I was in the gallery today looking at the prolific output of etchings by Norman Lindsay, all of them of naked women and the occasional boyish looking man. Struck again by the sanctioning nature of art, how the framing and mounting of pictures makes them apparently devoid of prurient qualities. Which is ironic considering that Lindsay was a great iconoclast who was roundly criticized for attacking, through his art, the middle class values of the first half of the 20th century. Now, of course, he is an icon himself and his once scandalous work is accessible to the same middle class that was so affronted 6o years ago.
And yet…and yet. Art continues to confound me. Here are the same pictures – of artistic merit certainly and with an impressive fidelity of vision – but erotic nonetheless. And, I wonder, would any of these respectable people around me staring so closely and with such careful appreciation, feel the same level of acceptance if the same pictures were photographs under their sons’ pillows? Art somehow gives us permission to be a voyeur.
There is no doubt, however, that Lindsay loved the female body and when I walked outside I was feeling much the same way. And then I looked around, of course, and found that the female body, no less than the man’s, comes in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, most of them totally ignored by Lindsay. His imaginative idylls are full of idealised women. So even then, women were created in the image of men’s desire. True, the female form in these etchings, in keeping with standards of the time, is fuller and rounder compared with the skinny young things that depict today’s perfect woman. But they are idealised nonetheless and equally unrealistic.
I wonder why the penchant for skinny women is so prevalent in the popular culture of the Western world. This woman-as-girl fixation often smells to me suspiciously like paedophilia dressed up as fashion. And women – either actively or through aspiration – seem complicit in this.
Anyway, art as is entirely appropriate, gives us mirror through which we can look at our world differently. To that extent, I found the exhibition well worth the cost.
A long time ago I was standing in an art gallery trailing behind an elderly couple obviously unimpressed by the modern art before them. Suddenly, they stopped before a picture and the following conversation took place:
“Now, you see, Myra, that’s what I call art.”
“Well, you can tell what it is, can’t you. It’s really beautiful.”
“And very realistic.”
“That’s right, it’s just like a photograph.”
“Just like a photograph.”
“Myra, it is a photograph.”
“Oh, yes, so it is.”