Here is a typical short introduction to the kind of information you are likely to discover on an Art First gallery tour:
The discipline of Art History has had a long history of defining The Nude as apart from the gratuitous vulgarity and casual nudity often referred to as pornography. Such ideals stemmed from an appreciation of the classical nude or perfect form (more often the male nude) as championed by the ancient Greek civilisation in sculpture and in text. Hundreds of years later these ideals surrounding the nude and the depiction of it would first find renewed form in Francesco Petrarch’s writings of 1341 and then in the 1390’s at the Paduan court of Francesco II da Cararra. In his writings the humanist Francesco Petrarch proclaimed a re-birth of the ancient classical Greek tradition in his own times, this re-birth would eventually become known as the Renaissance. These early beginnings would eventually manifest themselves in the high Renaissance nudes of Michelangelo in 1508.
It is these ideals and more especially the Renaissance that has for centuries since provided artists and patrons alike with the perfect excuse to indulge their passion for voyeurism and the naked form under the guise of art and intellectual prowess. The artists and the newly emerging and powerful families of the merchant classes, such as the Medici championed this new fashion that equated reading and understanding of the Classics with erudition, but often this was a thinly veiled excuse for men to look at paintings of naked women, indeed these pictures were sometimes even kept under draperies or curtains. But what happens when paintings inspired by these Classical ideals find themselves in the public domain, outside of the cosseted world of the super-rich patrons that first commissioned them, how will those who are so-called less enlightened react to or interpret these nude subjects in art? And what happens when these humanist patrons no longer exist while the paintings survive, who will explain these paintings that look to all intensive purposes to be depicting gratuitous sex and casual nudity in this new world of public art galleries?
This is the dilemma that has dogged art and the nude for hundreds of years and even more so in the last two centuries. As part of my on-going research into the history of art I am constantly looking at the paintings, that shall we say, have been misinterpreted or misunderstood in terms of their nude based subject matter and so have fallen in and out of favour over the centuries. Are they outstanding works of art by master artists only best understood by an educated elite or are they simply Dirty Pictures for dirty old men? In looking at these areas I also hope to reveal the secret sordid past of some of the world’s most famous works of art and asking such questions as should we be looking at them, should they be cleaned up and are they really that dirty? The discipline of Art History has had a long history of defining The Nude as apart from the gratuitous vulgarity and casual nudity often referred to as pornography.
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Bronzino’s Allegory with Venus and Cupid – National Gallery, London
In 1860 the first director of the National Gallery, Sir Charles Eastlake, took a trip to Paris. He was there for the sale of a collection of paintings formally owned by Eduard Beaucousin. In all Charles Eastlake eventually bought 46 paintings from the collection and among those 46 paintings was Bronzino’s Allegory with Venus and Cupid. On viewing the paintings in Paris Eastlake remarked that ‘the state of the pictures is in general excellent’, and also says that the Bronzino’s finish and preservation are remarkable. Yet by the time Eastlake was ready to have the pictures transported to London his opinion regarding the state of some of the pictures including the Bronzino had changed.It was becoming increasingly clear that Charles Eastlake was somewhat worried by the ‘impropriety’ of Bronzino’s Allegory, he also goes on to mention that Eduard Beaucousin himself considers ‘the Bronzino “Venus” is the most improper picture’ and that Beaucousin usually had it covered with a veil. What had happened to the reputation of this painting that for hundreds of years had been considered a superb example of Bronzino’s work that by the 19th century it had come to be regarded with suspicion by the Director of the National Gallery?What had happened is that the age of museums introduced art such as this to a wider section of the public than ever before been possible. The National Gallery itself had been open at this point for 22 years, and in this age of enlightenment the idea was that the public would be educated and their minds would be lifted to more ‘noble ideals’ through engagement with the ‘noble tradition’ of old master paintings. But would the public understand the nude in this context or would they simply see naked bodies. This is the risk that Charles Eastlake and his restorer, Raffaelle Pinti were unwilling to take so before the Bronzino Allegory could be displayed to the public certain measures had to be taken to ‘put it in order’.The parts of this painting that were causing concern in the 1860’s are areas that we in our modern age might find difficult to believe. This is not because they are no longer offensive, but because we have been trained, (quite without knowing it) by the weight of art history over the past 200 years, to appreciate nude paintings as high art rather than naked bodies. Indeed Kenneth Clark, another former director of the National Gallery, makes this distinction in his 1956 publication ‘The Nude’. In it he says “The English language distinguishes between the naked and the nude. To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes and embarrassed. The word nude, on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone.” Key to this sentence is of course the phrase ‘educated usage’, which implies that us mere mortals who might look upon such pictures as Bronzino’s Allegory as a naked woman having a snog, are of course uneducated.And so it is in this somewhat contradictory spirit of education that Charles Eastlake and his restorer, Raffaelle Pinti set out to make Bronzino’s Allegory safe for public viewing. What they did next would nowadays be tantamount to sacrilege in terms of painting restoration and conservation. Charles Eastlake said in his letter to the keeper of the National Gallery, Ralph Wornum, “I am still of the opinion that if the details of the kiss are altered the rest may pass.” What he meant is that the kiss between Venus and Cupid may be misinterpreted by the public. A close examination of this kiss revealed that Venus was in fact using her tongue. Such an action was surely too risky to show and was understood in some quarters to constitute a ‘French kiss’, this detail was painted out. But what about the rest, did it pass? Unfortunately not, the problems with this picture seemed to be many, because poking through the fingers of Cupid, as he grasps Venus’s left breast, was her rather erect nipple, this too was painted out and made to look as though it was under the finger of Cupid. Once they had stared on this course of action they simply could not ignore the area between Venus’s legs, which was not only revealed in all its glory, but on close examination included the sin of all sins, traces of hair. Diaphanous gauze was painted over this likely to be misunderstood area to make it safe. And in a final act of 19th century prudery, the part of this picture probably judged by these men to be the part that needed the most attention was also cruelly dealt with. The very pert bottom of Cupid was covered with a rather decorative and large painted sprig of myrtle, appropriately the classical symbol of love.Indeed even the official title given to the painting was of concern ‘lest it provide any pretext for comment’; Eastlake suggested the safe title of ‘Venus, Cupid and Time – an Allegory’. The irony of this painting is that these so called areas of indiscretion pale into insignificance when compared to one major part of this painting that could not be hidden. That passionate embrace and kiss between Venus and Cupid is not one between a traditional couple, but is in fact an incestuous one between mother and son. There was certainly nothing that could be done about this short of covering it completely as Beaucousin had done. Eastlake could only hope that this aspect of the picture would not be realised by a wider general public not so familiar with their Greek myth.It would be almost one hundred years before Bronzino’s Allegory was at last considered safe to show to the public. In 1958 the painting was cleaned by the restorer Norman Bromelle, and the extent of over painting was revealed, and so to was Bronzino’s painting in its original state. The Bronzino Allegory of Venus and Cupid is now one of the most famous paintings hanging in the National Gallery. Now fully revealed in its unadorned state as nature…, or is that Bronzino, intended it to be, it has become a firm favourite with adults and children alike. But have times really changed, do we all distinguish between the nude and the naked body, because one exists in the world of the art gallery and the other on the top shelf of a corner shop, and how aware are we of this aspect when we look at paintings in an art gallery?
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) Supper at Emmaus (National Gallery, London) 1601:
The life of this artist is fraught with controversy and much has been written about him. Recent research has now revealed that Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was actually born in Milan rather the town of Caravaggio as was first thought. His father was a builder who worked in Milan and thus Caravaggio spent his early infant years in Milan from the date of his birth up to 1577 when this period of his life was brought to an abrupt end with the outbreak of a terrible plague Milan. It is at this point that his family went to Caravaggio, which is in fact where his family originally came from. Unfortunately this move came too late, because almost immediately, on the same day his father and grand-father died of the plague – Caravaggio was 5 years old. Although many churches and patrons commissioned him in his time, he often upset these very people by depicting the saints and disciples in his pictures in what we would call today ‘a realistic fashion’. The revered protagonists in Caravaggio’s pictures were shown as real people dishevelled in their appearance.
In this work ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ painted in 1601, Caravaggio again tries to convey the reality of the situation by showing the disciples as ordinary men. The disciple on the left pushes the torn elbow of his jacket through the picture plain and out into the space, which we, the viewer inhabit. While the disciple on the right wearing the scallop shell of the traveller with unkempt beard and hair stretches his arms through the picture plain showing Caravaggio’s mastery of the skill known as foreshortening. There is immediacy to this scene, in that Caravaggio shows us a split second frozen in time. The bowl of fruit on the table in the middle foreground is perched precariously about to fall to the ground spilling its contents. The disciple with the torn jacket is in mid-leap from his chair, while the disciple with the scallop shell has his arms stretched aghast at the miracle that confronts them. The whole scene is lit from a single point light source that throws the rugged expressions of the disciples into dramatic relief. This is the lighting effect known as chiaroscuro and it became Caravaggio’s trademark.
The cause of this commotion is the presence of the risen Christ. The stranger they had met previously on the road to Emmaus whom they had kindly invited to lunch is non-other than person they thought had died after being crucified. Yet with the simple breaking of the bread the disciples eyes are opened and they behold their saviour revealed before them as if he had never left them. But within this scene Caravaggio plays with our perception of reality. Althougth seemingly drawing us into a supposedly real space, all is not quite what it seems. We are aware of far too many things that in reality we could not perceive if we were present in front of these people. We are able to look down upon the table and its contents, yet we can still see the underside of the elbow protruding towards us on the left and indeed the underside of the hand reaching out to us of the right. We are also aware of a shadow that forms itself around the head of Christ as though forming a crude halo, yet the fall of light in the room dictates that such a shadow would not be in this position. But why would Caravaggio make these seemingly obvious mistakes but perhaps deliberate alterations to the reality of this situation? This is perhaps Caravaggio’s way of informing us that this is not an everyday event, but an extraordinary one. And as such the normal rules of everyday life do not necessarily apply. All is not what it seems, but so it shouldn’t be if such an event actually took place.
Holbein, Johannes (1497/8 – 1543) The Ambassadors (National Gallery, London) 1533:
This enigmatic full-length double portrait is a political statement as much as it is a record of two friends meeting in England. The portrait was painted in 1533, at the height of Holbein’s fame as the court painter to Henry VIII. He was recommend to the court of Henry VIII. By the humanist Erasmus Deriderius (whom he had painted ten years earlier in 1523) Holbein would go on to give us the definitive image that we all know when we think of Henry VIII. As I mentioned previously this is a record of two friends, Jean de Dinteville, here pictured on the right and his friend Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur on the left. Jean de Dinteville was visiting England on an unofficial ambassadorial mission in 1533 in a time of turmoil and upheaval in the court of Henry VIII, indeed it was during this time that Henry is seeking to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to re-marry Anne Boleyn.
Both men are dressed in rich finery and expensive clothes fashionable in the period. Their status, learning and the fact these men are well travelled is also alluded to in the collection objects arranged on and below the table. It is in these objects that many mysteries and clues lie as to the meaning of this picture. The table itself is divided into a heavenly and earthly realm. The celestial globe on the topside of the table and the earthly globe below help to establish this distinction. We are also given an insight into the ages of the two men, if we observe the dagger held by Jean de Dinteville, we can see the number 29 and if we observe the book-page edges under the arm of Georges de Selve, we can see the number 34. But is of the mysterious object apparently floating in the foreground, it is only when one approaches the picture from an acute angle on the right-hand side, that it is revelled as a skull.
It is this image and the partially revelled crucifix in the top left-hand corner that set up the other premise of this picture. Riches and status you may have, but all are nothing next to the certainty of death. Yet the promise of salvation can be yours if you believe in the Lord.
Leslie Primo © 2010