Do You Need to Be Naked to Truly Appreciate a Work of Art? We Joined a Nudist Museum Tour to Investigate

artnet News joins a group of naturists on a “clothes-optional” visit to the Towner Gallery.

Photo by David Owens for artnet News.
Photo by David Owens for artnet News.

Disclaimer: The following post contains nudity.

There are some things you don’t really notice about art galleries until you’re standing in one completely naked. When I visited the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne with a group of nudists on Saturday evening, I discovered that the lighting conditions, for one, are optimized for detailed viewing of every nook and cranny. Then there’s the temperature, kept low to conserve the art, but not ideal for preserving one’s natural body heat. But hey, at least indoors you don’t have to worry about sunburn or mosquito bites.

“Many people probably discover naturism on a nude beach abroad on a summer holiday and so associate it with sunbathing and skinny dipping,” says Philip Baker, the treasurer of the Eastbourne Naturist Swim Club, who organized the event in collaboration with British Naturism.

“In fact, naturists love to do the same things that everyone else does, but prefer to be naked,“ Baker explains. Visiting an art gallery was a natural choice for an activity, he says, as it’s “simply something a lot of people do.”

A determinedly unfazed gallery assistant named Michael, wearing a David Bowie T-shirt and jeans, welcomed a group of around 30 people to the space. Looking me straight in the eyes, he tells me it’s the first time he’s ever seen a group of naturists (i.e., nudists), but adds that he’s “open-minded.”

Not so for some of the other galleries Baker approached about the crawl, including Tate Britain, which ignored several requests to organize a naturist visit to its “All Too Human” exhibition. The Towner’s director, Joe Hill, however, was all ears.

Photo by David Owens for artnet News.

We thought it was a great idea,” Hill says, “as it’s important to us that the gallery is a safe space for all communities and that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy our exhibitions.”

 

“I Am Open and Undefended”

The attendees were a mixed bag of art buffs and others more interested in the social aspect of the day. Some revealed they had bared all in an art context before, having exposed themselves to the lens of the American artist Spencer Tunick for his mass naked landscape The Sea of Hull, when the northern English city was celebrating its year as the UK’s capital of culture.

“Events like this combine two passions: art and being naked,” Rika Evans, a retired member of the Eastbourne Borough Council, tells me. Evans says she was included in the debut 2017 photobook of the fashion photographer and artist Amelia Allen, Naked Britain, the result of two years shooting life in the UK’s naturist communities. Last November, the Herrick Gallery in London opened its doors for a naturist viewing of an exhibition of photos from Allen’s book.

Photo by David Owens for artnet News.

As it turns out, nude art viewings are not as uncommon as you might think.

Others in the group mention being invited to a 2013 show of nude art at Guerilla Galleries in Hackney, London, and attending shows by the naked performance artist Lucy Muse. In 2010, the Wellcome Collection in London also invited British Naturism to attend a clothes-optional tour of an exhibition about skin. Farther afield, they tell me, similar events had happened in Austria, Australia, and even California. In 2016, the artist Stuart Ringholt even offered naked tours of Art Cologne for more adventurous collectors.

At the Towner, an actor, Colin, tells me he’s new to naturism but describes himself as an art lover.

“I am absolutely loving the experience of absorbing painting and artwork naked,” he says as we admire religious scenes painted by the Impressionist artist Edward Stott, who often used local villagers in various states of undress as models for his paintings. “I am open and undefended,” Colin says. “My mind quiets, and I feel different cognitive and experiential vistas opening up to me.”

Photo by David Owens for artnet News.

Photo by David Owens for artnet News.

A Nude Perspective?

As we move through the galleries, I wonder what new perspectives my own uncensored state might be affording me. Upstairs, in an exhibition about aerial photography, I’m struck by a censored satellite image from the Belgian artist Mishka Henner, a bird’s eye view from Google Earth of a secure facility that the Dutch government had artfully pixelated for the sake of national security. I think about how technology enables us to share information more widely, and how those in power might rush to control what we can newly see. My mind turns to Facebook’s auto-censorship of Delacroix’s bare-breasted Liberty and other works from art history.

I spot Michael, the gallery assistant, who is recognizable by his pink Towner lanyard, but no longer by the Bowie shirt, which he has removed, along with the rest of his clothes. I want to give the guy a high five.

In a gallery devoted to the work of English painter and illustrator Eric Ravilious, I pause at a 1930s sketch of the studio of the British pattern and textile artist Enid Marx, in which an empty dress and various fabrics offer a portrait of the artist even though she is absent from the scene. I think, self-consciously, of my own striped yellow dress hanging on a rail in the hallway, and the nearby pile of crumpled underthings, and wonder what kind of portrait of me these things offered.

Photo by David Owens for artnet News.

But the visit was also enjoyed by some who were not naturally interested in art. Thirty-four-year-old Simon, who doesn’t consider himself a naturist or a big gallery-goer (and preferred not to be fully identified in this story) came to the event because he enjoys pushing himself past his comfort zone.

He says it’s actually easier to talk to people when you’re both naked because you have no clues about someone’s social status or work. At naked events, body-shaming is also out of the question. So too, is art-shaming, meaning someone might dare to venture ideas about the art they might otherwise have kept silent for fear of sounding stupid.

“Look at it this way, it can’t get much more embarrassing than this, so what’s the worst that could happen?” says Simon.

 

A Warm Reception for the Naked Session

Following the visit, a spokesperson for the Towner said the gallery would be interested in holding similar events in future. It’s certainly one way to engage new audiences in art, and the Towner could do with an attendance boost following a 50 percent cut in funding from the local council. The nudism angle has clear potential. Earlier this year, Paris’s Palais de Tokyo invited nudists to come to the museum for a one-off event, which attracted the interest of more than 30,000 people on Facebook.

After the Paris event, members of the city’s naturist association told artnet News they’d love the opportunity to visit other museums, name-checking the Musée de l’Homme, the Orsay, and the Quai Branly, among others. “Paris is not short on museums,” says the president of the association, Laurent Luft, before stating the top spot on his museum wish-list: “I always aim high, so it’s the Louvre!”

Photo by David Owens for artnet News.

Back in the UK, the Eastbourne club and British Naturism have already made plans for their next visit. In September, a group will visit the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings to avail themselves of a naked session in Henry Krokatsis’s SaunaKabin installation (essentially an art version of a sauna) in the gallery’s courtyard. They will also visit the Jerwood’s other exhibits, which include a work by the Turner Prize Winning artist Mark Wallinger titled The Human Figure in Space, a mirrored room installation inspired by the Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s magnum opus, tracking the intricacies of the mobile body, The Human Figure in Motion.

But why stop there? Julien Claudé-Pénégry, the Paris organization’s communications director told us he’d love to be able to visit any and all museums in the nude. Nudity in the museum, he insists, is nothing special, as “the body is one of the subjects most frequently used by artists.”

And it’s true. From cave paintings to the Bayeux Tapestry to performances by Marina Abramović, the naked body has been a fixture throughout art history. Perhaps the most surprising thing about my own experience stripping down in a gallery was how commonplace it felt. Maybe I would have felt differently if I were in a store or a movie theater or a parking lot. If public nudity is socially sanctioned anywhere, the gallery space has got to be on the top of the list.

See some more images from the visit below.

Additional reporting by Kate Brown.

Photo by David Owens for artnet News.

Photo by David Owens for artnet News.

Photo by David Owens for artnet News.

Photo by David Owens for artnet News.

Photo by David Owens for artnet News.

Photo by David Owens for artnet News.

Photo by David Owens for artnet News.

Photo by David Owens for artnet News.

Photo by David Owens for artnet News.

Photo by David Owens for artnet News.

Photo by David Owens for artnet News.

Photo by David Owens for artnet News.


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