BY JIM FARBER >LA.COM
"In Focus: The Nude" is the first in a series of small thematically assembled exhibitions designed to showcase the multifaceted nature of the Getty Center's vast collection of photography.
The time frame begins with examples from photography's formative days and ends with works by contemporary artists. It includes 30 stellar examples, many of which are being displayed at the Getty for the first time.
"In the past," said exhibition curator Paul Martineau, "the Getty has focused mostly on monographic shows and hasn't done quite that many thematic exhibits."
The initial challenge, he said, was finding the images, as the Getty's collection is organized by the photographer's name, not by theme. So, there was a lot of digging and research involved. Then, once he had the images, the question was which ones would make the cut.
"The first survey produced between 300 and 400 images," Martineau explained. "From those, I selected 100 and proposed doing a full gallery show.
"But Weston Neaf (curator of the Getty's Photography Department) preferred the idea of a small, thematic show. So I had to cut the list down to 30 images. It was tough.
"I based the decision on the importance of the artists in the history of the nude; chronological connections; key developments and art movements; and finally the work's visual power."
Cleverly, this jewel box of an exhibit is bookended with a pair of shimmering daguerreotypes. The first, taken by French photographer Baron Armand-Pierre Séguier in 1839, represents the earliest days of photography when the process was still far too slow to capture a live subject. As a result, Séguier's "Still Life With Plaster Casts" depicts a frozen group of plaster figures of the type used by artists for anatomical studies.
The final image, which symbolically brings the exhibit full circle, is a contemporary daguerreotype (from 2001) produced by the New York artist Chuck Close in collaboration with photographer Jerry Spagnoli. A close-up rendering of the artist's chest, it mirrors perfectly the ideals of the picture produced by Séguier more than a century and a half before.
Ironically, the photographer who produced the most sensually beautiful image in the entire exhibit is destined to forever remain anonymous. This beautiful half-plate daguerreotype, produced around 1848, depicts two naked women lying languidly side by side in a lover's embrace. A masterpiece of feminine beauty (and eroticism), it is the only image in the exhibit that was almost certainly produced as a piece of pornography.
Later, as artists began to adopt photography as a means of freezing compositions and difficult poses, we see works like Edgar Degas' "After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Back" (1896); Guadenzio Marconi's "Nude Male in Repose" (1860); and "Male Figures Swimming" (1884) by Thomas Eakins.
By the beginning of the 20th century, photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Anne Brigman and George Henry Seeley were producing photographs that expressed themselves in painterly terms by employing alternative printing techniques and "soft-focus" compositions. Steiglitz's 1918 platinum print of Georgia O'Keeffe tenderly exposing her breasts is a superb example, while Brigman's 1902 "Heart of the Storm" captures the wild romanticism of the nude in a mountainous landscape.
As modernism came into vogue, photographers like Edward Weston began to interpret the nude in more abstract terms. His 1927 "Nude" transforms the model into a shape more sculptural and abstract than distinctly feminine.
In Paris, the Hungarian photographer Brassai was so inspired by Picasso, he produced a series of "cliche-verre" prints that mimicked the artist's cubist style. But by far the most famous (or infamous) nude to come out of this volatile period was Man Ray's surrealistic portrait "Le Violon d'Ingres," in which he playfully transformed the graceful nude back of his mistress into a human violin with inked-in F-holes.
Nude photography took on radically new directions in the years leading up to and after World War II, personified by the distorted portraits of André Kertész and Bill Brandt and Harry Callahan's "Eleanor" (1949), in which the model appears as a seed of white flesh floating in a sea of darkness.
Then came the realists, exemplified by Diane Arbus' "Retired Man and His Wife at Home in a Nudist Camp One Morning, New Jersey" (1963), which introduces documentary realism to the nude study.
Contemporary photographers have continued to redefine the nude. "Melones" (1989), by William Carter, reduces the female form to that of an archetypal Earth Mother, while Joel Peter Witkin's "Male Nude" (1977) transforms his subject into an abstracted winged creature more mythic than human.
"In Focus: The Nude" offers a fascinating set of variations on a theme and a glimpse into the riches of the Getty's collection.
Jim Farber, (310) 540-5511 Ext. 416 firstname.lastname@example.org
IN FOCUS: THE NUDE
>What: Showcase for the multifaceted nature of the museum's vast collection of photography.
>Where: The Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood.
>When: On view 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, through Feb. 24.
>Cost: Free. $8 parking. Information: (310) 440-7300 or www.getty.edu.