knew women had pubic hair?

"Oh dear! I wasn't there, but I would think so," says Gay. "Even in the Renaissance -- even Titian, for example -- you get some strategic way to cover up the genitals. Put a hand over it or a curtain. By the way, even Olympia put her hand over 'it.' That is a convention, and you might call it self-protective. It has its limits -- that's all I mean to say."

It must be said that the Brooklyn show does include scientific and "dirty" photographs of naked female Victorians who possess dense "bush." Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the Victorian art is that it was pre-Freudian. Victorians didn't know they had an unconscious.

"That's true enough," Gay says. "If you ask Freud he would have said the unconscious was not something he discovered, but rather the romantic poets had discovered it. Sometimes dreams may show us things we want, but we don't admit it, and so on."

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Victorian sexuality is to consider that even though Lewis Carroll took photographs of naked little girls (included in the show), he was not the modern equivalent of a pedophile. In the Watson Guptill Carroll exhibit catalog Carroll is quoted as saying, "the real distinction between sin and innocence in pictures ... is whether it stimulates ... sinful feelings, or not."

"I don't believe there is any evidence that Carroll tried anything," says Gay. "I think one of the things that Freud was interested in was to argue that sexuality does not begin with puberty, but very early on. The Victorians, on the other hand, generally assumed that children were free of sexual feelings one way or another, and they were innocent, so therefore taking picture of them naked would do no harm. Lewis Carroll never, as it were, tried anything because he never got married. He may not have been very mature about dealing with women -- going out with them, marrying them and so forth. That's very probable. But the term 'pedophile' suggests something too definite to me, especially nowadays. But I think the Victorian idea was that kids are innocents and the grownups who photographed them would be innocent too."

Try for a moment to imagine an era when pedophilia was not discussed in any manner. Regardless of Lewis Carroll's subconscious desire to photograph little girls naked, it's very possible that it never occurred to him that men were physically capable of sexual intercourse with (i.e., raping) children -- any more than they would do such a thing with a naked piano.

"That could be true," agrees Gay. "The word 'homosexual' was only coined in 1896. Not that they couldn't talk about it; of course they could. But technically, for example, lesbianism was unthinkable. It would sometimes be mentioned that two women were living together, but the idea that they had anything other than a warm friendship was unthinkable."

We won't leave the Victorians forever spinning in a soup of innocence -- Gay does admit there were elaborate whorehouses where perversions were practiced.

"Sure," Gays says -- although, he argues, much of the writing about Victorian prostitution of the time was highly speculative. "There's a famous so-called confession, 'My Secret Life,' which consists of an anonymous middle-class writer who is very sexy, who does a lot of seducing of lower-class women -- not by force but by bribery and talking them up or winning them up and so on -- who exhibits (according to this book) a huge record of women screwed. The question is how true this is. The book is a debatable book." He pauses. "I really don't know the answer to all these questions because the Victorians didn't have the kind of journalism we now have along with paparazzi. I think we are still reduced to a certain amount of guessing."

But here in the Brooklyn Museum, surrounded by all these naked Victorian women posing in harems or Achilles-style brothels, one could say, "Pure thoughts be damned. Can a naked man or woman or Victorian ever become a purely aesthetic object with no sexual appreciation?"

"If you have this really lovely, terrific looking girl, the Greek slave," Gay says, "and you have engravings showing daddy and mommy and children looking at it, I guess what they're thinking may vary indeed. The man may very well think, 'I wish I knew her.'"

So we're back to "Victorian think" -- I don't have impure thoughts because I just looked at a naked Greek slave.

"I think the feeling was that pure thoughts were very hard to come by and very hard to guarantee," Gay says.

When Gay is asked if our apparently permissive anti-Victorian era will be maligned as John Ruskin's era has been, he responds, "Of course we'll be maligned -- just as writers begin to lose excellent reputation when they die and have to fight to get them back. Yeah. It's very possible." Then he laughs, "Which will give business to historians. Although I must say to write about this time considering how much print we have is going to be kind of rough."

In the end, we're left with these Victorian pictures, and we've been told a picture is worth a thousand words -- and as much as we can appreciate really good kitsch, maybe Hilton Kramer is right, that most of this Victorian art isn't very good.

"I think that it's not the art when you think of certain English painters earlier, like Constable and Turner," Gay says and goes silent before adding, "I think that the extent that I have money to buy pictures, I wouldn't buy these pictures."

David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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