The human body, particularly unclothed, is one of the oldest subjects in the history of art. From prehistoric cave-drawings, to Michelangelo’s David, to Cezanne’s bathers, to Helmut Newton’s Amazonian fantasies, the nude—ranging from the beautiful to the fetishistic to the grotesque—has inspired an incredibly diverse array of artisans working in an equally staggering variety of mediums.
So when Mona Kuhn realized that she wanted to photograph naked people, she felt, well, intimidated. “It was a little daunting,” says the 47-year-old artist from her Los Angeles studio. “It’s been done so much; how do I do it differently?”
An exhibition of Kuhn’s latest work, opening tomorrow at Flowers gallery in New York City, demonstrates how the Brazilian-born photographer takes one of art’s most popular tropes and makes it wholly her own. The Bordeaux Series, which runs through March 24, is a wonderfully rich show, a personal exploration of place and how it relates to the human body and soul.
Kuhn’s previous two series also zeroed in on specific communities. The first, the hazy, impressionistic Evidence, featured a naturist colony in France; the second, Native, Brazil’s sultry young things. Bordeaux has an even more intimate setting: the artist’s rural summer home outside of Bordeaux, France. “It’s very remote; there’s no electricity so we have to use oil lamps and it’s surrounded by these mysterious woods. It is very romantic,” says Kuhn.
The Bordeaux Series documents the artists, friends and neighbors who have passed through Kuhn’s summer cottage over the past four years. The portraits, all nudes shot in the same sparse room with rustic wooden floors and a printed red backdrop, are classical in composition, but radically egalitarian. Their subjects include pregnant women, parents with their children, elderly folk with sagging body parts and papery skin and chiseled, athletic young men. “I thought it would be wonderful to do a very traditional project where I would just photograph each person in plain portraiture,” she says, “as if I were a small town photographer photographing my small community.”
The exhibition at Flowers includes about 25 works from the Bordeaux Series, including some of Kuhn’s dreamy black-and-white landscapes of the forests surrounding her house. The result is not just a collection of gorgeous nudes, but an examination of humanity’s relationship with nature and the ways in which the body can provide a gateway into one’s soul. “Mona is one of the best artists I’ve been able to work with,” says Brent Beamon, director of Flowers’ New York space. “She has this innate ability to bring out such beauty in her subjects. She takes their feelings, their personalities, their inner beauty and brings them out to the exterior.”
Kuhn chalks that up to an intense devotion to get to know her subjects, as well as her feminine approach to the body. “I don’t really want [my photography] to be about the male gaze,” she says. “It’s about the essence of a person: This is who we are; we are human beings. That’s what I try to bring to my photos.”