Peep Show: A Tender Exploration of Intimacy in Art

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Resting Model, 1839Constantin Hansen, photography by Ole Haupt, courtesy of Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

Denmark’s National Gallery presents a new exhibition dedicated to closeness in all its guises – from the romantic and the platonic, to the physical and the emotional

“Something very important happens in the 18th century,” the National Gallery of Denmark says of its new exhibition. “Having mainly painted historical, mythological or representative subjects up until this point, artists have now begun to be interested in the realm of the private and intimate. A realm that was usually kept hidden from others, accessed only by one’s very closest circle: a sleeping sister on a sofa, a child’s embrace, a peep into a living room or bedchamber.” It’s this powerfully personal about-turn which inspired the institution’s new exhibition, Closer – Intimacies in Art: a show which will examine the treatment of intimacy, in all of its many forms, across a period of 200 years from 1730 to 1930.

The show considers all areas of this most tender of subjects – from private spaces and intimate exchanges, to those soft, sweet words whispered in a turned ear. Its examples aren’t always those most obvious ones, however. Take Jean-Siméon Chardin’s Soap Bubbles, for example – a dark, moody early 18th-century canvas depicting a young boy balancing a shimmering bubble, precariously, from the end of a straw. “The boy blowing a bubble with such care is deeply engrossed in his endeavour, a fact which gives the work a private and introspective feel,” the museum comments. “The work denies us access – it informs us that our presence is inappropriate and disruptive. We might breathe too hard, causing the bubble to burst.” The innate fragility and intense focus in the portrait lend it an air of transience – as the bubble bursts, so too will the young boy, and his even younger spectator, disperse of their own innocence.

Other pieces in the show, however, are more self-evident: take George Hendrik Breitner’s black and white photograph Two Women on a Bed, depicting two lithe, naked girls in the throes of love, or Vilhelm Hammserhøi’s arresting, softly illuminated portrait of a half-naked girl gazing shyly away – his flesh tones eerily accurate and strangely sensuous. Most surprisingly of all is the visceral effect that such interruptions into these personal scenes create: we play the role of the voyeur, gazing through the windows of a gallery wall into the scenes within.

“Hinged on the back of quite innocuous-looking paintings you will find depictions of erotic aspects of intimacy that leave little to the imagination, and which are shown publicly for the first time ever at this exhibition,” the gallery tells us, creating the sense of exhibition as a sensual peep-show, rather than as a selection of cold, removed canvases. Moreover, the display will include pieces that have never before been displayed, by such masters as Munch and Bonnard. If ever an art exhibition promised to help one reevaluate our time-honoured ideas about intimacy, this is it.

Closer – Intimacies in Art runs from February 11 until May 8, 2016, at the National Gallery of Denmark.