Come and Go by Samuel Beckett (1965)

Come and Go is an example of the form Beckett came to call ‘dramaticules’ for the simple reason that they are very short. Come and Go consists of a set of very precise stage movements and just over 120 words of dialogue, and is about seven minutes long in performance. As with most of Beckett’s later works, the detailed stage directions are as long as the text of the ‘play’ itself.

Stage directions

Lights go up on a stage empty apart from a bench on which are sitting three women. The lighting is:

Soft, from above only and concentrated on playing area. Rest of stage as dark as possible.

Over the course of the seven minutes we will learn from the sparse dialogue that the women’s names are Ru, Vi and Flo. They are wearing full-length coats, buttoned high, a dull violet for Ru, dull red for Vi, dull yellow for Flo. They should be wearing:

Drab nondescript hats with enough brim to shade faces. Apart from colour differentiation three figures as
alike as possible. Light shoes with rubber soles. Hands made up to be as visible as possible. No rings apparent.

The seat? It must be:

Narrow benchlike seat, without back, just long enough to accommodate three figures almost touching. As little visible as possible. It should not be clear what they are sitting on.

When the women come and go:

They should disappear a few steps from lit area. If dark not sufficient to allow this, recourse should be had to screens or drapes as little visible as possible. Exits and entrances slow, without sound of feet.

Their voices should be:

As low as compatible with audibility. Colourless except for three ‘ohs’ and two lines following.

The women’s movements

The three women, Flo, Vi, Ru, are sitting on a bench. The central one, Vi, gets up and walks backstage, leaving Flo and Ru. The one on our left, Flo, shuffles over to the one on the right, Ru, and whispers in her ear and Ru gasps, ‘Oh’.

The one who had left, Vi, re-enters and takes up the vacant place on the left. The one in the middle, Flo, gets up and walks backstage. The one on the right, Ru, shuffles over to sit next to the one on the left, Vi, and whispers something in her ear. Vi gasps ‘Oh’. Flo reappears from backstage and takes the vacant place on the right.

The one now in the middle, Ru, gets up and walks backstage. The one on the left, Vi, shuffles across to be sitting next to the one on the right, Flo and whispers in her ear. Flo gasps, ‘Oh’.

Ru appears from backstage and takes up the vacant place on the left of the bench. All this is entirely in line with one of Beckett’s central attributes which is a fanatically precise attention to physical postures and movements. It’s quite possible that the prose works from this period (the mid-1960s) have their genesis in the various, precisely described, physical postures of the various protagonists. Certainly his plays had, for some time, not only become shorter, but more interested in the precise posture and movements of the protagonists than in what they say. So precise were his instructions that he drew a schematic of the women’s changing positions:

The changing positions of Flo, Vi and Ru on the bench in ‘Come and Go’

In the final minute of the play the three women join hands in a gesture designed, one suspects, purely for its agreeable geometric complexity. Beckett gives a detailed prose description of the movement:

[After a moment they join bands as follows: Vi’s right band with Ru ‘s right band. Vi’s left band with Flo ‘s left
hand, Flo’s right band with Ru’s left band, Vi’s arms being above Ru’s left arm and Flo’s right arm. The three
pairs of clasped bands rest on the three laps.]

And in case that’s not enough, Beckett also gives another schematic diagram:

Schematic of the arrangement of the three women’s hands at the end of ‘Come and Go’

The careful notation and the pattern of movements and gestures is reminiscent of many musical forms, most of which require the statement of a particular theme or cadence which is then repeated with variations.

The Beckett on Film version

What does all this look like in practice? Well, here is a very faithful production which fulfils Beckett’s instructions to the letter. It was part of the Beckett On Film project, and was directed by John Crow, featuring Anna Massey as Vi, Siân Phillips as Ru and Paola Dionisotti as Flo.

Performance art

Personally, I find this obsessive emphasis on the precise delineation and definition of every single element of the performance makes the piece more like a kind of living sculpture or piece of performance art than a ‘play’.

There are three individuals and they are given actual names (unlike M, W1 and W2 in Play, for example) and they do actually say things which make a sort of sense – but personally I can’t help thinking of the apparent content of the playlet i.e. what the characters say, as very, very secondary to the visualisation of the staging and the dogmatic precision with which Beckett polices it. In the same way that semi-abstract art may take its origin from some aspect of ‘the real world’ but the real interest is in how these elements are abstracted out into an overall design.

Content

It’s almost scary how much commentary critics and scholars have been able to spool out of this short playlet. The Wikipedia article about Come and Go is dismayingly long. Four elements stand out, for me:

1. Old ladies

The play depicts three old ladies nattering. I grew up in a village full of old people, in fact my parents ran the village shop and I started working in it when I was 12 or 13. Not only that, but across the road was a nunnery which had been converted into an old people’s home, staffed by very old nuns looking after even older ladies. My point is that my boyhood was dominated by different groups of old ladies meeting up in the shop or just outside and nattering on for hours. Old Miss Luck, Miss Grace, Miss Denis and Mrs Hobson are just four that spring to mind. So I take the play at face value as three old ladies sitting on a bench having a natter.

A possibly overlooked element of this ‘realistic’ interpretation is how boring and empty a lot of old people’s lives are. With no jobs to fill their days, with no children to bring up, lots of retired and elderly people find their lives very empty. Chatting with friends your own age, specially about children and grandchildren, or about the thousand aches and pains that flesh is heir to, fills the time. Specially for old women, who will more than likely outlive their husbands, often by decades.

2. Bad news

The notion that as soon as one of three old ladies departs the other two instantly fall to gossiping about her is as old as the human race. Modern young feminist scholars may dismiss it as sexist stereotyping but I’ve seen it happen, myself, so many hundreds of times that I consider it simple realism. What makes it even more realistic, to my mind, is that the two remainers instantly share some ‘shocking’ news about the woman who’s just left the stage. This news is whispered, but whispered quite loudly, in a showy, attention-pulling kind of way, to make the whisperer feel important. And it’s fairly obvious from the auditor’s response, that the two women are sharing the ‘secret’ that the one who is offstage at that moment, has some fatal illness but doesn’t know it.

This feature of the playlet manages to combine three elements: a pretty realistic aspect of old ladies gossiping, with the Beckett theme of doom-laden lives, impending death etc, with a third element, which is a multiple dramatic irony. Level one of dramatic irony is the way each pair of old ladies knows that the other one is dying of an incurable disease; level two is that we, the audience, know that they are all dying of an incurable disease.

Beckett is saying that we all like to reassure ourselves that we are alright and it is the others who are in a parlous plight. But you know what – in reality we are all in the same parlous plight, all of us are dying by degrees and doomed to the same fate.

3. Threes

VI: When did we three last meet?

The fact that it is three women lends itself to all kinds of symbolic interpretations, for example the three Graces, the three Fates of Greek mythology, the three Norns of Norse mythology, or the Trinity of Christian theology. Small essays can be written imposing these or any other triad you can think of onto the three women, but they don’t interest me much.

Three of anything is just a convenient number. 2,000 years ago Cicero pointed out that if you wanted to impress your listeners, your speeches should include sentences containing three clauses: blood, sweat and tears; earth, wind and fire; the good, the bad and the ugly; hands, face, space; if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again; the German proverb Alle guten Dinge sind drei; you wait ages for one bus, then three come along at once.

And of course that opening sentence has reminded every English student who ever read or heard it of the opening line of Macbeth with its three witches:

When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

In any context, three entities feels just the right number (to our ape minds, for whatever reason): two isn’t quite enough, four is too many, three is a perfect size.

4. Padding

I can’t find quite the right word to describe the fourth element, what you could call ‘filler material’ or ‘padding’, in the sense of ‘content produced to fill up gaps or holes’. What I’m getting at is that having assembled his three old ladies and conceived the ironic core of the action – the way each pair of them shares the secret of the other one’s fatal illness – all good so far, Beckett now has to, er pad the rest of the time out with something. But with what?

I think this is an easily identifiable aspect of most of Beckett’s work, whether prose or plays: there’s a basic structure often based on the position of a body or bodies; there’s a kind of geometric ideas about how bodies position themselves or move; a set of key words and phrases emerge which can be repeated to an intense degree… but there needs to be something else, some kind of distinct content which makes each piece unique.

Often it’s a name, thrown in almost at random to create the illusion of ‘content’, that the piece is referring to something the rest of us can relate to, to ‘characters’ who may then be given some attributes to pad them out. For me the standout example is the figure of ‘Woburn’ in Cascando. In that work Beckett had conceived of a kind of impresario who controls the contributions of the two abstract entities Voice and Music. Now Music is easy enough to create, and Beckett worked with composers who created it for him. But Voice, what can Voice say? It needed to be a story which is continually started but never finished and never told in quite the right way. The easiest solution was to think of a person undertaking an activity and so the finished piece has Voice repeatedly telling the ‘story’ of this figure Woburn, who he repeatedly describes getting out of bed, getting dressed, going downstairs, out the house, across the beach and trying to launch a dinghy into the sea.

My point is that what he does and his name, Woburn, are utterly irrelevant to the basic structure of the piece, but once they had been decided, then they become both strangely hypnotic in performance, and susceptible to any number of clever scholarly interpretations. But Woburn’s primary purpose is to pad out the structural skeleton, to provide the filler which gives it content.

Same here. Beckett adds a name and a factual reference, just one:

FLO: Just sit together as we used to, in the playground at Miss Wade’s.
RU: On the log.

Who is Miss Wade? What does the log symbolise? Ten thousand scholars have shed much ink investing this handful of words with multiple significances, and who knows, maybe they’re all right. Maybe it starts by meaning what it says at face value, namely the three old ladies are remembering when they were little girls back at Miss Wade’s nursery or school and used to sit on a log and hold hands. And scholars have indeed discovered that Beckett’s female cousins attended a school in Dublin run by three spinster sisters and commonly known Miss Wade’s. ‘Aha! Gotcha!’ This might be called the sentimental interpretation. Aah.

But looked at structurally, this is quite obviously a familiar Beckett strategy: he has created the skeleton, the frame of a work, and it is the skeleton – the bench, the three women, their carefully choreographed movements – which really interest him. Now he has to put some flesh on it to keep the punters happy. He needs a few touches of colour in an otherwise almost entirely white, abstract design.

Same sort of thing happens a few minutes later:

VI: May we not speak of the old days? [Silence. ] Of what came after? [Silence. ]

Beckett is dangling his familiar theme, the sense of loss and decay, hinting at some disaster or unmentionable incident, for the gossips in the audience and academy to speculate about. But it is almost over-familiar; we have heard Beckett characters make these kind of pseudo-profound statements so many times, they come as no surprise. But the characters have to say something.

And again, at the very end, the last words, after the three ladies have joined hands:

FLO: I can feel the rings. [Silence. ]

Well, you don’t have to be a genius to see how these words emphasise the circular shape of the play which ends where it began and consists of a series of repeated patterns within itself, and brings out the intertwining nature of the three women’s lives, or fates.

The bombastic among us might reference Wagner’s massive Ring series of operas. The sentimental might notice that none of the three are actually wearing rings (a detail emphasised by Beckett) and so Flo is referring to invisible and imagined rings, maybe the rings the three spinsters longed for all their lives and never attained. The literary (such as the editors of The Beckett Companion) may think of Henry Vaughan’s poem, Eternity:

I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light

Or those of us with small children might be prompted to think of the Circle of Life from that great philosophical work, The Lion King. I.e. it’s almost like these brief, pregnant phrases are consciously designed to trigger responses in the word and idea centres of the brain…

But, for me, the point is not the words, or the meanings the words conjure up – it is the silences. In fact, surely the most important thing about the verbal content of Come and Go – once you have processed the irony of the whispered secrets – is the long, looong silences which punctuate it. It is a play made up of silences. Just over 120 words, but how many silences? (I counted: the word ‘silence’ appears 12 times; 1 silence per ten words).

A complex ballet of movements. Three whispered revelations. The bare minimum of ‘affect’ or content. Long silences. It is amazing how dense and complex such a brief piece of drama can be.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • Lessness (1970) Short prose
  • The Lost Ones (1966-70) Short prose
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • Fizzles (1973 to 1975) Short prose pieces
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • … but the clouds… (1976) Television play
  • neither (1976)
  • For to End Yet Again (1976)
  • Ghost Trio (1977) Television play
  • Company (1979) Short story
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1988) Short prose

The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

It is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other, some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together works across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure was covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the classic locus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of subjects like Christ being scourged or crucified and a number of Last Judgments with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The fall of the damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the way the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to eat and torture. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was an established intellectual school by the early 1500s.

Initially it focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of classical mythology. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or tried to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. This little drawing is among the most ravishing works int he exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ don’t appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, whereas some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of bare human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

However, blunt Anglo-Saxon words like ‘sex’ are, apparently, banned. If you are an art scholar you are only allowed to use the word ‘desire’ (and preferably ‘same-sex desire’ because that is the only permissible form of male sexuality, since it is not targeted at women but at other men).

Straightforward male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Any way in which a man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but absolutely all of them are banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history.

I don’t even really disagree with them as ideas, it’s just the sheer tedium of having them crop up in every art exhibition, and above all, the way the repetitive use of a handful of ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters of the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich lover? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and the show-off depiction oft he red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made as copies of newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and often rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artist’s workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion of Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy, in this case of a man’s shoulder.

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated.

The founding motif in this subject is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with the spear, and there is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. Not the blood streaming from his multiple wounds, but the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on sex and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s sexuality and/or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives. The universal artspeak use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and the whippings which I had, by this stage, seen and were crystallised by this image, which prompted me to disagree with the curators’ interpretations

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the way the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned even into this unlikely context.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

This is, in my opinion, to be so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one, is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed.

Number two, the nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. In fact the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is is just a cooked animal or something worse? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of closing down investigation and analysis in a welter of tired clichés, rather than furthering it.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them is a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Northern painter Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons and accurate musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – for me – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming… I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity – they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography – the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross echoed in the almost-nudity of countless saints who are depicted being tortured to death.

They discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (presumably beloved by the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches supposedly exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story or key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity or incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age, or celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400-1530.

The reverse: the exhibition suggests that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and meanings which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their patrons and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • One of the medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress to reveal her thighs.
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between nudity and various forms of dress and bodily covering pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and the notion that this era saw the Rise of the Daring Naughty Naked Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world of genuine delicacy and innocence. Surprisingly, maybe, this late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition, by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, surprisingly, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way he shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in the books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists workshops, the kind of thing you find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker.

I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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