Clothing now optional at the Getty
by Bondo Wyszpolski
There are exhibitions and there are Exhibitions, the latter grand and yet graceful, solid and yet poetic, and in the last couple of years the J. Paul Getty Museum has presented at least two that would meet this criteria. I’m thinking of “Power and Pathos” and “Beyond the Nile,” but also the recent “Icons of Style.” Currently on view through January 27, “The Renaissance Nude” is another in-depth exploration that’s fascinating, educational, and intellectually stimulating.
Mention the Renaissance and nudity, and what comes to mind? Italy, most likely, and, for starters, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Botticelli. Yes, but as “Beyond the Nile” (and also “Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India”) revealed earlier this year, buried within any general timeline is the cross-fertilization, the influences passing back and forth between regions and inspiring artists (and others) at both ends.
“As the exhibition and publication make clear,” Thomas Kren writes near the end of the catalogue that accompanies this show, “the exchange of artistic ideas around the nude transpired between north and south in both directions during the fifteenth century.” These images, he adds a few pages later, “would influence profoundly the language of European art for centuries to come, an impact so pervasive that representations of naked bodies have become an expected feature of galleries and art museums.”
An expected feature or not, Kren also points out that nudity in art, erotic or otherwise, still unsettles some viewers and “continues to have the ability to challenge cultural norms.”
“The Renaissance Nude” presents over 100 paintings, sculptures, drawings and engravings, with an additional 150 works in the catalogue. Are they offensive? Well, this isn’t the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition that the Getty and LACMA co-hosted the year before last. (Actually, what’s more offensive is the pretentious writing in the “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” catalogue, the show currently on view at LACMA) Eros and arrows
“The Renaissance Nude” has it all: infants, youths, seniors; Adam and Eve in their birthday suits, tormented saints, bathing Bathshebas, Venus rising from the sea and wringing water from her hair, plus Hercules in combat mode or in repose. We are ushered through five thematic sections, both in the exhibition hall and in the book. They are: The Nude and Christian Art; Humanism and the Expansion of Secular Themes; Artistic Theory and Practice, Beyond the Ideal Nude, and Personalizing the Nude.
Several guest scholars have come aboard, and each section has an introductory essay followed by numerous images corralled under that theme and backed with thoughtful commentary. Because facts pile up like stacks of mail during a postal strike, eventually one might need a kind of scorecard to keep track of everything and everybody.
Truthfully, this is no easy read, and the book weighs a ton. But our starting point, as Kren, Jill Burke, and Stephen J. Campbell explain, is that as the 1400s got underway “in different parts of Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Germany, the closely observed nude begins to emerge in separate artistic developments.” Following those developments is the journey at hand.
And so, in addition to the specific Italians mentioned earlier, we’ll linger with the Germans Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Hans Baldung Grien, the Netherlandish Dieric Bouts (but never the Neverlandish Peter Pan), Hans Memling, and Jan Gossart, as well as the Frenchmen Jean Bourdichon and Jean Fouquet. Among a guidebook of others.
But it wasn’t like nudity in art suddenly sprang up on every street corner. It took a while. “Justifying the portrayal of naked bodies was an important factor in the creation of a new vocabulary and intellectual categories for image-making; the development of the Renaissance nude is inextricably bound up with the story of Renaissance art.” To foreground this a little, “A key problem with viewing classical statues of naked gods… was how to address the necessary shame of the viewer.”
Shame, as in taking your grandparents to see an exhibition of works by Lucian Freud.
A vital artwork, integral to fully understanding the show, would have to be Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel. As Kren notes, “while radical in its integration of pagan models and Christian subject matter, the Sistine Chapel was decisive for the future course of European art and for the history and conception of the nude for centuries to come.”
The catalogue ends (as does Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists”) with Michelangelo, and, best for last I suppose, with two images of the “Last Judgment.” The first full-page illustration shows the work as we know it today, but the second, a copy made a few years after the work was painted, shows how it looked originally. Which is to say before several figures were handed drapery to conceal their nether regions.
On the subject of Michelangelo, his red chalk drawing (on display), “Three Labors of Hercules” (c.1530) is just exquisite. You look at this, you look at his majestic “David,” and you can only shake your head at his mastery of every medium he set his mind to.
A certain area of interest regarding the nude would be, of course, the sensual nude, which definitely would not include those images of Jesus on the cross or slumped over once taken down. No, sir. But what about Saint Sebastian, pierced by arrows? Is he sensuous in his agony? There are several versions of him on view here, and in most of them he hardly seems perturbed. But, you may think, that dude sure has a beautiful body. Most male saints, especially those atop pillars in the desert, are rather homely.
Now, something that occurred to me, looking at these variations, is this: How many arrows should be depicted in the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian?
This isn’t an idle question. Cima da Conegliano shows just one, Bourdichon and Antonello da Messina have five apiece, and then we jump to Bellini’s nine and Shongauer’s ten. That’s a whole quiverfull, isn’t it, not counting the misses? Even so, Jacobus da Voragine seems to have indicated that Sebastian was “shot with so many arrows that he resembled a porcupine.”
Wouldn’t that be something to see?!
Sensual doesn’t always mean sexual, but whenever a nude person is involved it’s sure easy to conflate the two words into one. Is Saint Sebastian writhing in agony or in ecstasy? What about Adam and Eve? They’re rarely shown with much expression. Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Elder depicted several Eves, but mostly she and her “husband” are wearing fig leaves, which means that we’ve arrived too late: They’ve already discovered Original Sin and have reached into the greenery in order to cover themselves. Banning, and burning
On the other hand, who needs Eve when we can have Venus? She was the Marilyn Monroe of her day, as we can tell with a mere glance at Titian’s “Venus Rising from the Sea” (1520) and Gossart’s “Venus” (1521). Gossart, by the way, was a master of the sensual image, and for that matter so was Baldung. The latter’s “Two Witches” (1523) might be the most sensuous image in the show, at least to modern eyes: A pin-up image for any era.
Or maybe it’s one of the depictions of Bathsheba, shown bathing while spied upon by King David? Several of those on display are from the pocketbooks of their day, the Book of Hours created for King or Queen So-and-So, for example, which means these were strictly for private viewing.
What’s interesting is that ostensibly these images, of the maiden standing thigh-high in a jacuzzi-sized tub, were aimed at young girls, warning them against vanity and immorality. But what was heralded as a stern warning was of course a delightful subject for the male gaze. As Kren writes, “the private French prayer book could serve as a discreet haven for eroticism.” Not only that, “By 1500, Bathsheba Bathing was the primary French vehicle for imagery of the female nude.”
These prayer book illustrations are a bit like risque playing cards, but for the most part the overtly erotic had to creep in between the lines. The reception of the nude image throughout history was like today’s stock market: always fluctuating. During the Reformation, when religious imagery was removed from churches (mostly to be destroyed rather than shelved), some artists were shrewd enough to switch gears. The Madonnas were put on hold while they turned to other subjects, including erotica, in order to pay the bills (the fishmonger rather than the internet provider, but bills are bills).
Painting a Bathsheba and then declaring that it illustrated a moral lesson wasn’t the only way to present an erotic subject. I’ve mentioned Hans Baldung’s “Two Witches.” Well, in the early 16th century women were seen as corrupting influences (not that some wouldn’t say the same today). But it didn’t stop there. During a witch craze of epidemic proportions, “five thousand women were burned between 1515 and 1535.” Furthermore, across Europe, 100,000 people were condemned and killed as witches (and warlocks). When we look at recent history, and not just at the atrocities committed by the Islamic State, it seems the “witch craze” still flares up in one form or another.
So how should we read Baldung’s “Two Witches”? Is it akin to, let’s say, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” in which Satan has conjured up and sent forth a naked girl or two in order to snare the saint? Is this supposed to be a cautionary tale, part of the “vanitas” tradition in which a nude (or even clothed) young woman is shown admiring herself in a mirror while Death stands grinning behind her, “the reminder,” as Andrea Herrera writes, “of the transience of life, particularly human desires, pleasures, and beauty”?
One might also ask, What did Saint Anthony get out of not taking the girl by the hand and leading her into his man cave or, in this case, saint cave?
Meanwhile, back in town, there’s the Master of the Prayer Books of around 1500 (yes, that’s how he’s referred to) and his “Zeuxis Painting Five Nude Models” (c.1490-1500). And why does Zeuxis have five young women in the studio when you’d think that just one would suffice? Because he’s wily? Well, maybe that, too. His line, his excuse, whatever, is that he wasn’t able to find one model suitable enough for his portrait of Helen of Troy, so he gathered a bevy of beauties and took what he felt were the best qualities of each: that one’s legs, this one’s breasts, this one’s derrière, and so forth. If you’re an aspiring painter, you might want to remember what you’ve just read. It could come in handy.
This might also have something to do with the (ongoing) search for the perfect human body. Jill Burke mentions that “an investigation into human proportions will give an insight into the workings of God,” and that this “was often repeated in the Renaissance.” Also, it’s worth adding that “certain biblical commentators maintained that the designs of both Noah’s Ark and Solomon’s Temple were founded on perfect human proportions.” Well, be that as it may. The list of those who made drawings and studies of human proportion include Leonardo, Mariano Taccola, Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Michelangelo, Cesare Cesariano, Dürer, and of course Vitruvius. After all, if God created Man in His own image, what Western artist would dismiss the relevance of having a proficient knowledge of the ideal human body?
In the 15th century, that quest to depict the “perfect” form differed in Italy along the Mediterranean from Germany along the Baltic or France and the Netherlands along the North Sea. The latter countries depicted more nudes in a secular manner than the Italians (who relied more heavily on Christian themes), and the northern countries also focused more on female nudes than their southern neighbor.
Even so, as Kren points out, “Italian classicism began by increments to shape decisively the character of northern European art.” For example, the French King Francis I (r.1515-47) “demonstrated a precocious interest in Italian art, soliciting a work from Mantegna when he was ten.” Francis continued to collect and had “a particular interest in the nude,” work that was brilliantly executed but often exotic as well. By his commissioning artists, or simply by acquiring the finest work available, “the foundations were laid for situating the nude at the center of French art going forward.” And by going forward, we mean well forward, “from Poussin and Girardon to Boucher and Clodion, to Ingres and Carpeaux, to Rodin and Picasso.” A closer examination
I could go forward, too, but I don’t particularly wish to write a textbook at this time. So let’s look at what’s in the exhibition, and consider why you should see it instead of simply looking at the illustrations online or in a book.
For example, the sculpture “Hercules and Antaeus” (c.1470s), by Antonio Pollaiuolo, really needs to be seen in the flesh and maybe walked around a couple of times. As Jill Burke writes, “The effect is a tactile, as well as visual feast, and, indeed, contemporary texts and images suggest that touch–holding this type of sculpture in one’s hands–was understood to be an important part of the experience of artworks.” But good luck trying to do that at the Getty.
There’s another piece on the same theme, with the same title, this one by Antico (Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi) that I like even better. Antico, so-called because he copied, or emulated, classical sculpture, was one of those artists strongly influenced by the discovery of antique statues, and who took these newly-found works as a challenge to do better. Davide Gasparotto writes: “If the trajectory to ‘modernity’ went through a direct and almost obligatory comparison with the antique, it implied also–in Michelangelo as in Dürer–the aim to surpass those deeply admired models.”
Not all sculpture was done in marble or bronze, and “Lucretia” (c.1510-15), attributed to Conrad Meit, was carved from boxwood. Although the subject is disconsolate, the wood itself has a warm glow (and reminds me a bit of Japanese netsuke). Donatello’s “St. Jerome in Penitence” (1454-1455) is also in wood, but more moving, I feel, is the Ulm Sculptor’s “Elderly Bather” (c.1480), which the catalogue does show, front and back, but in person it’s really something else again… and you really do want to take it in your hands.
The book, however, does have some fine descriptions, such as Stephen J. Campbell’s words about the desiccated figure in “Fury” (c.1524-25), by Giovanni Jacopo Caraglio, as “so deathlike that he induces a swan to sing.” I’m also amused by the reference to “Pacifico Massimi, who had achieved fame in his youth for what was probably the most offensive poetry collection of the fifteenth century.”
Perhaps my favorite piece in the show, and no doubt I’m not alone in this since the image also graces the cover of the catalogue, is the “Madonna and Child Surrounded by Angels” (1454-1456), by Jean Fouquet. I’ve been impressed, maybe even transfixed, by this painting ever since seeing it on exhibit in Belgium many years ago.
The show will eventually move on and only be a memory, but the catalogue itself will serve as a reminder of what it was able to achieve and present. The book, Kren writes, “is dedicated to the Getty and its commitment to pushing boundaries, and to making a difference in the larger world of the visual arts. May it continue to thrive.”
The Renaissance Nude is on view through January 27 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in the Getty Center at 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. For hours, parking, and other information, call (310) 440-7300 or go to getty.edu. ER