FOR YOUR EYES ONLY at Kunsthal, Rotterdam

 In olden days, a glimpse of stocking,

Was looked on as something shocking
But now, God knows,

Anything goes.

Plus ça change . . .  NUDE PHOTOGRAPHY in Bath, Woods and Surf

Journalist and photography collector Wim de Jong has amassed what amounts to a social document – photographs apparently taken by men of their wives, girlfriends and mistresses – all of them in the nude or semi-nude. None of them can be classed as pornographic but might have been so at the time they were taken.

Most of the photos are small, snaps we used to call them, the size of pictures stuck in family albums, but these often fuzzy black and white photos would not have been stuck among pictures of babies and grannies. They would have been kept in a box, hidden in the attic or under the floorboards. They are of a time when owning camera was not as easy or cheap as now. Films were processed, usually by taking them to you local chemist shop. If your pictures of nude women were too revealing, not even pornographic by today’s standards, a shop would not hesitate to call the police, if only to cover themselves.

De Jong’s collection seems to come essentially from Germany with its early FKK – Freikörperkultur (the cult of doing everything in the nude) and from France. There is a clear and distinct difference between the photographs.

The German Hausfrau was often persuaded by her photographer to disrobe in unlikely places – perhaps they were not quite so Frei – a stark naked woman is climbing dry, leafless pine trees or is squatting in brushwood or sitting astride a large, sharp looking rock. It looks painful. Many featured wives nude or in transparent negligées next to Christmas trees. Some subjects are shown in what looks like the homes of very poor people, in kitchens with no more than rudimentary plumbing. Some rather sad women seem to not so much stand as hover or squat in outhouses or garages, shocking, dirty places where one would expect to discover a nude murder victim.

Once I had got over the novelty of this collection I no longer looked at the bodies, but at the faces and therein lay the shock as a woman for me. Most averted the face, shielded it with one hand, eyes cast to the ground. Only a few looked into the camera. Many looked drawn, worn out – only the man holding the camera was having a rather seedy, fun time here.

Some later photos from the mid-1960s were lighter in mood – a triptych of a naked pretty girl in a shabby kitchen making tea, waving a pot, a well-built young woman framed by a large houseplant, doing her best to look like a Roman marble statue. Another nude, possibly the only smiling one, posed on a child’s bicycle between an ailing pot plant and a decorated Christmas tree – fun after the kids had finally finished playing with their Christmas presents and been coaxed into bed with their new teddy bear.

The French photos are altogether different. Unlike their German practical, sporty counterparts, making the women about as unsexy as nude explorers in the forest undergrowth, here some of the French subjects were sensual, enjoying themselves, posing seductively. They wore lipstick, their hair was curled; they seemed altogether more complicit, some very beautiful, just having a little naughty fun, some even in their bosses’ offices or leaning out of a French window, bare bottom pointing at the camera which implied a ‘romantic love in the afternoon’ session in hotel rooms. A sequence of large photos features an elegant Gina Lollobrigida look-alike. She is taking her clothes off, one item per shot, suspender belts and all – in the early fifties there was a lot of stuff for women to take off.

In the exhibition hall there was subdued tittering in the air, visitors pointing at particularly weird pictures. Soon I felt that I was looking at portraits of women who had mostly been coerced into taking their clothes off, one or two brutally so.

Today many a teenage girl can, and sometimes does, innocently post her naked or near naked body to the world on Instagram or Facebook in the hope of getting ‘likes’.

I felt rather sad about these women. It is hard to judge now – were they reluctant participants in their husbands or boyfriend’s fantasies, were they exposed against their will as many of their faces amply demonstrated?

Now spectators are laughing at them which seems unfair.

To allay fears that someone might recognise their grandmother, Wim de Jong reassures the public in the Netherlands that none of the women are Dutch.  An important exhibition often disturbing, frequently sad and sometimes amusing, in a guilty sort of way.

There are parallels with the current trend of people taking risqué or provocative photos of themselves or friends on their phones and as such, proves that as many things in life, nothing every really changes.   Astrid Burchardt,  20th September 2020

For Your Eyes Only continues at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam until 7th February 2021