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Classic story of guilt, sex and violence; CULTURE Terry Grimley visits Compton Verney's latest exhibition and reflects on voyeurism in art.

Byline: Terry Grimley

Titian's painting Diana and Actaeon was saved for the nation last month for an eye-watering pounds 50 million. It's obviously quite a good painting. Buthowmany ofusknowwho Diana and Actaeon were?

Their story comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Actaeon, a dedicated huntsman, chances upon Diana, the goddess of hunting and chastity, bathing with her companions, and Is transfixed by her beauty. In revenge for his intrusion, Diana transforms him into a stag, and he Is hunted down and torn to pieces by his own dogs.

It's a classic story of sex, guilt and violence which naturally appealed to the old masters and their patrons. The exhibition Fatal Attraction: Diana and Actaeon - the Forbidden Gaze, just opened at Compton Verney, explores Its treatment by a variety of artists, broadening its scope to reflect related stories and the theme of voyeurism In general.

The exhibition was organised by the Museum Kunst Palast, Dusseldorf In association with Compton Verney.

Titian's painting, nowjolntly owned by the National Gallery, London, and the National Gallery of Scotland, is not here, - although It is represented by a printed transparent curtain which marks the entrance to the exhibition.

In Its absence the star exhibit is probably Veronese's version of Diana and Actaeon, dating from about 1560 (and therefore contemporary with Titian's), which Is on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But the exhibition as a whole features many famous names, from Durer and Rembrandt to Picasso, Klimt, Schlele and controversial American photographer Robert Map-plethorpe.

The various treatments of the Diana and Actaeon myth raise at once the essentially voyeuristic and some might say hypocritical nature of art. Ovid's story may be a cautionary tale, but a myth Is just a myth - no-one has actually ever

Opposite: detail from a work by Eglen Hendrick van der Neer been turned Into a stag for looking at a naked woman. So the subject offers the perfect alibi for depicting and enjoying the naked female form - no fewer than 14 of them In the case of a painting by Jean Francois de Troy.

In this case Actaeon has already been transformed and is exiting, canvas left, pursued by his dogs, but different artists choose different moments In the story.

Jan Breughel the Elder and Jacob Backer, who collaborated on a very small painting, show Actaeon only just coming Into view in the background, while the modesty of the classically-posing bathers is preserved from the viewer by some fortuitously placed drapes.

Veronese, who limits himself to just three female nudes, chooses to show Actaeon in mid-transformation, with a stag's head surmounting a human body, as does Jean Mlgnon in an etching from the mld-16th century.

It's hard to believe, but there are even some artists who prefer to pass on the sex altogether and cut straight to the violence, as In Theodor Matham's ferocious etching of the transformed Actaeon being ripped apart.

Moving on, the exhibition looks at some parallel myths, Including that of Susanna and the Elders, In which the voyeurs attempt unsuccessfully to use their respected position In society to extract sexual favours from the bather on whom they spy.

Moving Into kinkier territory, there are the stories of men like Candaules, King of Lydia, and the Duke of Orleans, who got a kick from showing off the naked bodies of their wives and lovers to other men - stories Illustrated here in paintings by Delacroix and the extraordinary William Etty, an artist on his own In the early Victorian period in his frank treatment of the erotic.

There Is a twist in the tale of Candaules when his wife Nyssia, discovering his plot to show her off secretly to his general Gyges, insists that Gyges kills either her husband or himself.

This brings us to the more general Issue of women being objects of male contemplation in art - what feminist criticism has dubbed "the male gaze". The 86 year-old Picasso pleaded guilty as charged with his series of etchings known as the 347 series, begunin 1968, Inwhichhe depicts him self as the artist, in Velazquez-like fancy dress, gazing at the nude model. Two examples are shown here.

The drawings by Schiele and Klimt represent two bodies of work famous for their frank depiction of female sexuality but the images of sex produced by artists in the Weimar Republic could almost serve as aversion therapy for lechery: it would be difficult to Imagine anything more anti-erotic than the bored, shuffling women In Max Beckmann's Naked Dance.

While the South African painter Mar-lene Dumas recycles Images from the trashy end of the erotic spectrum, photographer Balthasar Burkhard's' large black and white photograph The Origin of the World pays tribute to Courbet's 1866 painting of the same title, a blunt close-up view of anonymous female genitals.

There is more subtlety In two large colour photographs by Gregory Crewd-son, who uses the female nude as just one disorientating element In his subverted images of American suburbia.

Among the various works by contemporary female artists the most striking Is by Fiona Banner. She was vldeoed making a study of a life model - not In the conventional form of a painting or draw-Ing, but In a handwritten description of the nude woman as she gradually shifts positions. The video Is displayed alongside the completed text.

Whether intentionally or not, the setup recalls Laura Knight's 1913 half-length portrait of herself painting from the nude model, which in a way was a feminist statement of its time.

Fatal Attraction: Diana and Actaeon - The Forbidden Gaze is at Compton Verney, near Kineton, Warwickshire, until May 31 (Tue-Sun and Bank Holiday Mon llam-5pm; admission pounds 8, pounds 6 concessions, family pounds 18).

The subject offers the pefect alibi for depicting and enjoying the naked female form

CAPTION(S):

Albrecht Durer's Artist Drawing a Naked Woman; Opposite: detail from a work by Eglen Hendrick van der Neer
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 31, 2009
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