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

Klimt / Schiele @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition is much more varied and interesting than the Royal Academy’s promotional material suggests. The main poster shows two female nudes with prominent nipples and, of the eight images further down the page, all but one are nudes, leading you to expect a festival of bottoms and boobs.

There certainly are plenty of nudes in the show, but there’s considerably more to it than that, and it’s the fuller, broader context which makes it so interesting and rewarding.

The pretext

Both Gustav Klimt (born July 1862) and Egon Schiele (born June 1890) died in 1918, Klimt 27 years older and much the more famous and successful figure, having developed a style which combined beautiful draughtsmanship with a fin-de-siecle and semi-symbolist fondness for placing his human figures within two-dimensional sheaths of glittering colours, most famously in 1908’s The Kiss. (Be warned: there is nothing this finished and this glamorous in this exhibition.)

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt (1908)

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt (1908)

Schiele was much under the older man’s influence throughout the 1900s (they first met in 1907) until around May 1910, when he himself realised he had broken through to find his own voice and style – basically Klimt unplugged, the same addiction to the human figure, to sensuous depictions of nudes, but with a ferociously modern, twisted, angular, abrasive sensuality.

To some extent, as the gallery notes make clear, this was the sensuality of poverty. Whereas Klimt ran a successful studio which won public commissions – painting complex ceiling schemes for grand buildings of Vienna’s Ringstraße, did a series of commissions for Vienna’s high society ladies and was married to Austrian fashion designer Emilie Louise Flöge who ran a successful fashion business, and so had access to all manner of sumptuous fabrics, in the latest designs, for his drawings and paintings – Schiele was barely 20 when he hit his stride, and lived in poorly furnished flats with a succession of ‘companions’, most of them even poorer than him, which is why so many of his women are wearing basic kit, stockings, a blouse, and not much else.

To mark the coincidental centenary of their deaths the Royal Academy has arranged to borrow 100 or so portraits, allegories, landscapes and erotic nudes by Klimt and Schiele from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, allowing visitors an amazing opportunity to see these powerful, skilled and stimulating works.

Six rooms

The exhibition is upstairs in the Sackler Wing of the Academy, and is divided into six rooms.

Room 1 Photos, early sketches and the Secession

Photos of Klimt as a middle aged man, in his trademark blue smock, early and very Victorian realist drawings. Next to early photos of Schiele adopting one of his art school poses.

Egon Schiele in Front of the painting ‘Shrines in the Forest’ (1915) by Johannes Fischer

Egon Schiele in Front of the painting ‘Shrines in the Forest’ (1915) by Johannes Fischer

This rooms explains Klimt’s rise to dominance of the Vienna art scene and his leadership of the ‘Secession’ of new young artists set up in 1897. There’s a Secession poster which Klimt designed, with a graceful image of Athena in 1903, next to the bitingly Expressionist picture of the selection board around a table which Schiele created for the 1918 Secession exhibition, after Klimt’s death.

Room 2 Klimt’s drawing process

This room is devoted to several sets or series of drawings Klimt made for grand allegorical projects. In 1894 he was commissioned to create three paintings to decorate the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna and chose the subject of Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence. On display are a series of preparatory drawings for ‘Medicine’ which he conceived as a naked woman floating in space, feet towards us.

In 1902, Klimt finished the Beethoven Frieze for the Fourteenth Vienna Secessionist exhibition, and there are a number of sketches here for female figures. And several preparatory sketches for his 1905 oil painting, Three Ages of Woman, including a strikingly drawn naked middle-aged woman.

Standing older woman in profile (study for three Ages of Woman) by Gustav Klimt (1905)

Standing older woman in profile (study for three Ages of Woman) by Gustav Klimt (1905)

The most obvious thing about all the pieces in this room is none of them are coloured: they are literally just pencil drawings on paper. They allow you to examine and admire Klimt’s technique, and to understand better his interest in the surfaces and folds of the dresses his figures (almost all women) are wearing. But they lack all the exquisite finish and colour and golden luxuriance of his paintings.

It is, therefore, quite a shock and a pleasure to walk into the next room, which is packed with Egon Schiele’s vibrant colourful paintings.

Room 3 Schiele’s drawing process

You immediately notice that all the drawings in this room are coloured, very carefully and fully coloured. And I noticed that the strong angular outlines of Schiele’s figures are emphasised by often being drawn in black crayon as opposed to weak pencil. As if this wasn’t enough some of the most striking figures are outlined with a rough swathe of white gouache, which really makes them leap off the page. Exemplified in this nude.

Female Nude (1910) by Egon Schiele

Female Nude (1910) by Egon Schiele

Female nude also epitomises other Schiele traits:

  • the angularity of the anatomy – look at the painfully pointed hip and shoulderbone
  • the uncomfortableness of the pose – what’s happened to her right arm?
  • the attention to the hand which is long and heavily jointed, looking like a four-legged spider crawling up her side
  • the unashamed bluntness of the loins with their pubic hair
  • and the use of colour not so much to describe as to highlight and bring out the composition

The guide makes a central point:

Schiele frequently used watercolour and gouache in his works on paper, but rarely to create three dimensional modelling. Colour is employed expressively or as a graphic compositional device, similar to Klimt’s division of decorative surface pattern in his paintings.

Not all, but a number of the Klimt sketches in the previous room sketched in the face and body shape merely in order to allow him to create the characteristic series of whorls and geometric shapes across the fabric of women’s skirts and dress which obviously fascinated him. By contrast Schiele’s colours don’t even and smooth out, but create dramatic highlights which leap out of the image.

Not only is the shock of walking into this room like watching colour TV after black and white – it is also by far the most varied in subject matter.

Thus Schiele was arrested in April 1912 when a thirteen-year-old girl who had sought protection in the house he shared with his unmarried partner and model Wally Neuzil, was tracked down by her irate father. He was arrested on charges of seduction and abduction and ended up spending 24 days in Neulenbach prison before the case was dismissed. The exhibition displays five of the drawings and paintings he made during this brief incarceration, one is a full-body self-portrait, but four are of the interior of the prison and his cell. I liked the one of a chair with some handkerchiefs and a green scarf (?) draped over it.

Beside these were two striking and dynamic architectural studies of houses, showing how well Schiele’s strong black lines bring out the architectonics of anything, be it body or building. Alongside these a set of landscapes. I never knew Schiele painted landscapes, they tend to be eclipsed by the explicit nudes.

Field landscape (Kreuzberg near Krumau) 1910 by Egon Schiele

Field landscape (Kreuzberg near Krumau) 1910 by Egon Schiele

This reproduction doesn’t bring out how bright and vivid the greens of the field are. And next to these landscapes was a set of three drawings of chrysanthemums. Again, I had forgotten that Schiele made many flower studies.

White chrysanthemum by Egon Schiele (1910)

White chrysanthemum by Egon Schiele (1910)

Klimt may, for all I know, be the finer artist of the two, but in this exhibition, in this selection of their works hanging side by side, Schiele comes over as vastly more colourful, inventive, varied and dynamic.

Room 4 Klimt portraits

By the 1890s Klimt was a sought-after portrait painter for society ladies. He made his rich women appear tall, statuesque, elegant, often with fashionable dresses buttoned right up to the chin, and a carefully styled bouffant haircut. In the ten or so pencil drawings and sketches for portraits presented here, Klimt is obviously interested in the overall shape and, in some of them, the potential of the dresses to be turned into his trademark fantasias of geometric shapes and mosaics. This approach is exemplified in this study for the sumptuous portrait he eventually painted of Frau Fritza Riedler. Note the absence of eyes. it is the patterns and shapes of the dress which take up most of the space, with just enough outline of face to make it human.

Study for a painting of Fritza Riedler by Gustav Klimt (1904)

Study for a painting of Fritza Riedler by Gustav Klimt (1904)

The curators have artfully hung this eyeless sketch next to a penetrating study by Schiele of his younger sister, Gerti Schiele. You immediately see the difference: the brim of the hat and the ruff around her chest are confidently sketched in, but the rest of the body, for example her right arm, just tapers away. Schiele’s real interest is obviously in the intense black eyes of the sitter, which are staring right out at you.

They are hung right next to each other and looking from one to the other you realise that The Klimt is a design, whereas the Schiele is an intensely felt portrait.

Gerti Schiele by Egon Schiele (1911)

Gerti Schiele by Egon Schiele (1911)

Maybe the difference can be explained in terms of tradecraft – the Klimt sketches were never to be intended to be anything more than preparations, try-outs for what would be the very labour-intensive process of creating finished luxury paintings. By contrast, the Schieles are what they are, not many of them are preparations for paintings, they are pencil, crayon, gouache and watercolour works in their own right.

Maybe there’s a sociological explanation: Klimt could afford to make numerous preparations of expensive works for rich clients; Schiele never became that financially successful, so most of his portraits are of people he knew, models, lovers, friends and family, so they come out of more intimate and close relationships. Maybe that explains why almost all the Schiele knock you for six.

Room 5 Schiele portraits

This is really rammed home in the room devoted to Schiele portraits which, once again, demonstrates his versatility. There are one or two nudes but the emphasis is on his ability to capture the features and character of perfectly respectable, fully dressed citizens of Vienna. There’s a little set of portraits of middle-class men like Heinrich Benesch, the railway inspector who became an important collector of Schiele’s work.

One wall displays a set of portraits of his family, including touching portraits of his sister, his mother and his father-in-law. Set amid these is a staggeringly evocative face of his wife, Edith Harms, who he married in 1914. The guide tells us a bit of gossip about their marriage, namely that nice, middle-class Edith insisted Schiele cut off all contact with his working class mistress and muse, Wally Neuzil. Seems cruel. Needs must. But what remains of Edith is Schiele’s staggeringly evocative portraits of her, like the one featured here. A face, hair, a hand – and an entire personality is before us. It is a staggering testimony to what art can do.

Edith Schiele by Egon Schiele (1917)Edith Schiele by Egon Schiele (1917)

Edith Schiele by Egon Schiele (1917)

Yet another aspect of Schiele’s vision is displayed across two walls of this room – his numerous, inventive and varied self-portraits. Klimt never did a self portrait in his life, Schiele did hundreds. Maybe, again, partly out of poverty. But mostly because, whereas the Symbolist, fin-de-siecle art of the 1890s reached beyond itself to some secret realm trembling on the brink of revelation, the Expressionist art of the 1910s explored the self, and the fracturing of the self, into anguished fragments.

It’s an oddity or irony of the German Expressionists that so many of them considered themselves spiritual leaders, heralding a great spiritual awakening of humanity – and yet, to us, so many of their paintings look hard, heavy and anguished. Same here, with Schiele – the commentary tells us that he identified with Francis of Assissi, wrote about the artist being a spiritual leader, gave his self-portraits titles like ‘redemption’ – and yet to us they seem to anticipate the acute and anguished self-consciousness of the twentieth century, which didn’t decline after Schiele’s death, but achieved new heights of neurotic panic after the Holocaust, the atom bombs and the spread of nihilism and existentialism across mid-century Europe.

It is that tormented self-consciousness which Schiele’s countless experimental self-portraits seem to communicate to us today, not songs about birds.

Nude Self-Portrait, Squatting (1916) by Egon Schiele. Pencil and gouache on packing paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

Nude Self-Portrait, Squatting (1916) by Egon Schiele. Pencil and gouache on packing paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

By no means all of these self-portraits are nude; the one above is the most naked and explicit. In many others he’s wearing clothes but posing in one of his characteristically agonised, ungainly stylised positions. This angularity prepares us for the last room.

Room 6 Erotic nudes

Bang! the room explodes with some of the most erotic paintings and drawings ever made. They are erotic because they are so candid. You feel like you are in the room, with a good-looking young woman who is happy to share her body with you, no shame, no false modesty, no recriminations. For me, at any rate, it’s this spirit of complete, unashamed, naked complicity which makes them emotionally or psychologically powerful.

Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee (1914) by Egon Schiele. Graphite and gouache on Japan paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee (1914) by Egon Schiele. Graphite and gouache on Japan paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

But having looked carefully at all the works which precede them it is also possible to set aside their erotic charge altogether and consider them as compositions. In this respect the most successful of them vividly bring together features we’ve already noted:

  • the stylised pose, deliberately not classical, not a nude woman carefully standing so as to conceal her loins, but a real woman squatting, lying back with her legs open, gazing at the viewer, completely unembarrassed
  • the angularity of the anatomy – note the weirdly pointed hips, the visible ribs, the jagged angles around the shoulder, the accurate depiction of the lines made by the tendons of the inner thigh just next to the pubic hair, the pointed chin – the human figure as sharp angles
  • the use of colour not to describe naturalistically, but as expressive highlighting – much earlier Klimt had coloured the nipples of his nude paintings, but they were set amid an entire composition of gleaming rich colours: Schiele repeatedly uses the trick of painting the labia, nipples and lips a bright orange colour, on one level highlighting the erogenous zones, but on another making the figures almost into painted puppets, marionettes, an unsettling ambiguity

Note, also, the use of the colour green. By her breast, and armpit, and under her eyes and, the more you look at it, the more you see that Schiele has used that very unhuman colour, green, just touches and flecks of it, which… which do what, exactly? They make this woman’s body look a bit more emaciated than it already is: but the sparingness with which it’s used also makes you look closer, lean in, get drawn in.

Once I started looking, I noticed a very fleeting use of green in many of the nudes, creating just a hint of a kind of heightened, floodlit, hyper-vividness. There’s even green in the self-portrait wearing a yellow waistcoat. I’ve read scores of articles about Schiele and nudes and pornography and the male gaze and so on. It would be interesting to read just one good article about his very sophisticated use of colour.

Schiele’s nudes, hundreds of them, were notorious in his day and now are widely known and admired. I had no idea that Klimt did quite so many nudes and that, in their way, they are more sexually explicit. The wall opposite Schiele’s green-flecked nudes is covered with the detailed pencil drawings Klimt made of nubile young women naked and very blatantly masturbating.

In 1907 Klimt provided fifteen avowedly erotic drawings for a luxury edition of the Roman classic, Lucian’s dialogue of the courtesans. The title of one drawing – shown in the original pencil version and then as an illustration in a copy of the book which is on display here – says it all: Woman reclining with leg raised. She is lying on her back on a bed with one leg pulled up and back by her left arm while she is masturbating with her right hand. Art doesn’t come much more explicit than this. Although even when he’s being as rude as an artist possibly can be, it’s amusing that Klimt can’t stop himself drifting off to think about the decorative spots and patterns on the fabric she’s lying on (her dress? a blanket?)

Reclining nude with leg raised by Gustav Klimt (1907)

Reclining nude with leg raised by Gustav Klimt (1907)

The commentary suggests that, because Klimt’s nude women have their eyes closed they are somehow passive victims of the male gaze, whereas Schiele’s explicit female nudes generally have their eyes open and are often looking straight at the viewer – and so are therefore empowered, have agency etc – an issue of vital concern to female art curators.

I don’t think it’s quite that simple: it’s certainly not that a consistent rule, because some Klimt women have their eyes open and some Schiele women have theirs closed.

In my opinion the scholars are over-explaining something which is more obvious: not only Schiele’s female nudes but the male nudes and most of the fully-dressed portraits as well, are simply more powerfully drawn and more vividly coloured than any of the Klimt drawings on show here.

Klimt’s masturbating women may have their eyes closed, but more importantly (for me, anyway) – although they are just as explicit, in fact in the way they are actively masturbating, they are more explicit than the Schiele – nonetheless, they are drawn with much finer and paler lines, lines which almost fade away into nothingness, as the left leg of the model, above, dwindles from the heft of her buttock and hip down to a small foot which is merely an outline.

In other words, in my opinion, it is not the model, the human being depicted – it is Klimt’s technique or style which is passive and mute. As pencil drawings, the Klimt nudes in this final room are probably better, more accurate draughtsmanship, than the Schiele. But the Schiele erotic nudes, with their strong black outlines, weird angularities, piercing black eyes, and coloured highlights, are incomparably the more powerful and bracing works of art.

Video introduction to Schiele

By Tim Marlow, Artistic Director of the Royal Academy.

//player.vimeo.com/video/298238498


Related links

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