Renowned works by Titian, da Vinci, Dürer and Raphael feature in the Royal Academy’s recent exhibition, The Renaissance Nude, all of which throw light on the female as well as male gaze, observes our contributor Miriam al Jamil.
Is a male or female form immediately conjured up by the word ‘nude’ and is it a secular or religious image? These questions are the first to draw our attention at the current Royal Academy exhibition, The Renaissance Nude.The nude has been the subject of art historical inquiry for centuries, discussed through issues of religion and morality, sexual politics and power. Kenneth Clark’s The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art(1956) formulated the opposition between ‘naked’ and ‘nude’, whereby the first exhibited vulnerability and defencelessness, but the second displayed confidence and balance. In John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972), based on his ground-breaking television series, the Marxist writer and critic challenged Clark’s view. For Berger, ‘To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself’ (p.54). The implied sexuality of the term ‘nude’, its passivity and the gratuitous enjoyment by the usually privileged male viewer has meant that the nude is routinely characterised as female in popular art historical discourse. Nudity is ‘a form of dress’ and the female nude is self-consciously on display for the viewer and particularly in the case of most Western art until the advent of photography, for the owner and commissioner of the painting in which she appears. Berger acknowledged the centrality of the male gaze before it became a familiar academic term. Dictionary definitions going back to Dr. Johnson’s examples offer less distinction between the terms ‘naked’ and ‘nude’. Johnson’s ‘naked’ as ‘wanting clothes; uncovered; bare’ is similar to ‘nudity’: ‘want of covering’; want of provision for defence’ and ‘plainness’ or ‘want of concealment’. Both terms are bound up with an absence or deficiency, an aberration from completeness, an undesirable weakness, and there is no implicit gendered application.
The Renaissance Nude takes the complicated history of the nude further and questions the traditional type of argument made by Clark, who was himself a pupil of the influential art historian Bernard Berenson. The idea of a rediscovery of the Classical ideal body in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, largely centring on artists in Florence and Rome, which reached its apogee in the work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo has dominated the Western art historical narrative until fairly recently. The exhibition successfully demonstrates that across Europe the subject of the nude can be traced through different contexts and approaches and in a variety of media, many examples of which are surprising and intriguing. Throughout the exhibition we encounter both male and female bodies as religious, secular and erotic images. As an alternative to the ‘male gaze’, the final room concentrates on the collections of Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, for whom both male and female nudes formed ‘a recurring subject in her collection’ (room description). We are invited therefore to consider the ‘female gaze’, one which has had considerably less scholarly attention. We realise how our own ‘gaze’ has been one among many in the exhibition, alongside many others whose different motivations and expectations were originally directed at the images in private rooms, churches and galleries.
The displays in each room juxtapose work from Italy, the Netherlands and German States to explore ‘The Nude and Christian Art’. ‘Humanism and the Expansion of Secular Themes’, ‘Artistic Theory and Practice’, ‘Beyond the Ideal Nude’ and ‘Personalising the Nude’. The traditional narrative of the Renaissance as a new artistic imperative to understand the human body in relation to nature and spirituality is adopted here to some extent. However, the diversity of expression and style is offered as a challenge. We also confront the nude in extremis, suffering, aged and tortured. The nude as a menacing, deformed or provocative image is not often shown unless in exhibitions about witchcraft or magic, or as an integral part of early modern Catholic iconography where it served as a warning and a deterrent. In a catalogue essay, Stephen J. Campbell points out that the new close study of the body, represented in the exhibition by the drawings of Michelangelo, Raphael, da Vinci (see below his anatomical studies, ‘The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck’, c.1510-11) and Dürer for example, inevitably led to critical observation and deeper understanding of the pathology of the body. It is therefore unsurprising that artistic practice was not confined to simply depicting stylised beauty.
Opportunities for artists to demonstrate their skill in representing the human body usually centred on religious subjects such as Adam and Eve or St. Sebastian. A wall label suggests that nudes in episodes from both Old and New Testaments allowed artists to make ‘Christian subjects more realistic and therefore more accessible’. Meditation on the condemned ‘first couple’ or on the young saint may have aided spiritual contemplation, but from our perspective this is only a secondary consideration. In the Bible, Adam and Eve’s consciousness of nudity prompts the adoption of cache-sexes, which in depictions are only partially effective and instead draw our attention to the emblematic fecundity of the fig. The pierced and erotically-charged body of the young saint is as beautiful as the classical marbles on which he is often modelled. Central in the first room is the magnificent Reliquary of Saint Sebastian(1497, V&A), possibly designed by Hans Holbein the Elder. It is silver and gilt with glass, pearls and sapphires, and shows the saint tied to a tree with delicate twists of wire. Carefully fashioned arrows are inserted into prepared apertures. The saint’s body is animated, his face agitated, with armour-like articulation on the knees and shoulder. The whole piece is a celebration of metalworking mastery and artistic ingenuity. In the back of the base we can see the fragments of wood wrapped in silk, a relic believed to have come from an arrow fired at the saint. The object originally served an older Catholic tradition and its reverence for relics, but invites the viewer to relish the beauty of the human form and the opulence of its display, a tension which is evident in other work in the exhibition.
As we move through the rooms to focus on the subject of Venus, a favourite for artists ‘both north and south of the Alps’, it becomes clear that the female nude was interpreted with endless variety. The narrow shoulders and elongated belly of the north, and the fleshy hips and folds of the south appear in multiple permutations. Less familiar are the sumptuous manuscript illustrations, often difficult to see in their glass cases as the pages strain to balance accessibility with conservation imperatives. Pale figures, naked but still wearing hats and veils, emerge from beautifully illuminated vellum pages, to show ‘The Bathhouse’ in a chapter on ‘Of Luxury and Lust’ for a French translation of Valerius Maximus’ Memorable Deeds and Sayings (1460’s-70’s). The word ‘naked’ somehow feels more appropriate here, partly because of the moral message attached to the image but also because the bodies seem so vulnerable. The figures feast as they bathe in a giant hot tub or move away to enjoy more private couplings. We intrude on their space. These bodies are not used to such exposure. Surely they shiver in the draughty room. How can we reconcile their awkward flesh with Titian’s sumptuous Venus Anadyomene(c.1520) as part of the same exhibition? This exactly demonstrates the curatorial purpose of the selection. Titian’s Venus is rounded, feminine but muscular, charged with inviting eroticism, her skilfully modelled flesh designed to be enjoyed. Fifty years separate the images and yet they are part of the same story.
The male nude receives equal attention, particularly examples described as homo-erotic. Whether posed in action or contemplation, in groups or as isolated figures of classical beauty, the gaze is anticipated. The viewer completes the circle. Perhaps our participation is essential because we examine versions of ourselves. Mirrors often featured in Renaissance allegorical images and invite the viewer in to share as well as to judge. The mirror both reflects and inverts, exposes and suggests concealment. The variety of objects brought together into conversation in The Renaissance Nude allows us to make connections between artistic practices from different countries and decades, and our fascination with the bodies we inhabit ensures our engagement with the nudes in all their ideal or flawed diversity.
The Renaissance Nude was shown at the Royal Academy, London, from 3rd March to 2nd June. Click here for more information.