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

Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece @ the British Museum

In my spare time I simply haunt the British Museum. (Rodin, 1892)

Rodin and the British Museum

François Auguste René Rodin (1840 – 1917), known as Auguste Rodin, is widely seen as the godfather of modern sculpture. He visited London for the first time in 1841. On a trip to the British Museum, he discovered the so-called Elgin Marbles, the supersize Greek sculptures of men horses and mythical creatures which once lined the Parthenon in Athens – and was immediately captivated by their scale and power.

For this exhibition the Museum has had the strikingly simple and effective idea of borrowing a substantial number of Rodin’s classic works from the Rodin Museum in Paris, and placing them next to and among a generous selection of original Parthenon sculptures. Over 80 works by Rodin in marble, bronze and plaster, along with some 13 of Rodin’s sketches, are displayed alongside major pieces of ancient Greek art from the Museum collection.

Thus the exhibition includes a number of Rodin’s greatest hits, iconic sculptures which are part of the Western imaginarium, such as The Thinker, The Kiss, The Gates of Hell and the Burghers of Calais.

Years ago, when a teenager, I hitch-hiked to Paris, kipped in the Bois de Boulogne,and spent the days going on pilgrimages to all the art galleries and museums. I remember being bitterly disappointed by the Musée Rodin and that disappointment has lasted to this day. The exhibition was an opportunity to see if my largely negative image of Rodin stood up to the evidence or was just a personal prejudice.

The ancient Greeks

Between 1800 to 1812 workmen employed by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin – British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, or ‘the Sublime Porte’ as it was referred to in those days –  removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, the vast temple to Athena in Athens, as well as sculptures from the nearby buildings Propylaea and Erechtheum. These were shipped to Britain and put on display but, even at the time, contemporaries were critical enough for Parliament to hold an enquiry into his actions. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, Elgin sold the marbles to the British Government who passed them along to the recently created British Museum where, despite vocal lobbying by the Greek government, they remain to this day.

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Throughout the nineteenth century the art of ancient Greece, and especially the statuary, was seen as the peak of human creativity and art. Renaissance giants like Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo had attempted to recreate some of their magic in painting, but the Greeks remained the source of artistic ideas of Beauty, which were built around realism – the realistic depiction of the human and animal body, with accuracy, elegance and grace.

The Parthenon figures were carved to fill the triangular pediment at the west and east of the building, as well as to fill the metopes or square alcoves roughly above each of the 46 outer columns. There was also a set of inner columns supporting an inner wall, and above these ran a continuous frieze of figures carved in relief.

There was, in other words, a huge amount of space to be filled by more than life size carvings of gods and heroes and animals (mostly horses being ridden in battle). Hence the fact that, even though the Elgin Marbles only represent a fraction of the originals, they still fill a vast gallery at the Museum.

Because all the statues we have now are worn to a kind of perfect white, people forget that Greek sculpture was originally brightly painted, and sometimes had gold leaf applied. This is a fanciful imagining of how the Parthenon would have looked when new. At this end we can see the pediment filled with freestanding statues of gods, small in the narrow ends, growing larger in size to gesture up towards the King of the Gods at the apex. And underneath you can see a set of 14 metopes above each column, each with an individual carving of an incident from Greek myth.At the Museum the curators tried to recreate the effect of the arched pediment by placing the scattered fragments in their correct positions relative to each other, with the metope carvings placed separately. This is how Rodin saw and was overwhelmed by them.

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum

What is so special about the sculptures from the Parthenon? They were thought, even by the Greeks themselves, to be the peak of their artistic achievement. The sculptor in charge of the works, Phidias, was credited with a godlike power for realism, for his ability to summon the gods from Olympus, and heroes from the Elysian Fields, and place them before the viewer.

For me the important factors are:

  1. They are larger than life. They had to be since they were embedded 30 metres high on walls.
  2. As a result their gestures are clear and distinct. The overall positioning of all the figures creates harmonies and rhythms which are perceivable even at a distance.
  3. Counter-intuitively, maybe, there is a staggering amount of detail in the sculptures. Observed down at eye level in an exhibition like this (as they were never intended to be seen), you can see the amount of effort that has gone in to depicting the muscles, ligaments and veins of, for example, this wonderful horse’s head, with its flared nostrils and bulging eyes. It’s called the Selene horse’s head because it is part of a frieze depicting the moon goddess, Selene.
Selene horse's head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

Selene horse’s head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

There is therefore, to my mind, a kind of super realism about the figures. They are larger than life in both senses – the subjects are gods of heroes of legend, and the figures are all larger than life size – yet they include finely carved details which also work to ennoble, expand and aggrandise the figures. They are images of power, imaginative, political and cultural power.

Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910 Photo: Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910
Photo by Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

By the 1880s Rodin had made his reputation as a sculpture and was gaining public commissions. He had always been fascinated by the sculpture of the ancient Greeks, still in his day held up as the absolute peak of human artistic achievement.

He had already studied Greek sculpture from books, sketches and casts available to him in Paris (he never, in fact, went to Greece). After all the Louvre in Paris has a large collection of ancient Green sculpture. Where possible Rodin collected fragments of ancient sculpture when they became available, placing them around the garden of his property in Meudon. Apparently he moved and repositioned them among the trees and bushes to create changing artistic effects.

Eventually he amassed a collection of some 6,000 fragments and he never ceased sketching and drawing them, from all angles. The result is a vast archive of sketches, drawings, half-finished carvings and completed sculptures.

Rodin’s aesthetic

But Rodin wasn’t slavishly devoted to simply making copies of ancient Greek perfection. He had a more modern aesthetic than that. He came to believe that sculptures had a life cycle of their own, an inner artistic integrity. If many had been damaged, well, that was their fate, and their current damaged state was somehow ‘true’ to their inner destiny. Thus Rodin resisted various suggestions that ancient Greek statues be ‘repaired’. You can see what he’s getting at.

Rodin liked the way that powerful expression was conveyed through the fragmented bodies of the Greek statues. He even removed the heads and limbs from his own figures to make them closer to the broken relics of the past. By doing so, he created a new genre of contemporary art – the headless, limbless torso.

This explains the prominence of process in Rodin’s own work. Many of his pieces seem to be emerging from the stone they are carved in, often with struggle. Similarly his ‘finished’ pieces often betray the work and effort required to make them.

The exhibition displays a massive male torso from the Parthenon next to a similar sized male torso by Rodin. The Parthenon one is smooth (though with pockmarks and gouges caused over time) but the Rodin one has a deliberately knobbly bobbly surface – at its core it is a realistic depiction of the male body, muscles and all, but in Rodin’s hands the sculpture also preserves the sense of effort which went into making it. The statue is not so much an image of Perfection as a symbol of the human effort to create Perfection.

Torso by Auguste Rodin

Torso by Auguste Rodin

On reflection, it is this deliberate favouring of a muddy, impure, less than precise, deliberately knobbly, bulgy, imperfect surface, which I don’t like about Rodin.

You see it in individual works and in his larger compositions.

The gates of hell

In the same year he visited the British Museum, 1881, aged 41, Rodin received his first big public commission, to create the bronze gates for a new museum of the decorative arts in Paris. Inspired by Dante, Rodin decided to create a set of gates on the theme of hell (‘Abandon hope all ye that enter here’ being the motto carved above the gates of hell in Dante’s medieval poetic epic, The Divine Comedy).

To this day I remember the massive build-up given to this piece at the Musée Rodin in Paris, and then my massive disappointment on seeing it. Instead of clarity and order – the clarity and rhythm you see so perfectly achieved in the Parthenon friezes – what I was immediately struck by was what a mess it is.

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

I defy you to figure out what is going on here. Your eye is drawn to the three figures at the top (themselves in a demoralising, broken backed huddle) then to the figure of the Thinker beneath them and beneath him? What the devil is going on in the two panels of the doors? And what is happening on the two columns either side of the doorway? I still find it as muddy and confusing as I did forty years ago.

The exhibition has a large section devoted to the gates. Rodin worked on it for decades, even after the planned museum was abandoned and the commission rendered redundant. He continued tinkering with all the small figures, taking many of them out of the gates and blowing them up into full-scale figures.

The most famous is The Thinker and there is a huge cast of it here. For me it epitomises Rodin’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

On the pro side it captures an archetypally human action in such a profound way that it quickly became an icon of Western art, and is probably among the half dozen most famous art images in the world (along with the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David etc).

But, up close and personal, I don’t like it. It looks lumpy and unfinished. (Alas it reminded me a bit of The Thing from the Fantastic Four comics in the way the surface, though polished and shiny, is ridged and gnarled and patched with what look like strips of clay used to build up the figure, rather than the actual lineaments of cartilage and muscle.)

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

It looks unfinished in exactly the way that the Gates of Hell look unfinished to me – muddy and indistinct.

This, I’m sure, is part of Rodin’s conscious aesthetic, a muscular, sculptural style which makes a virtue of flagging up its own effort, the struggle of creation.

Aesthetic of the unfinished

Among other aspects of this, Rodin encouraged the assistants and students who often helped him to carve his figures (he ran a workshop full of assistants) to leave secondary parts of the sculpture unfinished, and even to emphasise the physicality of the work by marking secondary areas with notches created by claw hammers and chisels.

This is perfectly obvious in Rodin’s other supersonically famous work, The Kiss of 1882. The exhibition curators a) are proud to have borrowed this larger-than-lifesize plaster cast of the kiss from the Rodin Museum. And b) make the ingenious suggestion that the pose of the two lovers (actually a scene from Dante’s Inferno of two adulterous lovers about to be discovered and murdered by the cuckolded husband) is based on the pose of two female goddesses, originally on the East Pediment of the Parthenon, one of which reclines luxuriously in the lap of her companion.

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

But for me the really dominant motif is the deliberately rough unfinished nature of the rock they’re sitting on. On the plus side I suppose the proximity of the gouged and hacked rock emphasises and brings out the luxurious smooth polished surface of the lovers’ two young bodies. But I still don’t like it.

To clarify further, here are two works which are directly related. The first one is a scene from the fight between the lapiths and the centaurs, which takes up a large part of one of the friezes on the Parthenon and is thought to be an allegory of the struggle between reason and animality. Note the clarity, even the stylised nature of the pose, and the clarity of line of each of the figures.

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Next to it the exhibition places a sculpture titled The Centauress (1904), a figure Rodin expanded from a minor position on the gates of hell.

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

I found this object particularly ugly and clumsy. The device of having the figure emerge from heavily-notched stone really doesn’t work for me at all. The way her overlong arms are merging with the pillar strikes me as some kind of horrifying physical deformity or mutation. It is not a very good depiction of either a horse’s body or a woman’s torso, and the less said about the unformed / melting head the better.

To summarise – Rodin’s attempt to assimilate the Greek influence and go beyond it to create a new ‘modern’ aesthetic of fragments which foreground the effort of their own creation has, in my opinion, very hit and miss results. Mostly miss.

His large masterpiece, The Burghers of Calais, is here – as a complete piece showing six larger-than-lifesize statues of the six men, alongside individual preparatory studies of some of the figures.

If you are a student of sculpture or a fan of Rodin this is a really thrilling opportunity to study his sketches, his inspiration, his working practices and the models which go towards creating a masterpiece. But for me, set among the light and clarity of line and design of the Greeks, they felt clumsy and hulking, their postures contrived and awkward.

Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

Phidias

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble © The Trustees of the British Museum

On the cusp of modernism

Rodin lived long enough to see the advent of full-blown Modernism. By 1905 Matisse and Picasso in their different ways were experiencing the influence of ‘primitive’ masks from Africa and the Pacific which were suggesting entire new ways of seeing and thinking about ‘art’.

Within a few years a new generation of sculptors would break decisively with the entire Western tradition and its indebtedness to the naturalism of the ancient Greeks – the ones that spring to mind being Jacob Epstein (b.1880), Eric Gill (b.1882), Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (b.1891) and Alberto Giacometti (b.1901).

I suppose it’s unfair to compare Rodin to what came after him, but for me this next generation of sculptors blow the world apart, open the doors to an infinity of possibilities, and are the true creators of modern sculpture.

For me, a piece like Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Red Stone Dancer (c.1913) is worth more than everything Rodin did put together. I like clarity of line and design as against muddiness and vagueness, crisp geometry as against random lumpiness, and energy as against languid kissing, dull thinking and the hapless, demoralised postures of the Calais Burghers.

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

For me the Henri Gaudier-Brzeska is sensuous but with a virile, alert, energetic sensuality, the sensuality of athletic life.

Light and airy exhibition space

By far the most striking thing about the exhibition is that the Museum has opened up the big windows at the end of the Sainsbury Gallery in order to let light flood in.

The partitions between different sections of the show do not extend to the ceiling so the effect is not of separate ‘rooms’ – rather dark and gloomy rooms as they had for, say, the Scythians exhibition – but of light flooding throughout the space, showing the Greek works, in particular, in something more like the fierce Mediterranean light of their homeland.

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

I’m afraid this isn’t a very good photo, but enough to show how the individual statues are staged at the window end of the exhibition, building up to the full cast of the Burghers of Calais in the middle distance of the shot.

The effect of this natural light, and the clean lines and clarity of the modern floor-to-ceiling windows, are wonderfully uplifting. It was relaxing to just sit on the benches conveniently placed next to them, and to enjoy the precise, geometrical architecture of the Georgian houses opposite, and the bright patio space with its carefully tended shrubs and small trees.

The video


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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