The naked is sacred, as someone once said, but the nude is rude. The RA’s new show, in its Sackler Wing, offers plenty of both in an exhibition that (with a very few splendid exceptions) is not titillating in the least, but is thought-provoking in a most enjoyable way.
The show covers the period from 1400 to 1530 when, so the curators suggest, the ‘appearance, meaning and culture of the nude’ were still being worked out and explored by artists of the period, but in truth we’re still asking ourselves the same questions about nakedness and nudity, the sacred and the rude, today. What, for example, is ‘nude’? Does a half-length bust with one exposed breast count, if that breast is small to the point of androgyny? Is a Christian martyr nude, no matter how ferocious the thorns upon which he is being impaled, if he’s wearing a drapery version of boxer-shorts? Is the naked human body the ideal, as in the Garden of Eden; or frail, vulnerable, and an instrument of sin, to be punished in hell eternally? Indeed, is the naked human body always there to suggest our vulnerability? The poignant yet still lovely boxwood sculpture of an aging female bather, shielding herself like Botticelli’s Venus, says yes, it is; while the gigantic
man and woman in Dosso Dossi’s Allegory of Fortune of c.1530 are anything but. And how many of these nudes, in our LGBTQ, #MeToo world, are to be seen as straight, and how many should we be interpreting as gay? Bronzino’s curly-headed St Sebastian, for example, absurdly calm and coy, and apparently wholly oblivious of the arrow sticking out of his ribs, has everything to do with the naked young male body and nothing at all to do with martyrdom; while Titian’s irresistible Venus Rising from the Sea is so very un-immortal, and so very much a human being placed there for the viewer’s pleasure, that she’s even wringing out her wet hair.
Exhibitions in the Sackler tend towards the unexpected and the fun – the space is small, and the experience of going round it always more satisfying, and the shows themselves stronger than the padded-out blockbusters in the cavernous galleries downstairs. In The Renaissance Nude, many of the works are small as well – tiny, even, in the case of the illustrations from illuminated manuscripts, and the exquisite relief by Donatello that opens the show – and pretty small where the panel paintings are concerned, too. By no means all are top-rank, but the sheer anatomical daftness and psychological weirdness of some of the works here, especially those from the Northern Renaissance, only add to the exhibition’s fascination. One of the most winning is Lucas Cranach’s A Faun and his Family of c.1526 – Mr Faun the Hunter, Mrs Faun the Trophy-Wife and Master Faun the Toddler, with Mrs Faun’s modesty being preserved by a long stray tendril of hair that curls round from that on her head to both hide where her pubic hair would be, and to substitute for it. Surely no-one ever viewed this painting without finding themselves cracking a grin?
And while the mechanics of the gaze may not have changed much in the 500 years since, taste certainly has. The ideal woman, in the 15th century, was short in the leg, wide in the hip, and so small in the bust that sometimes it’s only the elaborate hairdo that tells you the body below the neck was meant to be seen as female at all. The ideal man, meanwhile, was muscle-bound as Schwarzenegger, ‘a condom stuffed with walnuts,’ in Clive James’ memorable phrase. You can be staggered by the beauty of some of the works – the Durer engravings, the Raphael Three Graces, the Leonardo Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck – but if any of this was the pornography of its day, it’s now not so much soft as flaccid. The human body might have been regarded in the Renaissance as the measure of man, but if skill at depicting it was the measure of the artist, most of those included here fall short by a country mile.
The most intriguing part of this show is not the art on display in any case, but the attitudes. There is, for example, an engraving of the little-known legend of St John Chrysostom. It has the saint in the background, a homunculus crawling through the undergrowth on hands and knees like an animal, while in the foreground is a naked mother nursing her child – any excuse to show a buxom nude, you may think, as with so many Biblical/mythological scenes. But the legend behind the image is startling. The mother was raped by the saint – and then in an excess of shame, he threw her down a precipice and thus never knew he had fathered a child. You can’t put on a show like this without provoking the odd giggle, but The Renaissance Nude will also have you pondering, especially in today’s context, what our attitudes toward sex and nudity and gender were in the past, and even what, were such an exhibition to be re-staged in 500 years time, they might have evolved into then.
The Renaissance Nude, Royal Academy, London to June 2, 2019
Raphael, The Three Graces, c.1517-18. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Unknown artist, Elderly Bather, c.1480. Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main
Titian, Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’), c.1520. National Galleries of Scotland. Accepted in lieu of Inheritance Tax by HM Government (hybrid arrangement) and allocated to the Scottish National Gallery, with additional funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), and the Scottish Executive, 2003.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion, c.1526. The J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.
Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Art Museum Council Fund. Photo: © Museum Associates/ LACMA.