Shedding light on history of nudes

The Renaissance Nude at Los Angeles' Getty Museum tracks how the naked body became a subject for art

LOS ANGELES • Here is the bare truth - good exhibitions complicate things without confusing them.

By that standard, the Getty Museum's The Renaissance Nude is a very fine show, adding layers of complexity to the general understanding of how the naked body became a subject for art in the 15th century.

It focuses not just on the heroic nude in Italy, the idealised body inspired by the rediscovery of ancient art, but also on the nude throughout Europe.

It surveys the various forces in play at the time - including changes in religious practice and new, more rigorous powers of observation - and how those forces created an appetite for depiction of the unclothed body.

And it acknowledges the obvious - that desire was always a part of the pleasure of the naked figure, no matter how pious, allegorical or mythological the supporting narrative.

The exhibition, curated by Mr Thomas Krens, looks at a period of about 120 years, beginning in 1400, and includes more than 100 works, many of them significant loans from major European collections.

It features works by Giovanni Bellini, Donatello, Albrecht Durer, Jan Gossaert, Antonio Pollaiuolo and Titian, and includes paintings, sculptures, drawings (including anatomical renderings by Leonardo da Vinci) and prints.

It also places a particular focus on French artists, who produced a kind of hidden history of the nude in illustrated devotional books, images meant for private contemplation and images that are not always incorporated into the broader understanding of the nude during this period.

Italian artist Dosso Dossi's oil on canvas, Allegory Of Fortune (1530, right), is featured in The Renaissance Nude exhibition.
Italian artist Dosso Dossi's oil on canvas, Allegory Of Fortune (1530, above), is featured in The Renaissance Nude exhibition. PHOTO: THE J. PAUL GETTY MUSEUM

Different understandings of propriety influenced the development of the nude form as well.

In Italy, in the early 15th century, images of the naked St Sebastian predominated, in part because it was not appropriate to draw naked women from life.

A drawing of female figures by Pisanello, probably made in the mid-1420s to the early 1430s, may or may not have been drawn from actual observation of female models, but if it was, then it was one of the earliest such drawings.

Purely artistic forces were also driving the new imagery.

The impulse to virtuosity, to elaborate and refine and outdo earlier work, might explain the slightly surreal Battle Of The Nudes, by Pollaiuolo, an engraving that was influential throughout Europe.

It shows a brutal battle among 10 naked men, who wield swords, arrows, axes and daggers.

The context for this bloodlust is not stated or obvious, but the artist's motivation might simply have been to show his skill at different poses of the male figure.

Observation may have driven some of the development of the nude, but observation also led to idealisation and, for many artists, sketching the naked body was not about capturing a discreet moment in the life of a living figure, but about perfecting the form of the figure beyond the particulars of any one body.

Artists such as Durer sought to schematise the body, identify its proportions and determine the ideal relation of its parts to one another.

Artists such as Michelangelo pushed that idealisation to create what still reads today as superhuman bodies, perfect beyond reason.

In some ways, that brought the Renaissance full circle, from its initial argument with the formulaic mediaeval depiction of the body to yet another formula - the over-buffed, supposedly "classical" nude one sees in the figures of the Sistine Chapel (an image of which concludes the Getty show).

Among the more gratifying images in the exhibition are those that suggest the variety of body types that were considered beautiful.

An image by Durer of a woman praying, seen from behind, shows a more full and fleshy ideal of beauty, while several of the early St Sebastians depict male beauty as androgynous and even feminine.

A powerful drawing by Hans Baldung shows The Ecstatic Christ, who has the powerful body of a classical figure, but is seen twisting on the ground, with the wounds of the crucifixion clearly visible on one hand.

The Baldung drawing reminds the viewer of something that becomes a powerful leitmotif of the exhibition - that many of these works insist on operating in wildly different, even self-contradictory ways.

In fact, this exhibition leaves one with the sense that the current moment is the puritanical and nervous one and that people still have a long way to go before fully acknowledging how wonderfully voluptuous the past has always been.


• The Renaissance Nude is on at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles until Jan 27.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2019, with the headline 'Shedding light on history of nudes'. Print Edition | Subscribe