Mary Beard’s feminist angle and enthusiasm for the subject made a potentially dry art history lesson incredibly watchable

Mary Beard at the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge (Photo: BBC)

Mary Beard’s Shock Of The Nude, 9 pm, BBC Two ★★★★

If you’ve ever wondered what classicist Mary Beard would be like on a hen do, then look no further than this documentary about the nude in art, the objective of which was to find out when art ends and pornography begins. To no-one’s surprise, when she joined a group of excitable hens for a life drawing class, she was a delight – gung-ho, beret on, easel poised, ready to capture the male model in front of her.

Beard’s enthusiasm for her subject shone in every moment of this investigation. As she traversed the European cities of Florence, Paris, Bavaria and the less glamorous Manchester looking at the naked human form via sculpture and art, Beard was intent on placing those responsible for the nudes in the frame, and asking how artists got away with creating such smut for so many years.

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A program of this variety is usually relegated to BBC Four, but Beard’s popularity as an approachable yet still knowledgeable teacher warrants her a primetime billing on BBC Two. Which likely meant the program was under pressure to feel relevant to a wider, more mainstream audience. With the exception of Beard’s often unnecessarily academic language – 10 points to anyone who knows what “concatenation” means off the top of their heads – it was a job well done, thanks to the discussion of recognizable works such as Michaelangelo’s David and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. Welcome, too, was the inclusion of an LGBTQ+ perspective, as Beard explained that paintings of Saint Sebastian were often sexualized by the male artists who painted him.

Mary Beard peeks under the fig leaf in new BBC2 series Shock of the Nude (Photo: Lion TV)

In the wrong hands, this subject could have become sleazy, or worse, boring. Beard’s frequent injection of humor – I challenge anyone not to laugh at the renaming Courbet’s The Origin of the World as “Jeanette’s P***y” – not only made Shock Of The Nude easily watchable but also feel fitting of its somewhat controversial subject.

In the end, Beard’s investigation told a familiar story about the objectification of female bodies. While naked men are often depicted as incidentally nude, women are painted as accidentally naked – giving the artist and those who enjoy the piece an excuse to look at it without fear of being thought of as deviant.

As for the debate of art v porn? It appears titillation is in the eye of the beholder.


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