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'The Renaissance Nude' Review - The Royal Academy of Arts

3rd March - 2nd June 2019

Standard Ticket - £14

Student Ticket - £11

Under 16s go free


It is quite fitting that The Renaissance Nude at the Royal Academy of Arts is a haven of multiplicity. I would dare anyone who visits, after a meander through, not to be struck by an incomprehensible urge to go back for more. Flitting right and left to revisit the pieces that simply beg to be studied for just a while longer, the collection twists and turns, unfurling into something quite magical. The grandeur on display is both inimitable and indisputable. Titian’s Venus Rising from the Sea (1520) dazzles, emanating an eerie sensuality which reflects Classical influences upon the depicting the nude form. Such a magnified image of the Roman goddess, displayed alongside pieces such as Perugino’s intricate and lustful Between Love and Chastity (1503), marks the differences that existed when depicting the Renaissance nude, and marries modes of thought with artistic expression. Such a versatile subject matter as the naked body in works of art can only inspire more thought, more intrigue, and so embodies Horace’s dictum, ut pictura poesis - as is painting, so is poetry.

Titian, Venus Rising from the Sea ('Venus Anadyomene'), c.1520. On loan from National Galleries of Scotland. Image courtesy of the RA

The power of the combined nudes, exemplified in Antonio Pollaiuolo’s Hercules and Antaeus, is a potent theme the viewer reckons with throughout this exhibition, highlighting that the human form is not just beautiful in isolation, but striking, wondrous, and perhaps stronger, when it is a collective. The light from above the sculpture drips down the undulations of their bodies, the mingling of limbs making it difficult to identity and separate the figures, thus presenting a combined, more powerful entity together, in unity. Inclusion of scientific sketches of the human form shows the intense thought behind constructing the spectacular pieces of art exhibited, reinforcing the immense skill of the artists we see before us. I, for one, found myself slipping into a haze, taking for granted the sheer skill and expertise of the artists; the calibre is consistently astounding. This display of work in focus, from Dürer, to Leonardo, to Cesariano, provides an interlude from the resplendence of the likes of Dossi or Cranach, and adds a further dimension for the viewer.

Leonardo da Vinci,The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck (recto), 1510-11.Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.

Image courtesy of the RA

Exploring the exhibits, the details are to be remarked upon as much as the grandiose highlights, like Agnolo Bronzino’s Saint Sebastian (1533). The exposed edges of Jan Gossaert's Venus (1521) lays bare the tools that hold up the painting, offering comparisons between the screws and fixings of the product of art, and the bones and limbs of the influence of art - the nude form. Over time the slightly curved edges of the painted panel seems to have aligned with the curves of Venus, as though we are asked to study not only the beauty of the nude form, but also the beauty of art itself. I found myself charmed by this meta approach to chart the development of artistic and creative methods, along with the journey of the Renaissance nude itself. Such a self-referential vein continues on through the exhibition, with studies displayed of other featured sculptures. Gossaert’s study of Spinario (1509), offers a different vantage point to that which the viewer would typically have at eye level of the sculpture. However, the placement of the original sculpture, and Gossaert’s sketch of it placed alongside, urges the viewer to interact with both the act of making, and the finished piece. It inspires you to take a step outside a passive approach to art, and put yourself into the shoes of the artists themselves, by perhaps crouching down and trying to recreate the same viewpoint that Gossaert had 500 years ago.

Agnolo Bronzino,Saint Sebastian, c.1533. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.Image courtesy of the RA

Statues down the middle of second room act as signposts. These small monuments of which we have access to all sides, angles, and parts, reflect the all-expansive approach that this exhibition attempts, in terms of charting the depiction of the Renaissance nude. The variety of art in this collection mirrors the variety of ways the nude form has been depicted over time, from nudity in Christian art to exacerbate the image of suffering, such as in Donatello’s The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (1460), to the overtly sensual female form featured in Pisanello’s Luxuria (1426) - a stark and pioneering piece. Engravings placed alongside and nestled in between grand paintings, highlight the wonder of even the minutiae in art; like the human form, nothing is too small to pay attention to and rinse expression out of. Ending the exhibit, Jean Bourdichon’s miniature painting Bathsheba Bathing (1498-99) exemplifies this, showing that size does not equal grandeur, beauty comes in myriad forms, much like the nude form itself.

Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor