I had put this on the back burner, but a recent article on Polixeni Papapetrou has prompted me to bring it forward. Polexini is an artist who got into the usual strife over taking nude photos of her daughter Olympia. This was all part of the Bill Henson furor and it erupted because Art Monthly Australia weighed into the debate by publishing one of Polixeni’s photos of Olympia on its cover.

Olympia with the 'offending' photo

The photo is only nude in a series based on the work of Lewis Carroll; in this case Beatrice Hatch by the Seaside. It is the only nude in a series titled Dreamchild from 2003

In the greater context of the naked child in art this image is mild. The pose is coy. Yet some of the extremists claimed this image was ‘sexualised’. Even more amazingly, the Australian Prime Minister of the day, Kevin Rudd, declared the image of Olympia ‘disgusting’ and raised the possibility of withdrawing the funding of Art Monthly. This was pure populist politics from an openly conservative Christian politician. It was also a display of his shameful ignorance.

Olympia would have none of it and bravely decided to speak out, telling Rudd that she was offended by his outburst.

Once again we have an example where the subject of the nude photo has spoken out in defence of the photo. Shouldn’t we listen?

Unfortunately apparently not. The critics argued that Olympia had somehow been brainwashed or coached by her parents. They could not allow the possibility that children might enjoy participating in the creation of art and have no problem with posing nude.

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4 Responses to The Naked Child in Art: Polixeni Papapetrou and Olympia Nelson

  1. hudsongodfrey says:

    How did Led Zeppelin ever get away with the cover of Houses of the Holy?


    • Ray says:

      It was not only Led Zeppelin. There are a number of album covers that include images of naked children.

  2. Ron says:

    What a wonderful site. I hadn’t seen the interview with Olympia before, thank you. I find it a bit amusing that Ms. Papapetrou got so much attention for this piece. Her few nudes of Olympia are quite conservative. Those who have a copy of the “Australia Art Monthly” issue in question will see that there are a few charming images of Olympia somewhat in the style of Sally Mann. Papapetrou is an educated woman and was ironically at that time more interested in the cultural accessories of childhood, most notably “Olymipia’s Clothes” which can be seen on her website.

    • Ray says:

      It was at the height of the panic and the baying crowds made it quite clear they didn’t like images of naked children, no matter how mild. Which is why I’m taking the time to catalogue the very many examples throughout art history – and even I’ve been surprised by how much is out there. One thing I’ve concentrated on is the direct comments by people who posed naked as children. The view of the moral panic was that it was harmful. The voices of the models directly contradict this. They enjoyed the process, love the photos and want people to see them.

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