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Royal Academy unveils outstanding show The Renaissance Nude

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The Three Graces. By Raphael.

Royal Academy unveils outstanding show The Renaissance Nude 

by James Brewer

 Consider this cool, clear image of feminine beauty –  lightly sketched and off-centre. Drawn in 1517 or 1518 in red chalk on paper, The Three Graces is a life study delineated by Raphael and is lent by the Queen’s Royal Collection Trust to the new show-all show The Renaissance Nudeat the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Replete with the poise and elegance of the subjects, Raphael’s draft is one of the smallest but most telling images in an all-star exhibition.

Raphael (Urbino 1483-Rome 1520) was prominent among artists who, backed by wealthy patrons, were beginning to experiment boldly in profiles of female models, as they had done with males when portraying Jesus Christ and the saints.

Glimpsing the Graces.

His illustration, which he had first mapped out with a stylus, served as part of his preparation for the Three Graces in the fresco Feast of the Godspainted by his assistants at what is now known as the Villa Farnesina, in Rome, but it is already a living, breathing likeness of the female aura and the virtues therein embodied.  From left to right, his three figures probably represent chastity, beauty, and love.

Radiating tenderness, the scene has the three women pouring from an amphora a libation for the wedding feast of Cupid and Psyche. The three were based on the same model – perhaps a test of various angles for the finished product – with some partial shading and much other space untouched (in artworks of this intensity, ‘nothing’ can mean almost everything), engendering a compelling sense of their involvement in the imagined nuptial scene.

Saint Sebastian. By Agnolo Bronzino.

The whole commission allowed Raphael to display his skill in evoking the supernatural nymphs who in one version from ancient Greek mythology are the daughters of Zeus and Eurynome, the mermaid of the sea and clouds.

Three Graces – Aglaia, Thalia, and Euphrosyne – were according to Homer attendants of Aphrodite – who, as Venus in Roman lore exerted her fascination on many other Renaissance practitioners.

The Royal Collection Trust in a commentary on the Raphael drawing says: “The draughtsman is fully in control of his medium, taking the drawing as far as necessary and no further, defining highlights simply by leaving areas of paper blank.” In the eventual painting, “the clear and harmonious light in the drawing became harsh and incoherent.” The commentary speculates that there may have been in the series several other study pieces, since lost.

Like many of his contemporaries, Raphael was a fan of red chalk because it can suggest detailed anatomy more dramatically than other mediums.

Allegory of Fortune. By Dosso Dossi.

The simplicity of the Raphael conception is of a piece with the way The Renaissance Nude is presented without the gimmicky accessories or combinations that these days fanfare some other grand exhibitions. Deftly orchestrated, the show chronicles the siren call of the nude and how that inspired some of the most renowned masterpieces of the western canon.

It simply but spectacularly displays some 90 works in a variety of mediums and that bring cross-cultural contributions from around Europe. It brilliantly condenses the story of the dynamic naturalistic tradition that reached back for its genesis to classical sculpture. Often dispensing with modesty and on occasion descending to bawdiness, the trends realised a new geography of the body and, it is said by the curators, permanently altered the character and values of European art.

The rise of the nude in art in the period stemmed from revived interest in classical literature and Greek and Roman mythology and art, which unambiguously celebrated the body, and called forth a closer study of nature. In Italy during the later 1400s, drawing of shamelessly uncorseted models became common practice and this spread to northern Europe. Five centuries later, this remains a key element in training of students at art college.

The bubble of risk in Allegory of Fortune.

Once the clothes were off, the fad pervaded the continent, letting loose a huge variety of interpretation. By today’s market-driven standards of beauty, many of the men and women portrayed might be deemed too skinny or too plump and knobbly, but the cover-up of the early Middle Ages was over.

The artists did not have far to search for models, and one of the favourites was Saint Sebastian, a centurion condemned by Emperor Diocletian for his Christian faith. He was tied to a tree and riddled with arrows but survived, only to be stoned to death.

The saint was the ideal vehicle for “the rise of the nude” and for altarpieces because his ability to withstand the arrows was symbolic of resistance to the Black Death. The persistence of the pandemic occasioned great demand for his image.

After being compared to the god Apollo, this was the signal for artists to depict him as a handsome and attractive young man. By the time the Florentine artist Agnolo Bronzino pictured him around 1533 flatteringly draped in an off-the-shoulders cloth, with cute, curly hair and looking almost nonchalant, he no longer appeared to be suffering very much. Bronzino’s oil painting, on loan from Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, is an obvious choice as the poster boy for the entire exhibition.

Saint Sebastian as poster boy.

Venice’s Giovanni Battista Cima de Conegliano (1459-1517) has at the beginning of the 16th century the skimpily loin-clothed saint towering above the landscape and gazing soulfully into the distance, a single arrow piercing his thigh, his flesh otherwise healthily smooth. The martyr is pierced cleanly and his pose is more akin to Apollo as a sex-symbol than to a martyr. This work comes from the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg.

This blossoming of art embodying unashamedly naked figures – re-establishing what was standard for the ancient Greeks and their Roman followers – came as print-making developed alongside painting and sculpture, democratising access to great art. The whole world of art and literature was being reconfigured.

It was an epoch in which artists including Lucas Cranach the Elder, Albrecht Dürer, Jan Gossaert, Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci could happily shun compromise in their exploration of new repertoire and new ways of treating the human body. It is an exciting education to view these masters in other than their most familiar oeuvre.

Such men were often emboldened to tackle universal themes of morality beyond religion and reflect this in the behaviour of their dramatis personae, wrapped and otherwise.

Battle of the Nudes. By Antonio Pollaiuolo.

Titian, Giorgione, and Correggio were among those who delighted in showing the female nude, but Italian artists were training in life drawing of males. The exhibition gives attention to the Florentine Antonio Pollaiuolo’s large composition from the 1470s, Battle of the Nudes, which has been called the single most important engraving in European history. Ten naked males are displayed in various postures, and the print won fame throughout Europe, but not everyone liked it – Leonardo da Vinci was reported to have scoffed that the bodies looked like “bags of nuts.”

Still, Pollaiuollo seemed otherwise to have been singing from the same page as Leonardo, as he was reputed to be one of the first artists to dissect corpses for study.

Although seaborne trade was expanding, state rivalries and trade and physical wars and the vulnerability of powers-that-be to internal upheaval find a reflection in Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (1486-1542).

Adam and Eve. By Albrecht Dürer.

This could serve equally as an allegory of 21st century instability and turmoil.  In the large canvas (lent by the J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) Dossi depicts two un-costumed figures. One is a pale-fleshed young woman brandishing a cornucopia and seated on a bubble that could burst at any time, scattering wealth to the winds, which are already rustling the drapery in the background. On the left is a man clasping a handful of lottery tickets ready to put them into a golden urn, personifying Chance. All this amounted to a warning that the prosperity of even the great ruling families is at the mercy of good fortune.

Lottery tickets were the personal emblem of Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua (1474-1539), one of the few female patrons of the arts. Dossi (Giovanni di Niccolò de Lutero) of Ferrara was among brilliant painters, along with Raphael, Bellini and Titian, favoured by the Este family salon.

Respect for antiquity attains one of the highest points in the many renderings of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, voluptuously presented in Titian’s Venus Rising from the Sea (Venus Anadyomene) from around 1520. The strong-thighed goddess fills much of the canvas, with the sea shell bobbing on the water beside her emphasising her origins in the deep.

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck. By Leonardo da Vinci.

The legend of birth of Venus fully-formed from the waves goes back to Pliny the Elder who described a now-lost painting on the same subject by the renowned Hellenistic artist Apelles of Kos, active in the fourth century BC. Pliny’s Natural History relates that Apelles might have used Campaspe, a mistress of Alexander the Great, as his model.

Titian shows the goddess wringing her golden tresses, in a pose from classical sculpture This oil on canvas has a fortunate providence. It was accepted in lieu of inheritance tax by the UK government 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 in 2003.

We are meanwhile given an insight into the methods of two of the greatest humans of the millennium. Leonardo, we are reminded, sought to understand scientifically how the human body works and went beyond artistic representation. Left-handed Leonardo’s mirror script from left to right is seen in two pen and brown ink studies of the shoulder and neck.

Michelangelo shared the interest of Leonardo in the musculature of the human body but was more focused in its pictorial representation. Between 1515 and 1520 he drew in red chalk on paper the outlines of a male nude, indicating its proportions: a modest piece, but another touch of the man’s genius.

We are taken back to titanic struggles by Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506) in his Battle of the Sea Gods, an engraving from before 1481 perhaps personally executed by this pioneer printmaker. This was the left half of a frieze based on an ancient relief. The fearsomely-unclad gods mounted on monsters are spurred on by a naked hag Invidia, or Envy.

Venus Rising from the Sea. By Titian.

Hans Baldung Grien was one of those who tended to depict women as demonic creatures rather than as beauties to be desired. He produced the1510 chiaroscuro woodcut The Witches’ Sabbath soon after he moved to Strasbourg from Nuremberg, where he had been a journeyman with Albrecht Dürer. More curious and salacious is his 1513 woodcut of Aristotle and his lover Phyllis which symbolises the triumph of female seduction over masculine intellect. In a burlesque satire taken up by several Renaissance artists the courtesan Phyllis is seen riding side-saddle on the back of the great philosopher, keeping a tight rein on him and wielding a riding crop.

Aristotle had warned his student, Alexander the Great, against spending too much time with Phyllis, instead of than attending lessons. This so annoyed the lady that she seduced Aristotle, then forced him to carry her round the garden while Alexander hid and watched.

Other celebrated works on show include Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Adam and Eve from 1504 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), Lucas Cranach the Elder’s A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion, c 1526 (J Paul Getty Museum) and Jan Gossaert’s Hercules and Deianira of 1517 (Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham).

The nude flourished in Renaissance Europe until outrage over Michelangelo’s monumental Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel boiled over. The mural exposed too much flesh for the sensibility of Pope Pius V who shortly after the artist’s death in 1564 ordered drapery to be painted over the nakedness.

As the curators say, the nude had ascended to a dominant role as it “appeared in sacred and secular contexts, from small, intimate objects to monumental decorative programmes filling church interiors and stately palaces.”

The Renaissance Nude is organised by the Royal Academy of Arts and the J Paul Getty Museum, where it was previously to be seen.  It is curated by Thomas Kren, senior curator emeritus at the J Paul Getty Museum (who came up with the idea four years earlier) in collaboration with the Royal Academy’s Per Rumberg.

This calmly-paced consideration of the human frame will make you stop, look and check (against Renaissance ideals and less-than-ideals) the physique you see unadorned in the bathroom mirror tomorrow morning.

Captions in detail:

The Three Graces, c 1517-18. Red chalk on paper. By Raphael. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2019.

Saint Sebastian, c 1533. Oil on panel. By Agnolo Bronzino. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

Allegory of Fortune, c 1530. Oil on canvas, By Dosso Dossi. J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Venus Rising from the Sea (Venus Anadyomene) c 1520. Oil on canvas. By Titian. National Galleries of Scotland.

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck, c 1510-11.  Pen and brown ink with wash over paper. By Leonardo da Vinci. Royal Collection Trust© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2019.

Adam and Eve, 1504. Engraving. By Albrecht Dürer. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Art Museum Council Fund.

Battle of the Nudes, 1470s. Engraving. By Antonio Pollaiuolo. The Albertina Museum, Vienna.

The Renaissance Nude is at the Sackler wing of the Royal Academy until June 2, 2019.  10am – 6pm daily. Late  opening on Fridays until 10pm.

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