Interview: Hannah Gadsby on art, and her new shows
Hannah Gadsby at the National Gallery of Scotland

Hannah Gadsby manages to make serious points about body image in art in her Fringe shows by not taking it seriously at all, finds Susan Mansfield

Hannah Gadsby at the National Gallery of Scotland

[Hannah Gadsby at the National Gallery of Scotland. Picture: Ian Rutherford]

“That,” says Hannah Gadsby, pointing a finger at a small area of the painting in front of us, “is the reason I can’t be an art historian.” We’re in the National Gallery of Scotland, a collection I’ve seen countless times, but until now I’ve never noticed the farting dragon.

The painting is The Descent from the Cross, a triptych by Flemish artist Joos Van Cleve from the early 16th century. On the left hand panel, St Margaret of Antioch holds a dragon on a lead (part of her legend is her victory over the devil in the form of a dragon), and there’s no doubt about what it’s doing. Its tail is raised and sparks are issuing from its backside.

“What is that doing there?” muses Gadsby, whose sharp wit and deadpan delivery have made her one of Australia’s most promising stand-up comics. “It’s obviously farting, it’s got a feather up there or something, and it’s not an accident, it would have taken the artist a long time to paint that.

“I couldn’t be an art historian because I can’t get past things like that.”

She has, however, found a way to combine her art history training with stand-up, doing comedy lectures on art: Mary Contrary, about representations of the Virgin Mary, and a new one for the Fringe this year, Nakedy Nudes. She has also made recently a documentary on art for Australian TV. It’s clear from the minute we walk into the gallery that she is not only very funny but extremely knowledgeable about her subject.

“I walk a fine line. It would be easy to take the piss without imparting any information and getting just as many laughs, but I like to make some of this stuff accessible because it’s really interesting. There is maybe less reverence, but still respect for the subject. I enjoy writing jokes about art, making serious points with a punchline.”

The most famous nude in the National ­Gallery of Scotland is probably Titian’s Venus Rising from the Sea, acquired for the Galleries in 2003 in a deal worth GBP11million. The picture shows the idealised woman of the 17th century, sensually wringing the sea water out of her long hair. “She’d be a Venus impudique, because she’s not really trying to cover herself up,” says Gadsby. “She would fit into the section of my show called the slut nude.”

The revival of classical and mythological themes during the Renaissance meant an explosion of nudes in art, after the Christian iconography of medieval times in which nudity was frowned upon. “They were having a great time with the nude because it was just so not OK for so many years,” says Gadsby. “They trawled ancient mythology for any nude they could find.”

However, in ancient Greece – and to some extent Rome – male nudes were much more common than female ones. “Their cities were covered in naked men, idealised bodies everywhere – imagine those poor guys, they would have complexes like most women have today. Being naked (for men) was OK in a lot of places, in the gymnasium, exercise grounds, bath houses. Bath houses would have been full of mosaics of really fit looking blokes.”

Speaking of which, our eye is drawn to the picture next to Venus, Bassano’s The Adoration of the Kings. While the magi are presenting their gifts to the Christ child in the left-hand of the painting, Gadsby points to the bottom right where a servant is bending over to do up a bag, displaying his behind. “That’s a right little bottom, a prime real estate part of this painting. There’s no real need for that to be there.”

Art reveals contradictory attitudes to the body. Often, nakedness is made to look like an accident, what Gadsby describes as a “wardrobe malfunction”, a slip of drapery to reveal more than the artist really intended. Venus in Veronese’s painting Venus, Cupid and Mars is clutching a drape around her, but it has slipped to reveal her breasts. in Paris Bordon’s Venetian Women at their Toilet, one woman’s dress has strategically slipped. “Interesting that it happens much more with women,” says Gadsby. “There’s never an accident with men.”

Later, however, we do find a male “wardrobe malfunction” in a painting of four male nudes by Perugino, possibly once part of a larger picture showing the court of Apollo. One is holding a piece of ornamental woodwork in front of his nethers, the others make do with wisps of gauzy material. “You can still see it, though,” Gadsby says, pointing to the man in the middle whose gauze is particularly transparent. “Not a practical outfit. It looks quite windy there too.”

Nudes became even more commonplace in the French art of the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, in the 19th century going to the salon became a popular – and perhaps educational – pastime for both sexes. “The hyprocrisy was quite outstanding,” says Gadsby. Women had to keep their bodies covered neck to ankle, but naked mythological figures were de rigueur.

“There had to be a thin veil of history or mythology. Odilon Redon had the best way of explaining it: if the nude looks like she could put her clothes on at any moment, then it was immoral. Some of the images in my show wouldn’t pass a PG rating, but because they were hung on a gallery wall, it was fine. Basically, they were government-funded page threes.”

Except that the idea (ostensibly, at least) was to direct minds to higher things. “The idea is God has a blueprint for the ideal, but nature is a pretty shoddy builder and most of our bodies are pretty shit compared to God’s ideal. The artist’s job is to bridge the gap between the lumps of shite we actually live in and God’s blueprint. It is very much like airbrushing really.”

Gadsby describes her Nakedy Nudes lecture as a “sister show” to her main show at the Fringe this year, ­Happiness is a Bedside Table, perhaps her funniest show to date. “It’s about body image, from a very personal perspective, because I haven’t been blessed with an ideal body. Women are still judged quite harshly, particularly when you’re a teenager. That is a lot of what I talk about; those cruel years and how hard they are to get over.”

Talking about them on stage, however, is cathartic. “I think most people were humiliated during their adolescence, it’s like ritual humiliation, so I just share mine. Instead of having people laugh at me, I tell them when to laugh.”

Gadsby became a comic after a friend entered her in Melbourne Comedy Festival’s open mic event, Raw Comedy, in 2006, and she won. After graduating from the Australian National University, she had spent several years recovering from a car accident and doing itinerant farm work “because I had low self-esteem and didn’t know how to go for a proper job”.

She came to Edinburgh for the first time that summer and entered So You Think You’re Funny, finishing second. Since then her shows have made good use of her plentiful stock of personal material: growing up in Tasmania, coming out, her various accidents. She has made low self-esteem into an art form. Now 35, she is picking up regular TV slots in Australia and working on a book. “It took three or four years before I thought, ‘Yeah, I can do this’. I knew I was funny, but I had no idea about how comedy worked. Now, it’s great to be involved in so many creative projects, and all off the back of being a joker.”

MORE INFO:  Hannah Gadsby: Happiness is a Bedside Table is at Assembly Roxy; Nakedy Nudes is at Assembly Checkpoint. Hannah is doing a Comedy Tour of the National Gallery of Scotland on 20 August at 6:15pm.

Originally published in The Scotsman