(Royal Academy, London, until 2 June 2019)
What do St Sebastian, Lucretia, Hercules and Eve have in common? All four of them allowed Renaissance artists to experiment with representations of the nude body. The Royal Academy’s new exhibition – formerly on view at the Getty in Los Angeles – focuses on this depiction of the unclothed form during the 15th and 16th centuries, taking in both Northern and Italian art, and explores the different meanings that the nude could have: from innocence to eroticism, Christianity to classical myth, brute strength to sensuality. It’s almost a shame that a subject of such breadth and promise is confined to the cramped Sackler Galleries upstairs, but the five rooms nevertheless include a select treasure-trove of paintings and drawings by some of the most celebrated artists of the time – some very famous works, other less familiar but remarkably beautiful.
The exhibition is arranged thematically, so my thoughts below will skip around a bit between rooms. For example, I want to start – as the exhibition does – with Donatello. He was the one who brought the classical male nude back into mainstream artistic vocabulary. This was most famously done with his bronze David in the Bargello (it isn’t here: don’t get excited), but also in smaller scale works. The show kicks off with a bronze plaque of St Sebastian at the mercy of the Roman archers (c.1450; Musee Jacquemart-André, Paris). Just look at the focus on the anatomy, on Sebastian’s arms pulled up behind him, which emphasises the play of muscle and bone over his ribcage. In a later room, Donatello’s sculpture of St Jerome (c.1465; Pinacoteca Comunale, Faenza) shows a strikingly different approach to the male nude. We no longer see the classical beauty of Sebastian’s form, but a remarkable polychromed old man, perhaps two-thirds life-sized, his flesh sagging with age, his skin tanned nut-brown.
Antonio Pisanello was roughly a contemporary of Donatello and he has the honour of contributing the earliest female nudes in the show. These are in two drawings, one a striking study sheet which, along with sketches for an Annunciation and standing female nudes, we can make out two faint drawings of women swimming (c.1430; Boijmans-van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam). It’s a startling glimpse of Renaissance leisure and must have been inspired by, if not drawn from, something that Pisanello had actually seen. Yet the drawing that lingers in the mind is Pisanello’s other female nude: Luxuria, a seductive reclining figure, leaning on her left elbow, who stares with remarkable frankness right into our eyes (c.1426; Albertina, Vienna). The smooth classical spirit of Donatello’s nudes is missing here: Pisanello’s woman is still shaking off the Gothic tradition, and there’s something almost Northern about her gaunt frame and her wild head of curls (surely a wig?). But, for all that, she feels fiercely present: failing to cover her breasts or pudenda, opening her legs, she is perhaps the most radically erotic work in the show. Note the presence of the rabbit: a Renaissance symbol of lust.
Eroticism isn’t only linked to the female nude, of course. Compared to the Pisanello, Perugino’s Apollo and Daphnis is unbelievably well-behaved, but the sensuality is there in the soft flesh and rounded limbs, and in the dreamy languor of the scene. Sometimes, though, artists just couldn’t resist having a bit of a joke. I almost laughed out loud when studying Durer’s print of A Bath House, crammed with nude men (1496; The Met, New York). The label coyly notes the implicitly erotic nature of such an environment and, as proof, invites us to look at the glances exchanged by the two men in the foreground. But there’s much clearer proof. Just look at the position of the tap! Durer isn’t being implicit at all: the eroticism is right there, crude and cheerful, nudging the viewer and winking. But it’s generally restrained eroticism. The knowing gaze of Pisanello’s reclining woman, or the voluptuous softness of Titian’s Venus Anadyomene (c.1520; National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh) is about as risque as it gets – although the curators have included a very unusual portrait of a man by Jacometto Veneziano which, on the reverse, has a voyeuristic scene of a nude man and woman fondling one another in an interior (c.1495; Staatliche Museen, Berlin). That’s it, though. Anyone who felt a bit flustered by the recent Schiele exhibition has nothing to worry about here. It’s strictly PG.
Renaissance nudity, whether meant to titillate or not, generally meant one of two things: either the unveiling of the Christian soul (hence the half-dressed saints, and the naked figures being subjected to the Last Judgement in Dieric Bouts’s two brilliant panels – The Fall of the Damned is superb) – or classical antiquity. As humanism unveiled ancient texts, and classical sculptures were excavated in Rome, artists suddenly had a thrilling range of new sources to interrogate. Hercules, for example, became a vastly popular figure from the middle of the 15th century and the exhibition includes two small bronzes showing his wrestling match with Antaeus. The story goes that Antaeus could not be harmed while his feet touched the earth, so the mighty Hercules lifted him up and squeezed him to death in his arms. Antico’s sculpture is matter-of-fact, showing the brawny Hercules with feet planted wide, Antaeus squirming helplessly in his grip (1519; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). But far more exciting is the earlier bronze by Pollaiuolo, which makes the effortful struggle explicit (c.1475; Bargello, Florence). Here Hercules bends back, trying to balance himself, his legs bent and braced, his back arched against a handy tree stump. Antaeus’ pose echoes Hercules’: his back is also arched, his legs kicked out in a splendidly confident demonstration of bronze-casting, and his mouth open in a scream. It’s a stunningly animated, vigorous sculpture.
As more classical sculptures were discovered, artists realised that ancient art had two contrasting lessons to teach: the nude as tormented figure (like Laocoon), and the nude as graceful beauty (like the Apollo Belvedere). Look at the elegance of Cima da Conegliano’s St Sebastian (c1501; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg), or the peaceful contrapposto of the man shrugging on (or off) his shirt in the panel painted by Luca Signorelli (c.1490; Toledo Museum of Art, OH). The artist who best assimilated the gracefulness of the antique, was Raphael, whose sublime red-chalk drawing of The Three Graces is here, and as gorgeous as ever (c.1517; Royal Collection).
Grace, obviously, was perfect for the representation of saints and goddesses; but torment, effort and drama had an equally wide range of implications. A good contrast to Cima’s St Sebastian is the print of the same subject by Martin Schongauer, in which the saint’s swaying body is echoed by the curve of the tree trunk behind him, which almost seems to embrace and support him (c.1485; National Gallery of Art, Washington DC). For me, though, the most affectingly tortured body in the show was that of Gossaert’s Christ on the Pale Stone (c.1530; Museo del Patriarca, Valencia). This is a physique laden with the foreknowledge of pain and torture. Christ hunches forward, his limbs twisted, his toes flexed. Everything about his body telegraphs the desire to flee; yet his gaze is resigned. In this triumph of the peaceful soul over the tortured body, Gossaert shows us the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice.
One generally lesser-known artist who has quite a lot of exposure here is Dosso Dossi, with two large paintings. His pictures are usually secular and often esoteric, with complex allegorical themes, and that goes for both of these. Of the two, I found the Myth of Pan (1524; Getty Museum) more interesting and, funnily enough, it wasn’t to do with the female nude who lies, soft and graceful, across the lower part of the canvas. I was struck instead by the setting. Look at the palpable ‘knobbliness’ of the lemons in the tree; the extraordinary detailed crush of rose petals beneath the nude’s hip (and think, for example, of Alma-Tadema’s Roses of Heliogabalus); the background landscape, too, where trees zig-zag up through ethereal blue mists, towards a distant city with hazy, fantastical spies. And look at how the regular uprights of the tree-trunks in this landscape are echoed by the grounds of tall, abstract figures scattered across the meadow. As a final detail, take a closer look at that blue vase in the foreground, discoloured and chipped: a remarkable contrast to the soft-edged, round-faced figures. It’s almost enough to make you wonder whether Dosso worked in concert with another artist. But it goes to show how, in an exhibition devoted to a specific aspect of a picture – the nude, say – our eyes become used to breaking the composition down into its component parts, and we notice things that we would normally never have noticed.
I was amused to read a couple of press reviews which stressed the roughly 50-50 balance of male and female nudes, and heralded this as an exhibition for the #MeToo era. But this is pure coincidence. The exhibition has nothing to do with political correctness or gender equality. It’s a simple fact that, especially in the early Renaissance, there were far more male nudes around than female nudes, especially if we take drawings into account as well as paintings. Artists learned to draw the human form by studying models in the studio. It was rare, and usually expensive, to get a female model (she would most likely be a prostitute and would need to be paid for her time). It was much more convenient, and free, to get one of the apprentices to pose. The majority of female figures in 15th-century Italian paintings were based on male models, and that explains why certain artists just never got the hang of the female form – why their female nudes are so painfully obviously men with unconvincing breasts stuck on (Michelangelo, I’m looking at you). Come the 16th century, things did begin to change, especially in Venice in the wake of Giorgione and Titian; but, even so, Renaissance artists had a very different attitude to the nude than – say – the artists of the 19th century. At this later date, the nude is overwhelmingly female. That simply isn’t true of the Renaissance. The curators have not deliberately striven for equality here: it has happened naturally.
I’m going to rein myself in here, though there were lots of other things I wanted to tell you about. We’ll be here forever, though, if I start getting excited about the Cranachs, the Pontormo or the Michelangelo; the Leonardo Anatomical Study of the Shoulder (c.1510; Royal Collection); or the Bellini Allegories from the Accademia (c.1500), with their puzzling allegories – quite as odd as anything Mantegna ever painted. Or I could digress to the Hours of Anne of France, an illuminated manuscript made in 1473, in which Bathsheba sits on the riverbank with her skirts hoiked up to bathe her legs in a disarmingly naturalistic way. Or the miniature boxwood Lucretia by Conrad Meit (c.1510; The Met, New York); or the gilded plaque by Moderno, where the surface is so ornamented, so covered with texture and granulation, that the single smooth figure of St Sebastian stands out for its simplicity (c.1510; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). Or the silver-gilt reliquary of St Sebastian, with holes drilled into the saint and plugged with gilded arrows (1497; V&A). Essentially, it would be like going round the exhibition with a small child who keeps tugging excitedly at your sleeve and squeaking, ‘Look!’. You’ll just have to go and seek these things out for yourselves. Do remember, though, that it’s only a small show and, yes, it’s highly likely that your favourite-ever Renaissance nude (whatever it might be) won’t be there because of space constraints. Nevertheless, I can assure you you’ll see some new and beautiful things, and that you’ll be encouraged to think more carefully about the many different meanings of nudity in Renaissance art.
For those who can’t make it to London before 2 June, and who didn’t see the show in its previous incarnation at the Getty, you can buy the catalogue here. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s pleasingly heavy, full of essays, and stuffed with gorgeous illustrations.