Sex in the City at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
Article by Anna Lowe.
As summer temperatures soar in Buenos Aires, you’d be forgiven for removing a few layers of clothing. But venture into the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and things get a whole lot steamier in their sizzling new exhibition of erotic nudes from the 19th century. ‘La seducción fatal’ (The Fatal Seduction) is an openly sexual show where over 70 works explore the common classical motif of male desire and admiration for the female body. The exhibition includes themes such as Eroticism, Violence, Captives, Nudes, Voyeurism and The Femme Fatale.
On entering the exhibition visitors are presented with a delicate mythological watercolour in a circular frame. Eros and Psyche is by Parisian Edouard Dubufe and was acquired by the MNBA’s first director, Schiaffino, in 1906. When the MNBA first opened Argentine artists admired the French classical style and aimed to replicate and collect as much as possible. Thus many of the works on display (of which 90% are from the museum’s own collection) are from the French Academy. Yet there are also French works by famous rule breakers who refused to meet the traditional standards of beauty and sensuality: a little Rodin study of his shockingly lustful sculpture ‘The Kiss’; and Manet’s bold ‘Surprised Nymph’ which portrays his rather portly Dutch lover with realistic features like cellulite.
Although much of this exhibition emerges from Europe, erotic art was given new significance in Argentina. They abandoned the often soft and refined eroticism of French artists in favour of stronger gestures. Pueyrredon only painted two nudes and is more famous for his landscapes of 19th century Buenos Aires. Yet here in ‘The Bath’ (1865) his cheerful housekeeper is depicted in strikingly naturalistic detail. Opposite this, we see Sivori’s ‘Maid Awakening’ – a bulky, imperfect body with distractingly ugly feet. This realistic study was so risqué it had to be viewed behind a curtain when first shown in Buenos Aires in 1887. Later in the 20th century the Argentine fashion for oriental styles can be seen in Gregorio Nagui’s ‘Laca China’. As well as painting, Nagui designed theatre and film sets and presents a beautifully staged nude with richly decorated oriental cushions and coloured little background characters.
One of the most unique things about the exhibition, and something easy to miss, is the separate room dedicated to erotic publications, music, photos and some of the first explicit film to be shown in Argentina (provided by the National Library). These objects provide a context for the paintings and begin to explain the public taste for erotic art. In the context of 19th century Buenos Aires, a city with emerging mass culture, new mediums such as prints, luxury magazines and adverts, political cartoons, films and of course the milonga and tango, were prominent and often considered pornographic and salacious. Yet symbols from these cultural forms influenced both the popular classes and the more typical ‘high culture’ of the elites.
For some visitors the pervasive misogynistic tone, obsessed with female flesh, may feel oppressive. For example, Uruguayan painter Juan Manel Blanes is famous for painting military scenes but here, in ‘Devil, the World and the Flesh’, he presents a female nude recoiling in fear surrounded by objects of vice. This woman is Blanes’ mistress Carlota Ferreira, and the painting is his imagined revenge after she ran off with his son. Nevertheless, while this exhibition certainly raises issues of feminism and the glamourisation of sexual inequality, it is also true that often the painting of nudes allowed women to exert control in painting for the first time. An example is Juana Romani who began as a model for French painter Jean-Jacques Henner but because of her natural talent, became his student. Her self-portrait ‘Young Oriental’ is an honest confrontation of sexuality – a blank, unemotional expression and small imperfect breasts.
‘The Fatal Seduction’ at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is sure to be a big Summer hit. It is an unashamedly beautiful and provocative show, but also one that tells the story of early Argentine artists and their interaction and ruptures with Europe.
- Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
- Av. Del Libertador 1473