A new exhibition is unveiling once-repressed depictions of nude models from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, laying bare taboos about an artistic tradition that continues to resonate in the present day, a curator says.

“A Model in the Studio” opens at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on Tuesday, featuring drawings, sketches and sculptures of live models in various states of undress rendered between 1880 and 1950 by more than 30 artists with ties to the city.

Jacques Des Rochers, who curated the exhibit, said the collection tracks the development of this academic and modernist discipline in Montreal, revealing insights about each artist with works that represent different phases of the creative process.

The museum’s curator of pre-1945 Quebec and Canadian art said many of the pieces are either new acquisitions or are exhibited for the first time after being shunned from public display or sanitized due to deeply conservative Canadian values of their day.

Evidence of these uptight attitudes about nudity are woven throughout the exhibition, Des Rochers said, which includes images of models draped to protect their decency and typical examples of censorship at the time, such as a publication that obscured a woman’s breast in a drawing by French artist Pierre Bonnard.

However, Des Rochers said, even as art appreciators of the time were shielded from man in his natural splendour, the academic study of the body was flourishing in the museum’s art school, which he described as a hub of Canada’s creative scene until its closure in 1977.

Students at the school were trained in the Parisian practice of mastering the human form in all of its stark glory under the direction of influential Canadian art teacher William Brymner, who is featured in the exhibition alongside a number of his pupils.

When the first evening arts course was opened in 1892, most of the nude models were male, Des Rochers said. Around the 1920s, women became the preferred subject of modern artists.

He points out five female artists are featured in the exhibit, including modernist Jori Smith, who he said brought a different perspective to capturing women’s bodies.

“We can critique the men who show the sensuality of women, but women did also the same for themselves,” he said. “We are showing the stereotype, but also the way the women answer with their own works (and) how they want to represent themselves.”

The exhibition arrives amid a debate in art circles about the use of live models as the #MeToo movement has raised concerns about the potential for exploitation.

Des Rochers said he was keenly aware of these sensitivities in curating the collection, which is why he used labels to ensure each work is framed in its appropriate context.

“I hope there is no controversy in this time of controversy,” he said. “To show the human body, especially the (female) body, sometimes could be problematic, but the way we show it, I don’t think it’s problematic at all.”

The body, Des Rochers said, is the most “human subject.” So to trace the evolution of the human form as it has brushed up against the cultural mores of the day teaches us not only about art history, but ourselves, he said.

“It explains (the body) as an existence,” Des Rochers said. “We cannot erase it.”

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