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The disturbing power of the nude

An attack on Gauguin's Two Tahitian Women shows the ancient art of the nude still has the power to provoke

The art of Paul Gauguin is "evil" according to the woman who has attacked his 1899 painting Two Tahitian Women in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Susan Burns pummelled the painting in the Gauguin exhibition that has toured there from Tate Modern. Luckily it was protected by a Plexiglass shield. "I feel that Gauguin is evil," she apparently told police after the incident. "He has nudity and is bad for the children. He has two women in the painting and it's very homosexual."

Attacks on art are always horrible and rarely have any interesting content. Before overreacting to this one, we should note that Burns is also reported to have said she was from the CIA and had a radio in her head. We should also refrain from suggesting that since Two Tahitian Women normally hangs quite happily and unassailed in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, this seems like a case of the rest of the US being more uptight than Manhattan. Of course no such glib meanings can be found.

What is interesting is that once again, a great work of art has been singled out by an attacker because of its nudity and eroticism. Gauguin's painting joins the Rokeby Venus in London's National Gallery, slashed by a suffragette in 1914, and Rembrandt's Danaë in the Hermitage, attacked with acid in the 1980s, as powerful examples of the nude in painting that have endured violent assault over the years. Luckily the Gauguin was not damaged as these masterpieces were.

I am fascinated by such disturbing demonstrations of the potency and currency of the nude, a genre of art born in ancient Greece, revived in the Renaissance and still practised currently. If painting is seen by some people today as an outmoded, tame, conservative art, how can a painting of a naked body still enrage to this extent?

I think the painted or sculpted nude's power to shock and offend is proof that high art is still a living force. I would go further. In his famous 1970s television series and book Ways of Seeing, the critic John Berger drew analogies between the painted nude and modern exploitation of women's bodies. But in an age when new media supposedly have painting on the run, that argument works both ways. It is startling that paintings can work on the same level as dirty photographs – that fine art can so provoke and disgust some beholders.

The nude troubles people for a variety of reasons, from religious to political. I have no ideological view about it at all; I see no reason to "defend" it. I just love the fact that we can still be troubled and angered, or seduced, by this ancient art. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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