The shock of the old

We've got used to the idea that the half-life of daring is very short - and particularly so when it comes to images of nudity. After 10 years what was once scandalous becomes merely risque, and after another 10 it's just part of the general cultural noise.

Thomas Sutcliffe | 26 March 2004 | The Independent


Members of the Women's Institute strip off for their annual fund-raising calendar and every other billboard displays images that would once have resulted in prosecution. So it feels a little unusual to come across pictures of nudes that are now nearly 60 years old and yet still give off a quite distinct frisson of audacity. And yet early nudes in the V&A's new retrospective exhibition of the photographs of Bill Brandt do just that.

I'm not talking here about his famous images of naked bodies seen against the English landscape or much later images tricked out with fetishistic accessories - but about his very first forays into nude photography in the second half of the Forties. In a series of deep-focus shots, heavily influenced by the cinematography of Citizen Kane, Brandt created a set of enigmatic domestic interiors - in which the furniture is almost as suggestive as the naked women in the foreground.

Curiously, if you were to draw up a rough spectrum of sexual decorum, these images occupy a space almost exactly in between Brandt's other nudes. They're neither as self-consciously aestheticism as those in which the body is seen as a kind of human geology nor as explicitly sexual as those that feature binding lengths of electric cable and hoods. The body isn't reduced to a Henry Moore sculpture, as it is in some of the landscape images, but it isn't remotely full frontal either, as some of Brandt's later images are. Pubic hair - the triangular banner of representational candour - is still shielded from the lens. And yet it's these images that still seem to have a live current running through them.

Part of the reason for this is that they still give off a faint whiff of antique pornography - the gamey scent that the "art nude" was meant to conceal. Brandt was making these images at a time when there was still something a little "Continental" about the photographic nude, something redolent of Gitanes fumes and men with obscene postcards in their coat linings. Magazines such as Lilliput had discovered that a top-dressing of aesthetics was very helpful in getting naked female bodies in between the covers of an above-the-counter publication - so much so that the word "artistic" became a euphemistic guarantee of sexual content.

But Brandt's images knowingly push the nude back towards the shabby and the covert. There's nothing healthy or efficient about them at all - no pretense that this is a natural condition to which the sitters have gratefully returned. No pretense either that they don't know full well that they are conspicuously naked.



The Policeman's Daughter is a good case in point. A girl sits on a chair in a Victorian room - lit with something like a floodlight that throws long shadows back to touch the bed in the background. You can see out through the window at the back but it hardly counts as daylight - more one of those Magritte twilights. In an intriguing new illustrated biography of Brandt, Paul Delany points out that the title is a kind of confessional allusion - a reference to a sado-masochistic novella by Swinburne that had been published in one of the magazines Brandt worked for.

But the title surely does something else too. It gives us the same suggestive nudge as the phrase readers' wives - a reminder that these are real women, with connections to men who might feel differently about their nudity than the viewer does - or even more teasingly in this case - might be completely unaware of it.

Another picture, The Woodman's Daughter, apparently makes a complicated reference to a JE Millais painting, which itself comes with a covert back-story about rape and paternal revenge. But even a viewer who doesn't know this will get the tension in the picture - a look on the model's face that suggests a fear of being caught, leaning up against the panelling and too far from her clothes for expectation.

Delany argues that it's Brandt's private fantasies that fuel these pictures - but it's their very circumspection that opens them up for others too. The later "liberated" nudes are far more explicit about the photographer's own desires, but they feel like dead batteries now. They look a little like Helmut Newton's tedious exercises in sexual suggestion - the chief disability of which is that they won't actually risk suggestiveness at all, but insist on getting everything out in the open. The earlier pictures still tingle with electrical potential - and after nearly 60 years that's quite impressive.

Copyright 2004 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.