Art Review, The Renaissance Nude, Royal Academy ‘Big Subject, Small Show’

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I’m never 100% sure the RA has got its programming in the smaller Sackler Galleries spot on. The restricted exhibition space lends itself more to intimate, focused examinations rather than massive themes. Like the recent show on the drawings of Klimt and Schiele, for example. That worked well. As did the American art in The Great Depression show the year before, and, similarly Matisse and his objects in the same year. All exhibitions with a clear limiting focus that allows close examination.

I say this because whenever the curators steer away from this, like with From Life last year where the vast subject of drawing art from life was tackled, it struggles. There’s just not the space to get any further than a superficial splash. And I can’t help but feel that is exactly what has happened with The Renaissance Nude. The subject is too big for the space and the result is a skim across the surface.

Now, I’m aware my review is pretty late (I only saw the show last week) and the show’s opening saw it greeted with a wave of four- and five-star reviews. Maybe that only added to my sense of disappointment, especially as I didn’t actually read the content of these reviews, so this show was not what I was expecting. That’s not to say it isn’t commendable – there’s some interesting provocations here – but there’s not enough here to get really stuck in and, added to that, I also found the show stumbled over some of its ambitions.

Anyway, let’s get stuck in…

Quite what constitutes the Renaissance period is a debate in itself with Wikipedia, for example, claiming it covers European art between the 14th and 17th centuries, whereas some dictionaries prefer the more limited definition of Italian art and architecture in the 15th and 16th centuries. Yet others consider the Renaissance to be equivalent to the High Renaissance period that focused on Italy, in particular, from 1495 to 1527, ending with the Sack of Rome.

This exhibition goes with none of these definitions, preferring a smudge by examining art across Europe from the 1460s to 1541, ending at the point when Michelangelo (finally) finished the Sistine Chapel.

The reason for the restriction, I think, is because first, the show wants to explore how artists other than just the Italians responded to the wave of new ideas in the era and, second, because from 1564 onwards, Michelangelo’s nudes in the Sistine were covered with drapes as a wave of purity swept through.

So, what does this mean for the show? Well, it means fewer works from the Renaissance’s Holy Trinity – Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo – and more from the likes of Durer, Cranach, and Gossaert amongst many others. Honourable, but it does therefore dilute the brilliance on display (though may have made it easier to get pieces on loan) but enforces a breadth of artists that, ironically, makes this show feel thin.

Too much breadth, not enough depth, that’s the issue here. There’s one Titian here, two Leonardo sketches there, a weird wooden sculpture of Saint Jerome in the middle of the floor, Bianco’s marble sculpture of the bust of a woman (her breast exposed, obvs) in the corner, Durer’s Adam and Eve on the wall behind it, a male nude from Parmigianino using a male model next to it… It’s like a boot sale of nudes from all over Western Europe.

So, what links them all? Well, first, the curators are demonstrating the evolution of the nude in art in this era. The humanist and scientific breakthroughs that defined the Renaissance brought fresh perspectives on the body, yet these developments sat interestingly at odds with the idealised beauty in artworks from antiquity that were being rediscovered at the time. And it is interesting to see how the artists grappled with these seemingly conflicting ideas.

Leonardo is all muscle and sinews in his (ridiculously brilliant) anatomical drawings, whereas there’s an odd little statue of an elderly bather from 1480 (artist unrecorded) that is all droopy boobs and saggy skin. And compare this to the curves and Romanesque beauty of Raphael’s Three Graces and Titian’s Venus.

But there’s also a second theme being looked at amongst all these naked men and women and that is the various contexts that artists used the nudes.

We’re used to the religious context, of course, most evident here in the smooth and boyish depiction of Saint Sebastian from Bronzino, but there’s titillation here too, from Baldung’s Aristotle being ridden like a horse by Alexander the Great’s lover, Phyllis (it’s a long story…) to Dente’s satyr with an erect penis.

But there’s also darkness too. Hans Baldung Grien’s famous drawing, The Witches Sabbath, 1810, shows those wicked women comfortable with nudity, even revelling in it, and their bodies as realistic as yours or mine. But judged and scorned. Their realistic depiction is a curse not a compliment (far better to be coquettish and demure like Titian’s Venus if you want society’s approval).

Then there’s the violence of the men and their brandished swords in the Battle of the Nudes engraving by Antonio Pollaiuolo, and the harrowing painting of Saint Barbara’s Escape from her Father, 1430–35, attributed to Konrad von Vechta, that sees a woman murdered by her own father for daring to be a Christian.

And, in fact, it is ironically this breadth of depiction that undermines one of the show’s ambitions.

The RA has gone to great lengths to even out the ratio of male to female nudes on display, clearly wanting to steer clear of overly objectifying the female nude yet again. But, actually, the variety of female nudes on display – their varying depictions – only underscores the extent to which there was an ‘acceptable’ face of female behaviour and appearance. The male nudes could be both youthful and strong as well as older and thinner yet still have dignity and respect. Not true of the women. Woe betide you crossed men as that sees you depicted hideously.

So, look, you can tell there’s some interesting ideas here. It wasn’t the sea of muscular men and curvaceous women that I was expecting – and that is fresh and interesting. But given what the exhibition was trying to establish… Yeah, this display definitely sows the seeds of discussion but doesn’t quite explore them thoroughly.

It certainly demonstrates there was no uniform approach to the nude in the Renaissance, for sure, but there’s far too many works missing, and far too many questions left hanging. Worthy if not quite a “must-see.”

Royal Academy of Arts, London, to June 2, 2019.

Admission £14.

Image Credits:
1 Agnolo Bronzino, Saint Sebastian, c. 1533. Oil on panel, 87 x 76.5 cm. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
2 Raphael, The Three Graces, c. 1517-18. Red chalk on paper, 20.3 x 25.8 cm. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019
3 Antonio Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, 1470s. Engraving, 42 x 60.9 cm. The Albertina Museum, Vienna
4 Albrecht Durer, Adam and Eve, 1504. Engraving, 25.1 x 19.4 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Art Museum Council Fund. Image: www.lacma.org
5 Titian, Venus Rising from the Sea (??Venus Anadyomeneâ??), c. 1520. Oil on canvas, 75.8 x 57.6 cm. 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

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