The Naked Truth – Interview with curator William Laffan

Features Editor Liz Hession sits down with curator William Laffan to discuss the Crawford Art Gallery’s explosive exhibition ‘Naked Truth’ – running until the 28th of October with free entrance

The Naked Truth exhibition, currently on show in the Crawford Art Gallery, is a showcase of the nude in Irish art, a collection described as ranging from ‘provocative’, ‘profound’, to ‘comic’, and ‘subversive’. Word of the exhibition’s appeal has been travelling like wildfire since its opening in July, drumming up a lively momentum, and encouraging a footfall of a thousand visitors a day during the gallery’s busiest summer weeks.

Curated by art-dealers and historians, William Laffan and Dawn Williams, the exhibition serves to disprove the popular art-historical hypothesis that the nude in Irish art hadn’t existed in any profound capacity beyond traditional formal study until the late 20th century.

When I sat down with curator William Laffan to discuss the genesis of Naked Truth, he explained that, rather than he and Dawn decidedly starting on a negative motive, the exhibition begun as an exclamation of the presence of the nude in Irish art through time. Laffan explained to me that the presence of the nude in Irish art has been too often condemned to fallacy by art historians and experts alike. As late as 2010, artist Mick O’Dea asserted that “even fundamentalist cultures have produced more nudes than we have”.

However, a visitor to the National Gallery on any given day should expect dozens of examples, Laffan added – even the sheer amount of choice that he and Dawn Williams had as curators served to decry that fallacy before the exhibition, which includes 80 pieces spanning several centuries, entered its beginning stages.

The study of the nude has been explored with multiple intents, from stylistic experiment, to issues of exhibitionism, expressionism, gender and sexuality, national identity, and the digital age, amongst others. I endeavoured to discuss these intents with Laffan and explore the presence of the nude in Irish art – because it certainly has been present. The body has been displayed as a deity, a fantasy, a weapon; it is fragmented, complete, titillating, political, playful, repulsive, and tender – all flavours of which the exhibition showcases with fantastical ambition.

Including works on generous loan from the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the RHA collections, and the Tate, and the National Gallery, the exhibition begins on the ground floor caverns of the lower gallery, leading you through, up, and out, to the first-floor upper gallery. “It really is a Crawford show”, Laffan commented on the spatial significance of the gallery. The space itself adds to the visitor experience, it’s architecture immediately inviting connotations of the new, and contemporary, merging with the old, the classical. The exposed brick walls of the original college meet an expansive, bright, glass exterior, allowing the architecture itself to dramatize the innovation that the exhibition presents, welcoming the traditional, but also the electric, modern, brave, and honest. “The nude [itself] is traditional”, Laffan pointed, but “it has continually lent itself to innovation”, and it was that idea of continuity that spurred the exhibitions curation.

‘Continuity’ rather speaks for itself in Naked Truth – however, that continuity was necessary to showcase, but not fundamental, Laffan explained. The element of variety was essential to the success of the exhibition, and both Laffan and Williams allowed for a broad scope to include all stylistic and thematic interpretations and uses of the nude. Such themes include the struggle for national identity, from the Act of Union through to the 2008 financial crash, Irish feminism, mortality and death, technology, and the nude in contemporary media.

Perhaps, we know Ireland to have been traditionally censorial, celibate, concealing, yet the celebration of the nude in this exhibition resolves certain elements of those blemishes on the Irish psyche, as well as acknowledge their potency. There is a certain historical dogma to the State’s past relationships to the arts, having censored literature, film, and theatre to an often-brutal extent. Surprisingly, Laffan explained that fine art has barely been censored at all, despite many instances of public objection. At a time when Irish culture is delving into a process of ‘looking back’, reclaiming areas of our heritage that have at times been shrouded in shame, the exhibition comes as a beacon of light in realising the fluctuations of those dark moments in history.

Perhaps a little vainly, I questioned the cultural context of the nude in a ‘New Ireland’, as perhaps, my generation would like to think of itself. Was it only now, at a time when sexual identity has developed so furtively into mainstream discourse, where bodily autonomy and sexuality are readily celebrated, that such an exhibition could be made possible?

Not necessarily, Laffan argued – one thing that the exhibition shows, without playing down any topicality that the genre bears in 2018, is that in every generation of artists, the nude has been developed to reflect many elements of that discourse through time. The exhibition proclaims from the outset that a linear transition from censorship to sexual liberation doesn’t quite apply to Irish art history, and that every ‘New Ireland’ knows concealment and liberation alike, Laffan pointed. The clear example is Dragana Jurisic’s 100 Muses, a showcase of a hundred nude women who each chose their own modelling positions, which was removed from the Dublin-based photographer’s personal Instagram earlier this year, before her nipples were edited with leaves.

Even some of the promotional posters for the exhibition placed near the gallery have been defaced, albeit rather politely, mischievously even, with the help of a permanent marker. Whether the act was committed as a means of personal engagement with Elizabeth Cope’s Giraffe Man (2006) or resulting from sheer offense taken toward the male genitalia, the phantom felt-tip remains anonymous, and ironically, their medium rather phallic.

The exhibition serves to challenge that generally accepted narrative of ‘New Ireland’ and ‘Old Ireland’ by displaying how sexuality and the Irish identity has been romantically intertwined as far back as the Act of Union, in Robert Fagan’s Portrait of a Lady as Hibernia. Another key piece is William Orpen’s Holy Well, kindly loaned from the National Gallery. Painted in 1916, the painting offers many interpretations, only one of which being a visual representation of the “redemptive power of sex for the new Ireland”, William explained. Of course, given the political and cultural legacy of the year, the historiography of Orpen’s work, combined with the use of the nude, rather enhances its political charge.

One of the most impressive elements of the exhibition were the many works of female artists, and female models, who challenged traditional representations of the female form by creating active, unromantic, formal nudes, and exploring concepts of the female gaze, and the female voyeur. A personal favourite of mine is Daniel Mark Duffy’s full-length portrait of the icon Nell McCafferty, which serves to challenge societal perceptions of sexuality, physicality, and age. Amanda Coogan’s many performance pieces display wonderful acts of reclamation and self-determination – in After Manzoni, she herself signs her own naked body with her own name, reclaiming her “corporeal autonomy”. Elsewhere, Alice Maher’s The Sphinx, in elegant, intimate watercolour delicately confronts issues of motherhood, while Dorothy Cross’s incredibly striking Worm Hole deifies the female form to confront gender, religion and the iconography of the human body.

When I asked Laffan what some of his favourite pieces in the exhibition were, he highlighted the spirited, joyous, mischievous elements that the exhibition have provided in works such as Elizabeth Cope’s Giraffe Man, the poster image of the exhibition, and William Jones’s Girl Showing Her Bottom an early 18th century piece, suggested to be a private commission. While many of Cope’s pieces are more foreboding, the “luscious male nude” as it has been described in Giraffe Man, abreast a fantastic blast of rich colour, injects the visitor experience with jubilant aroma from the outset.

The exhibition, in one word, is fun, and has been attracting more fun as its showcase continues – the Irish comedian Tara Flynn will take to the Crawford on the 21st of September for an event which will include an “irreverent, alternative tour” of Naked Truth, combining the natural playfulness of many of the art-works with her own style of feminist comedy. It’s right on our doorstep and is firmly taking its place in this year’s Irish Nude News, alongside an Irish world record for the largest ever skinny dip, and the nation’s first ever nudist beach, as one of the most exciting cultural events of the year.