Lecture: Kay Kane on the restoration of Venus
The Atelier was very pleased to host a lecture by Dr Kay Kane, in the wake of her recent trip to California where she presented at The Representational Art Conference (TRAC). Kay is a formidable painter, producing slowly-evolving works on a very large scale, most usually inspired by the rural Queensland landscape of her childhood. She paints from her Salisbury Studios studio. She also teaches at the Queensland College of Art (QCA) and formerly taught at the independent Balmoral Arts Academy. Her influence as an educator is widely felt in our sunny State.
The paper Kay presented, The restoration of Venus: The nude, beauty and modernist misogyny, attends to the question of beauty in art, specifically as embodied in the female nude. Through this question she seeks to address her broader concern with the value of representation in art. Her paper is the culmination of the research she undertook during the painting of her impressively grand five-panel work The restoration of Venus, named in direct response to a book by Wendy Steiner that proved indispensible to that research: The exile of Venus. Steiner’s thesis is, broadly, that Venus—beauty—was shunned in art in the twentieth century, and that there follows from this all sorts of implications for womankind in her entanglement with beauty. Kay’s writing and painting seeks to redress this malign on beauty and on the utterly lovely, sensual, and not in every instance prurient female form.
Since her student days Kay has both been fascinated with the skills evident in representational art and inexorably attracted to the nude. ‘This predilection,’ she confesses in her paper (Kane, 2010: 12), ‘was rather mysterious even to myself.’ As an undergraduate student at the Central School of Art and Design in London in the seventies, she found both of these persuasions difficult to reconcile to the climate around her, and increasingly found her interests leading her back to the old master paintings on display at the National Gallery of London. It has in many ways been her lifelong project to explain and to defend these inclinations and to further these traditions, and her work has doggedly clung to both representation and to the admiration of the beautiful nude.
Pressing concerns about the suppressive male gaze and painting’s increasing deference to theory were only part of the climate in which Kay found herself as a fledgling painter. Modernism was not simply indifferent to the nude, but openly antagonistic. In contrast to her desire to render ‘the nude, whether male or female, in ways that emphasised an ancient idea of beauty,’ as had the ancient Greeks, the modernism that had captivated the twentieth century preferred to subject the nude to unsettling ‘deformations and distortions’ (p. 11) more in the virtue-obsessed Christian tradition. Steiner’s diagnosis is that a terrible paradox lies at the heart of the modern: modern art is intentionally ugly, even though beauty is central to art and to our lived reality. Throughout the twentieth century, art has chased after the thrill of repulsion, the shock of the new, and the confrontation of the awful truth. Art must be subversive, Kay was admonished by a fellow artist—at least, if it is to have any value; but something in this rang false when she considered art that had been prepared to be ‘consoling, inspiring, confirming, tragic or joyful’ (p. 5).
Kay’s explanation develops Steiner’s, dividing this subversive modernist urge into two related paths: One embraces beauty only insofar as it lends itself to ‘an ideal of purity in increasing abstraction and minimalism,’ while the other openly rejects beauty and declares all truth ugly, demanding that meaningful art must reflect this ugliness (p. 6). Both trajectories had little sympathy for the female nude, who, as Steiner (2001: 18) describes, was abased as ‘a monster, an animal, an exotic, a prostitute … in the name of purity and civilized values.’ In stark contrast to the ancient Greek reverence for the nude and the classical ideals embodied by it, Kay notes the rather frightening Judeo-Christian provenance of the nude and its fraught relations with purity, temptation and judgment, a suspicion carried on by modernism. Indeed—the first Judeo-Christian nude is somewhat chillingly Eve (Kane, 2010: 26).
The female form, argues Kay, should be alternately venerated and feared. This is, for her, epitomised in Velázquez’s ‘Rockeby Venus’ (Venus at her toilet), at once alluring and in control. Becoming acquainted with this painting during her time in London, Kay considers her the ‘finest nude,’ a ravishing portrayal that meets the commissioner’s brief (most likely that of appealing to a voyeuristic male gaze) but which also transcends it. We are not simply permitted to indulge in her supple flesh, but we are confronted with her self-aware gaze peering solemnly back at us, quietly letting us know she is conscious of her power. The magic, Kay explains, is that this painting, in its exquisite beauty, does not diminish either the model or the viewer. And thus can beauty be nourishing, and dignifying, and powerful.
The desire for beauty and our attunement to it, Kay argues (p. 23), have never gone away, however modernism has punished us with ugly truths and demanded virtue in place of indulgence and illusion. Rather, our hunger for beauty resurfaced in popular culture—and unlike Velázquez’s Venus, the female form has suffered all sorts of abuse and vulgarisation because of it. The exile of Venus, goddess of love, she argues, is symptomatic of a greater malady: the exile of Eros—of love—in our modern culture. Our rejection of beauty, she suggests (p. 23), may be connected with our malnourished modern souls, and even ‘a reflection on … the lived environment that we have built for ourselves, which is often purposefully ugly in its waste and exploitation of the natural environment.’ Rather than forcing our attention on the ugliness of life we might, as Nietzsche suggested, embrace the ‘illusory beauty of art’ and coax Eros back into our lives.
‘Steiner helped me to an awareness that my work was a vehicle for a larger intention,’ Kay explains (p. 19): ‘a restatement of the importance of beauty.’ In a broader appeal to Eros, Kay rather hopefully and boldly places the female nude—no less than twenty-three of them—in the Queensland landscape, on a grand scale, in an effort to reinstate the dignity and moving power of Venus, and to celebrate that impulse to beauty that never left us. Her five-panel painting, The restoration of Venus, is intentionally traditional in subject and in setting because in deliberately looking backwards, Kay strives to say something about the permanence of love and of beauty to the human condition.
As for representation in art: Her conclusions on this matter are simply that each artist must be responsible for her response to reality as she perceives it. If visual art institutions, unlike those that teach our sister arts of music and literature, neglect to equip their students with the tools to notate a response to our lived experience, students will either be forced to ‘play the art game’ or will suffer disillusionment at the shallow ideologies they have been offered instead. Kay fiercely believes that representation in art continues to be relevant and important to teaching and learning because it equips students for that encounter with the world: it prepares one to see order and to impose order.
‘I know I can be, and should be, true to my own experience of reality,’ Kay concludes (p. 29). ‘If I seek beauty in my own work it is because it is there in the world to be found.’
Kane, Kay. 2010. The restoration of Venus: The nude, beauty and modernist misogyny. Queensland College of Art, Griffith University (Doctor of Visual Arts exegesis).
Steiner, Wendy. 2001. Venus in Exile: The rejection of beauty in 20th-Century art. University of Chicago: Chicago.
Lectures are held at the end of every five-week pose, just before a well-earned celebratory BBQ. Wine, cheese and a respectably charred dinner are provided for all guests, though extra plates of goodies are always welcome. You’ll definitely hear of the next lecture on our Facebook page.