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'Sex and Sensuality' Exhibition: An interview with gallery director Toby Campbell


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The National Student sat down with Toby Campbell, director of London-based gallery Rafael Valls, to talk about their new Sex and Sensuality exhibition, battling the shrinking world of Old Masters Paintings, and how to kick-start a career in the gallery scene.

The exhibition, which runs until 21 December, consists of 42 works that guide the viewer through the history of the nude. The collection aims to document how, as Campbell puts it, "eroticism develops in pictures throughout the ages, and to see the progress of the nude" over time. Campbell conceived of this idea in the summer, wanting to move away from previous online exhibitions: "this year I wanted to create something a little bit more interesting and different."

The defining image of the show and the painting that the exhibition was built around is Le Lever; a portrait of a Lady reclining by Candlelight by Jean-Baptiste Santerre. Looking at this immense, and slightly daring, picture it is clear how Campbell thought eroticism could inject new life into his winter exhibition series; its suggestive nature epitomises public perception of the nude figure, drawing the audience in with it.

 Le Lever; a portrait of a Lady reclining by Candlelight by Jean-Baptiste Santerre. Image credit: Rafael Valls.

The show opens, however, with The Garden of Eden by Lucas Cranach the Elder, which is both the oldest painting in the exhibition and arguably the most famous. "I had a shopping list, I suppose", Campbell muses. "A list of subjects, artists, and certainly dates of things that I wanted. The Cranach particularly - A. the artist and B. the subject of Adam and Eve was perfect, and it's proven to be the perfect jumping off point for the exhibition."

The exhibition is more or less chronological, guiding the viewer through changes in the depiction of the human form. Campbell says of this variety of perspectives: "You can see a sort of progress between dates and also the difference between nationalities, from the more puritan Dutch nudes to the rather more flamboyant French ones, which have a little bit more frisson."

The Garden of Eden by Lucas Cranach the elder. Image credit: Rafael Valls.

The works in this show are all for sale, but in a part of the art world that is growing smaller as the contemporary world expands dramatically, Rafael Valls finds itself fighting against the tide. Campbell claims that "the Old Master world is shrinking, from the point of view of dealers. Just look around here [St James'], there used to be shops everywhere and now there are very few. But in the contemporary world, people are looking for bigger spaces and bigger galleries - they're a worldwide operation."

Sex and Sensuality, therefore, is perhaps trying to engage a younger audience: "I was hoping that an exhibition like this might interest younger people to come and have a look at it because there are some modern pictures, and hopefully they would come in to take in the older pictures as well." The combination of the old and the new nudes in one space creates a dialogue between eras, culminating in an engaging exhibition that attracts all ages.

This isn't the first time Rafael Valls has tried to appeal to a younger crowd. At the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, the Netherlands, last year, Campbell and his colleagues combined modern innovation with Old Master Paintings. "We had a multimedia painting, so that was to try and engage a younger audience using very much cutting-edge technology with a 17th Century painting."

Actively posting on social media has also furthered business, opening up a whole new customer market: "Just recently we sold our first picture [on Instagram], and were very, very close to selling others a couple of times", Campbell says. "I think its a good way of engaging different people."

A Reclining Nude by Philippe-Jacques van Bree. Image credit: Rafael Valls.

Armed with a History of Art degree and with years of experience under his belt, Toby Campbell is more than qualified to give advice to an aspiring art dealer. "I would definitely recommend trying to get a placement in an auction house to start," he suggests. "You learn quickly on the job. Continually training is key."

So, is a smaller gallery a better place to gain this experience? Campbell seems to agree: "It's more personal, and you're hands on. Sometimes, working in bigger institutions can be more difficult as it's not such a close atmosphere."

When asked what advice he would give to future art dealers, Campbell wasn't one to sugarcoat. "You just need to get out there. It's difficult, I'm not going to deny that," he stresses. "It is very difficult because it's a small world, really. It's just a question of showing your credentials, showing how keen you are; just keep trying." Much like the evolution of the nude over the centuries, it seems that the key to success in the art world is adaptation and perseverance. 

The Sex and Sensuality exhibition is on display at Rafael Valls until 21 December. You can find out more about the exhibition on their website, here.

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