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

Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing @ the Barbican Gallery

To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, potentially unattainable…

This is a major retrospective of one of the best known documentary photographers of the 20th century, the American Dorothea Lange. It brings together some 300 objects – hundreds of vintage prints and original book publications through to ephemera, field notes, letters, magazines and books in which her photos featured.

It also includes a documentary film interview with her made towards the end of her life in which she explains her ideas and motivations.

Rarely has an artist or photographer been so overshadowed by one work, Lange’s super-famous portrait of a Migrant Mother which has come to symbolise the suffering of America’s Mid-Western farmers in the Great depression of the 1930s – forced to abandon their land due to bank foreclosures and catastrophic environmental collapse.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

But the exhibition goes out of its way to present this period of Lange’s work in the broader, and more varied context of her entire career.

The show proceeds in straightforward chronological order, from her earliest professional photos of 1919 through to her last project in 1957.

Room 1 Portrait studio

In 1919 Lange set up a portrait studio in San Francisco, which she ran until 1935. The studio became a meeting place for San Francisco’s creative community, including bohemian and artist friends such as Edward Weston, Anne Brigman, Alma Lavenson, Imogen Cunningham, and Willard van Dyke.

There’s a portrait of photographer Roi Partridge, and of painter Maynard Dixon, Lange’s first husband and father of her two sons.

The style and mood are soft focus with plenty of self-consciously artistic poses from artists, writers, poets and musicians – people like the founder of the San Francisco Opera, Gaetano Merola. There’s a misty, soft focus, aesthetic feel to most of them, like the wonderfully romantic Woman in a black hat, and a beautifully caught mother turning away from the camera. The baby is rather rubicund but the mother’s pose has the self-conscious (and slender) grace of a Virginia Woolf.

Mother and child (1928) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Mother and child (1928) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

This is bourgeois, arty Lange – before she was ‘woke’.

Rooms 2, 3, and 4 – The Great Depression and the Farm Security Administration

In the early 1930s Lange began to notice homeless men hanging round on the San Francisco streets. Along with everyone else she watched as this trickle turned into a flood of homeless families, farmers uprooted from the Mid-Western states by crop failures caused by drought and over-farming and exacerbated by bank foreclosures by banks who were themselves fighting off bankruptcy. Altogether some 300,000 farmers and their families were forced to head West in the hope of getting work as casual labourers in California.

This, and the accompanying political uproar it caused, woke Lange from her aesthetic slumber and gave her a subject. She took her camera out onto the street and was soon snapping demonstrations, unemployed workers, and breadline queues.

This section of the exhibition displays some hundred photos she took of these subjects, as well as displaying some of the magazines they were shown in, alongside letters and diaries of her travels into the Dustbowl and among the temporary encampments set up by these poverty-stricken migrants all across southern California.

Lange was hired by the Farm Security Administration work (1935–1939) to publicise the problem in a range of government-sponsored publications. By association she was supporting the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to create a New Deal and support the farmers. She worked alongside other notable photographers, including Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and Arthur Rothstein.

White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

The photos show a wide range of subject matter including:

  • urban poverty in San Francisco
  • tenant farmers driven off the land by dust storms
  • mechanisation in the states of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas
  • the plight of homeless families on the road in search of better livelihoods in the West
  • the awful conditions of migrant workers and camps across California

Traveling for many months at a time and working in the field, Lange collaborated with a prominent social economist and expert in farm labour, Paul Schuster Taylor, who became her second husband. With him she published the seminal photo book An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion in 1939. A copy of the book and associated letters and diaries are on display here.

Room 3 Migrant Mother

There’s an entire room devoted to the iconic Migrant Mother photo, rather as there used to be a room at the National Gallery devoted to Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks. And after all the two images have a lot in common, being images of a mother and baby.

But what justifies giving it a room of its own is the backstory to the photo. Driving along, Lange saw a sign to a pea-picking camp, took a detour to visit it, wandered round, saw this particularly wretched mother and her swarming infants in a truly pitiful make-do shelter, and asked permission to photograph her.

Because the final version is so iconic it’s lost a lot of its power to shock. The photos she took in the run-up to the final version were – to me at any rate – completely unfamiliar and their unfamiliarity recaptures that sense of squalor and abandonment. It’s just a makeshift tent in a crappy bit of scrubland, sheltering children in rags with nothing to eat. There’s nothing epic or artistic about it. It is pure misery.

Migrant Mother alternate takes by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Migrant Mother alternate takes by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Architecture

It’s possible to become a little overloaded with Lange’s powerful images of the poor trudging along streets carrying all their earthly possessions in a blanket, or dirty men hanging round street corners begging for work.

The exhibition points out that Lange also had an eye for the stark architecture of the Mid-West. She shot buildings in a classic, square-on way which gives them a striking monumentality.

Dust Bowl, Grain Elevator, Everett, Texas, June 1938 by Dorothea Lange. Library of Congress

Dust Bowl, Grain Elevator, Everett, Texas, June 1938 by Dorothea Lange. Library of Congress

There’s also a section which focuses on Lange’s interest in parts of the body. Photos of people’s arms, or legs, or torsos, capturing the arrangement of limbs in a self-conscious, posed, artistic way. The curators speculate that this may have been something to do with the fact that Lange had polio when she was seven, which left her right leg and foot noticeably weakened.

Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Later in life Lange came to think that having to overcome such a physical trauma at such an early age had shaped her personality, her ambition, her refusal to quit.

It was the most important thing that happened to me, and formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me.

Maybe her own personal struggle against illness predisposed her to be interested in the underdog?

Room 6 Japanese American internment

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, the U.S. Government decided to round up and intern all U.S. citizens of Japanese descent. Even at the time many people thought this was a mistake and it has gone on to become a well-known radical cause célèbre.

Over the next year more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were rounded up by the War Relocation Authority and housed in makeshift camps. Lange’s series of photos depict not only the Japanese-Americans themselves, but the architecture and infrastructure of the camps. There are bleak signs and posters attacking the Japanese, or in which patriotic Americans announced their loyalty.

It is the first time this series of works has been shown outside the US and Canada.

Centerville, California by Dorothea Lange. This evacuee stands by her baggage as she waits for evacuation bus. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry were housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration, 1942. Courtesy National Archives

Centerville, California by Dorothea Lange. This evacuee stands by her baggage as she waits for evacuation bus. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry were housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration, 1942. Courtesy National Archives

Room 7 California shipyards

As America swung into full wartime production mode, all aspects of agriculture and industry across Lange’s native California were called on to play their part. The shipyards at Richmond, California became an important centre for producing naval vessels. Along with friend and fellow photographer Ansel Adams, Lange documented the war effort in the shipyards for Fortune magazine in 1944.

The town experienced an explosive increase in population numbers and business of the endlessly changing shifts of shipyard workers. To quote the wall label, Lange was ‘drawn to images that transgressed accepted attitudes towards gender and race’ i.e. women and blacks.

Shipyard worker, 1943 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Shipyard worker, 1943 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

After the rooms full of photos of begging farmers, of the wrongfully interned Japanese, and of black and woman shipyard workers, you have got a good feel for the way Lange had made herself a portrayer of the underdog, a chronicler of society’s victims or defiers of conventional values.

She faced a problem, then, after the war, when America headed into a prolonged period of high employment and affluence. The wall label tells us that Lange disapproved of the arrival of mass consumer culture, cheap homes, a radio and then a TV, a fridge and an affordable car for everyone.

To me, it seems that you can’t have it both ways. You can’t produce tear-jerking images of utter poverty and wretchedness, begging the government for something to be done – and then be upset when people finally find work, employment, and can afford somewhere decent to live, a house, a car.

It seemed to me that Lange, by now a familiar figure on the Left, had settled into a posture of permanent opposition, even when Americans had never had it so good.

Room 9 Public defender

This comes over in the project she embarked on in 1955. California had instituted a new system of public defenders to represent the poorest plaintiffs in court, and Lange spent six weeks shadowing one of these new public defenders, Martin Pulich.

From the jaws of the most affluent nation on earth, Lange was able to pull a series of photos which still managed to focus on poverty, bad education and the sorry squalor of the criminal classes.

She has such a great eye. The courtroom shots are all powerfully composed. There are classic shots of a grim-faced judge sitting under an American flag, of Pulich standing next to a sequence of sorry, shame-faced defendants, of the defendants’ wives or girlfriends slumped in anguish in the corridors outside the court. Of prison vans and prison cells.

Public Defender in Court, Oakland, California (1955) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Public Defender in Court, Oakland, California, 1955 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

In the era when more Americans had better paid jobs than ever before, bought their own houses and cars, and their kids were cruising round listening to Elvis on the radio, Lange was exploring the US legal defence system for the poor and disadvantaged through the work of a public defender at the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland.

I guess affluence and happiness are just such boring subjects for artists. There is an in-built bias in modern (post-Great War) art, towards always focusing in on the underdog, the downtrodden, the pitiful and the outcast. The many millions who have great jobs, drive big cars, have barbeques with family at the weekend? Not seen so often in ‘modern’ art, film or photos.

Room 10 Death of a valley

In 1956 Lange heard about a town in California that was going to be destroyed by the construction of a dam.

Death of a Valley (1956–57) was the series of photos she made in collaboration with photographer Pirkle Jones, to document the disappearance of the small rural town of Monticello in California’s Berryessa Valley as a consequence of the damming of the Putah Creek.

The pair set out to capture the traditional rhythms of rural life in spring and summer – and then to document the uprooting of the town, the literal carting away of many of the wooden houses and the digging up of the dead to be reburied elsewhere, before the developers moved in with their giant earthworking machines and the remaining buildings were burnt to the ground.

Her depiction of cowboy hat-wearing old-timers dressed in dungarees in village stores are classic evocations of small-town California life. More vocative shots of rugged, individual people.

What also struck me about this sequence was that Lange was rarely good with pure landscapes. The few shots of the valley, as a whole,, on its own, are flat. Whenever people enter the frame, the photos jump to life.

These photos haven’t, apparently, been displayed or published since the 1960s.

Death of a Valley by Dorothea Lange (1957) © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Death of a Valley by Dorothea Lange, 1957 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Room 11 Ireland

In 1954 Lange made the only trip she ever made outside the USA, to Ireland. She spent six weeks in County Clare in western Ireland, capturing the experience of life in and around the farming town of Ennis.

Once again she demonstrates her terrific eye for spotting immensely characterful people and capturing them in richly evocative black and white photographs.

Ennistymon fair, County Clare Ireland (1954) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Ennistymon fair, County Clare Ireland (1954) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

But also, this series clinched for me the feeling that, at some point, Lange stopped portraying the world, the actual world – the big wide world of the Cold War and supersonic jets and colour TVs and cars with big fins pulling into diners where Elvis is blaring out of the jukebox.

Her black-and-white vision of the underdog, forged in the Great Depression, was only a part of American culture, even back then – and became a slenderer, almost endangered vision of outsiderness, as the majority of America headed confidently into an era of unprecedented affluence.

It seems to me wholly characteristic that she had to go abroad, leaving America altogether, to seek out the kind of peasant ‘honesty’ and ‘truthfulness’ and the ‘dignity of labour’ and so on, which she was temperamentally attracted to but was ceasing to exist in the land of I Love Lucy and the drive-in movie.

Lange’s politics

Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican, says:

Dorothea Lange is undoubtedly one of the great photographers of the twentieth century and the issues raised through her work have powerful resonance with issues we’re facing in society today.

Well, yes and no. There isn’t currently, in 2018, a great collapse in American agriculture forcing hundreds of thousands of farmers to migrate to the coast. There isn’t a world war in which people from the enemy nation are being interned in mass camps. Ireland is no longer a nation of sturdy peasants riding carts to market, but of financial over-reach and Catholic paedophilia.

If Alison means that Lange depicted poverty, well, when in human history hasn’t there been grinding poverty somewhere in the world? And when haven’t there been moralists, from Goya to Dickens, who have felt it their duty to record poverty and squalor?

1. This is a major overview of a really important photographer, showing how she brought an acute eye for the human, for human character, for the pathos of the human condition, to a wide range of embattled situations.

2. But it also made this visitor, at any rate, think about the nature of oppositional artists who thrive by focusing on the downtrodden, on society’s losers. It made me ponder whether this choice of subject matter represents a political act – in the sense that setting up a political party, making speeches, writing manifestos and hammering out party platforms is a political act – or whether it is more of a temperamental and artistic choice, a preferred subject matter – the subject matter which brings out the best in an artist and which they therefore learn to focus on it, as Stubbs specialised in horses or Bacon on screaming popes.

In other words, whether what Alison describes as ‘politics’ isn’t really, in fact, just a type of style.


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Every room in the National Gallery

A friend’s son is over from Spain. He’s studying art and so we spent one full day, from 10am till closing time at 6pm, on a mission to visit all 66 rooms in the National Gallery. We did it, and with 20 minutes left over to slip into the Goya exhibition as well.

The four sections

The Gallery holds some 2,300 works. They’re divided into four periods or themes, all of which are found in the 66 or so rooms spread over the gallery’s second floor:

  • 13th- to 15th-century paintings (rooms 51-60, west or Sainsbury wing) Duccio, Uccello, van Eyck, Lippi, Mantegna, Botticelli, Dürer, Memling, Bellini
  • 16th-century paintings (west wing, rooms 2-14) Leonardo, Cranach, Michelangelo, Raphael, Holbein, Bruegel, Bronzino, Titian, Veronese
  • 17th-century paintings (north wing, rooms 15-37) Caravaggio, Rubens, Poussin, Van Dyck, Velázquez, Claude, Rembrandt, Cuyp, Vermeer
  • 18th- to early 20th-century paintings (east wing, rooms 33-46) Canaletto, Goya, Turner, Constable, Ingres, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, Van Gogh

Floor plan of level 2 Hover your mouse over a room to see its title and click through to a detailed listing.

NB Rooms 41 and 42 are closed, some of the paintings have been moved to rooms C, D and E on level 0. Floor plan of level 0

Audioguide

There’s an audioguide: it costs £4, covers almost every painting in the collection and takes 5 hours to listen to non-stop. Obviously, if you pause it to wander from picture to picture, have lunch or take a comfort break, it will take longer. Maybe reckon on doing one of the four themes or periods on each visit.

Personal highlights

As with my recent trip to the British Museum, these are obviously not any kind of official highlights, just a list of things that made me stop and think or admire or want to make a note:

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist ('The Burlington House Cartoon') (about 1499-1500) by Leonardo da Vinci, 1452 - 1519. The National Gallery, London.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (‘The Burlington House Cartoon’) (about 1499-1500) by Leonardo da Vinci, 1452 – 1519. The National Gallery, London.

  • Leonardo da Vinci The Burlington House Cartoon (1500) This is kept in a small darkened room by the entrance to the Sainsbury wing where you can sit and admire genius. It is worth visiting the National Gallery to see this one image. Has any artist ever made any image more perfect, more mysterious and profound than this one? Leonardo is in a class of one. If you had to explain Western art to a Martian this painting would do it.
  • The Wilton Diptych (1395-9) This was a portable altarpiece made for the use of King Richard II (1377-99). I like the sideways posture of the young king and the generally static, hieratic posture of the figures. A gallery attendant explained Richard has ginger hair and therefore so do the angels. I really liked the image of the white hart on the reverse, with a crown round its neck and a golden chain. It was Richard’s personal emblem and therefore it is stamped onto the chests of the angels’ astonishingly blue tunics, like the logo of a football team.
  • Jan van Eyck Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) (1433) Next to the famous Arnolfini Portrait is this work. Like so many works of the northern Renaissance it is of a real person. No Christ child, Mary, angels, Magi, disciples or attendant saints. A real person commemorated for all time in their hereness, nowness, personhood.
  • Robert Campin A man and woman (1435) Real people.
  • Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family (about 1470) Swabian. A real person painted with great delicacy and sensitivity.
  • Sandro Botticelli Venus and Mars (1485) Not really looking like any human beings ever seen, this is like a high class cartoon, complete with lines around the figures, and the stylised neck, jaw and hair of the woman.
  • Giovanni Battista Moroni – Portrait of a Gentleman (‘Il Gentile Cavaliere’) (1564) Not a beautiful man but the rendition is perfect in every detail, including the gold lining and buttons up the front, and the loose binding of the leather-bound books under his left hand.
  • Titian emerges as one of the great geniuses of painting. He seems to have introduced a new much brighter palette. His portraits of 16th century notables are striking and individualistic. But I was struck by the handful of outdoors paintings which seem to have created a new way of conveying the human figure in outdoor settings, complete with realistic trees and earth and streams, old ruined buildings, in a brown palette. Before him there was nothing like this and after him everything looked like this for centuries: the effect on Gainsborough, for example, seems obvious:
  • Paolo Veronese The Dream of Helena (1570) The posture of the dreaming woman is perfect and the light on the dress, shimmers impressionistically.
  • Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) A whole room is devoted to Poussin (room 19) and I thought it significant that it was almost empty (three people). I’ve read that Poussin is a very intellectual painter and appreciating him is a developed taste. But I find his paintings empty of all passion or feeling, the characters positioned in stylised gestures, the overall composition draining the mythical events depicted of all energy or meaning. They are like a kind of abstract idea of painting, specimens of what painting would be if drained of all passion or feeling:
  • Peter Paul Rubens (room 29) is famous for his plump women. Out of his big compositions I noticed his subjects’ black eyes, white breasts and shiny armour, all three exemplified in Minerva protects Pax from Mars (1630). In The Judgement of Paris (1632-5) the black eyes and white boobs are obvious, but the shiny armour is there in the bottom left, in the shield with an image of the Gorgon and a discarded helmet on the ground.
  • Rembrandt van Rijn Portrait of Aechje Claesdr (1634) I like north European art because its humanism trumps the Mediterranean’s emphasis on Christian ideology. The compassion doesn’t come from choruses of angels or saints turning up their tearful eyes to heaven, but from the honest depiction of real people in all their frailty and humanity, deserving our empathy and compassion.
  • Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels (1654-6) by Rembrandt. His mistress, apparently, young, fresh faced, innocent, her open chemise hinting at her warm body, the whole image exudes intimacy, trust and love.
  • The solid, thick-waisted, small-breasted Rubens women make the Rokeby Venus (1647-51) by Diego Velázquez in the next room (30) all the more striking, her very slender waist, narrow back and defined shoulder blades looking anorexic by contrast.
  • Frans Hal Portrait of a Young Woman (1650s) A real person, looking innocent and vulnerable. You expect her to start talking to you
  • The Procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy (about 1760) by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, only a sketch but the more powerful for that.
  • Thomas Gainsborough The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat (1760) What could be lovelier, more charming, more innocent. After all the friars, monks, weeping saints and tortured Jesuses of the Spanish and Italian Baroque, coming into the Gainsborough gallery was like being able to breathe again. Generally, arriving in the English gallery with its trees, open country and educated landowners was a great relief: sun and air, trees and rivers and not a tortured, bleeding Christ in sight.
  • La Coiffure (about 1896) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. In last year’s Impressionism exhibition I was surprised not to like more Degas. But this painting seems to me a masterpiece: the combination of reds; the unfinished parts on the left; the heavy black lines giving a cartoon quality; the ordinary everyday subject matter; the two quiet women, not kings or gods or angels; the intimacy. A ragged modern perfection.

I learned…

Ugly babies There are a lot, a really huge number, of terribly painted babies masquerading as the little baby Jesus. I don’t think we saw one believable image of an actual baby, and so many horrid ones we started a competition to find the ugliest baby Jesus. From a strong field (eg Virgin and Child (1475) by Hans Memling) the winner was The Virgin and Child in a Garden (late 15th century) in the style of Martin Schongauer. Enlarge the image to savour the full horror of the old man baby.

Geniuses who died young

  • Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known as Raphael (1483-1520) aged 37.
  • Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) aged 36.

Carlos’s Law All the Dutch winter landscapes under snow (room 26), of villages or towns with people ice skating on frozen rivers and so on, are immediately appealing:

My friend’s son is called Carlos and after he pointed this out we developed a hypothesis – maybe one day it will become Carlos’s Law – which is that: No painting of a winter scene can be bad. Or, Every painting of a winter scene is automatically good. This held pretty much true from the 17th century Dutch painters where it began to dawn on us, through the intervening centuries to the wintry Impressionist works at the end of the gallery eg:

Personal taste

Turns out I like medieval and Gothic art and don’t like the Renaissance. I like medieval art’s emphasis on the humane, on gorgeous or quirky detail, the prevalence of design and pattern over the clear and (to me) often empty or sterile backdrops which Italian Renaissance art uses to show off its mastery of perspective. Thus I prefer the tight composition, the symmetry, the packed and slightly claustrophobic feel, the sumptuous fabric and cracked floor tiles and the dense foliage climbing over the cloisters of The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor (1510) by Gerard David to, say, The Nativity (1470-5) by Piero della Francesca, with its – to me – sense of abandonment in a sterile, rocky, Beckettian landscape.

And so I preferred almost any northern Renaissance painter – van Eyck and the fabulous Hans Holbein and Rogier van de Weyden – to the more famous Italians, because they seem to me to be more humane; to value the truly human, often ungainly, individual over the more religious types of the Italian Renaissance. Botticelli’s Venus and Mars are smoothly executed cartoons: Robert Campin’s man and woman are people.

Related links

Other reviews of National Gallery exhibitions

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