Compton Verney

· culture ·

We decided to have a day out at Compton Verney today: a very nice art gallery housed in a stately home in Warwickshire. The gallery part has is in a newly-built extension to the house, and is a lovely building in itself, but there's also a huge Capability Brown-designed parkland surrounding the house and gallery.

They have an exhibition on at the moment entitled, "Fatal Attraction: Diana and Actaeon - The Forbidden Gaze." Actaeon (if you don't know the myth -- I didn't) was a rather unfortunate hunter who came upon the goddess Diana and her fellow huntresses, bathing in a wood. Diana -- momentarily vulnerable and outraged that Actaeon had seen her nekkid and will probably boast to all his mates about it -- splashes water on him. He is instantly turned into a stag, whereupon Diana sets his own hunting hounds upon him, who tear him to pieces.

The exhibition examines the ways in which the naked (female) body has been portrayed in art, and the extent to which the viewer is complicit in some kind of forbidden, voyeuristic act. There were some very interesting pieces, from from the 15th Century or earlier to the present day. The classical depictions of the Diana and Actaeon myth are great, but I also loved some pencil sketches by Klimt of reclining semi-clothed women. Some of the artists seemed to have access to some rather interesting-looking women as models. A bronze of a nymph being leered at by a satyr showed a very well-built woman, with beefy biceps and a neck like a body-builder. The breasts and long hair seemed like a bit of an after-thought.

I don't usually like conceptual art, but I also enjoyed a piece by Fiona Banner, in which you see a video of her looking at a life model and writing a word portrait of the model's body, live. The canvas with the word portrait is displayed alongside the video. Conceptual art often seems to me to be a kind of one-hit wonder: once you've 'got' it, there's not much more to keep your interest. But this piece had a lot of different layers. I also liked the huge, staged photographs of Gregory Crewdson, including this one. They are very dramatic and cinematic, and printed so large that you can't look at them all in one go. You find yourself trying to make a story out of what's going on in the picture, and what might have happened just before.

Several of the rooms in the exhibition had warnings about the explicit content of their... contents, but I was quite glad to see that a few parents took their children in regardless. I overheard one mother and her 8 or 9 year old daughter having a very interesting and sensible discussion about the Fiona Banner piece. I think it's very important for kids to grow up understanding that there's no 'normal' size and shape for the human body, but an almost infinite variety. This exhibition had a good slice of that variety on display, from the aforementioned beefy bronze nymph, through plump, comfortable traditionally-built women, to thin women. It's probably also quite a good setting for a conversation about privacy and display.