Four years in the making in conjunction with the J. Paul Getty Museum this impressive collection of Renaissance art centres on the theme of nudity and how the naked human was studied and portrayed by Italian and Northern European artists from 1400 to 1530. Depicting nudity was a measure of an artist’s success and the exhibition offers an illustrious collection from the Renaissance greats - including Lucas Cranach the Elder, Albrecht Dürer, Jan Gossaert, Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci.
The context in which these artists created is pertinent and broken down in five sections: The Nude and Christian Art; Humanism and the Expansion of Secular Themes; Artistic Theory and Practice; Beyond the Ideal Nude and Personalising the Nude. But what is fascinating is the artist’s relationship with nudity and how the artist uses the naked muse as an expression of spirituality, love, loathing or eroticism.
Royal Academy of Arts, The Sackler Wing of Galleries 3 March - 2 June
Under the stronghold of Christianity the nude is a biblical figure – Saint Sebastian, Adam and Eve, a disciple, an angel or virgin. This nude is discretely crafted, without pubic hair or explicit adult genitals. The female is soft, pale, young and endomorphic. She poses placidly, her expression sublime. The male nude, from the front is carefully covered by a drape or leaf.
More lustful images are permitted under Humanism inspired by the Greek and Roman mythology of classical literature such as Titian’s Birth of Venus. Dossier Dossi’s A Myth of Pan shows Pan lusting after a beautiful nymph. There are plenty of German and Flemish artists: Lucas Cranach the Elder, Albrecht Durer, Hans Baldung Grien. Titian’s Venus Rising from the Sea c1520 (Venus Anadyomene) c1520 shows a more fully formed female beauty with that renowned full head of flaming red “Titian hair”. There are more homoerotic scenes of bath houses, even lesbian eroticism in the German, Barthes Beham’s tiny engraving Death and Three Nude Women 1525-27.
Artistic Theory and Practice links the body to scientific precision. Michelangelo went beyond portraying shapes to understanding the body by dissection. Raphael uses red chalk to depict every muscle and ligament of The Three Graces, 1517-18.
In Beyond the Ideal Nude, we encounter more disturbing images of nudity. Hans Baldung Grien’s woodcut The Witches Sabbath shows naked women as objects of fear and loathing. Chillingly, the Alsace artist informed generations of witch hunts. The nudes in this section are certainly beyond any ideal. There is no sentimentality in the tiny sculpture Elderly Bather, by an unknown artist, of pleading little old lady, naked, vulnerable and wretched. The centre piece is St Jerome. The emaciated body is secondary to the spiritual life, focussing on redemption.
In Personalising the Nude, we return to more uplifting ideals of the nude, not least the Bella Donna, the poetic ideal of a beloved woman. Beautiful women are now the rage, often with one breast exposed as de riguer. And beautiful young men are also popular, such as Agnolo Bronzino’s image of a beautiful young man, Saint Sebastian, c. 1533.
Personalising can be taken to an extreme, particularly by an exacting, wealthy patron. Pietro Perugino’s Combat between Love and Chastity was commissioned by his patron Isabelle d’Este who gave orders on the painting and after years of hard work by Perugino, she didn’t like it. Fortunately, the young Raphael did, and the rest is art history.
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Images top left to right: Agnolo Bronzino, Saint Sebastian, c. 1533; Titian, Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’), c. 1520; Raphael, The Three Graces, c. 1517-18. Bottom left to right: Lucas Cranach the Elder, A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion, c. 1526; Dosso Dossi, Allegory of Fortune, c. 1530; Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504.