George Washington Lambert (1873 – 1930) was an Australian artist known principally for portrait painting. He became an official Australian war artist in 1917 during World War I.
This is audacious painting shows Lambert’s considerable technical prowess but, more than this, it is a challenging and demanding image that leaves us wondering: ”Who is this man and what is going on here?”. The man sits boldly in front of us, holding up his shirt and revealing his upper entire torso. His head is held high, his lips are closed, and he looks down at us. His pale flesh, with the play of light on it, gleams against the dark surroundings. The features of the man resemble those of Lambert, and it is possible that Lambert intended to suggest a self-portrait using a model’s body for the torso.
The painting is described as a scene in a consulting room with a doctor examining the heart or lungs of his patient. But for me, this is not the subject of the painting, but an excuse for the composition. In 1901, Freud published his Psychopathology of Everyday Life and his ideas about exploring the human psyche gained wider understanding. This man seems to have nothing to hide, to be literally and metaphorically baring his chest, exposing his heart and soul to the world. He patient lifts up his shirt, and gently presses the top of his chest with three fingers of his right hand, precariously close to his nipple, adding just a touch of autoeroticism. The flash of bright red paint on the patient’s bottom lip suggests passion or even violence. The patient seems to be enjoying the examination which reminds me of a description of a medical examination in W. Somerset Maugham‘s Of Human Bondage (1915):
”The patient stood among them a little embarrassed, but not altogether displeased to find himself the center of attention.”
P.G. Konody, the art critic for the London Observer, wrote in 1910 that the work was a “truly masterly painting of a male form”. Not everyone agreed; the writer for The London Times stated:
“When Rembrandt twice painted a dissecting-room he had a real subject; but an auscultation such as Mr. Lambert has painted is nothing but an ugly incident…”
There is a lot of mystery to the painting, but it provided a splendid opportunity for the presentation of male nudity. But it is not strictly a male nude. The figure is not naked; he is half clothed and is intentionally shown in this way to give the image greater impact and to make it more sexually charged. Don’t you agree?