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The Renaissance Nude certainly contains the supple and titillating women that its title calls to mind, but the exhibition ultimately tells a bigger story about the significant range of nude bodies created between 1400 and 1530. Assembling a diverse group of objects, the exhibition formulates a narrative about the Renaissance construction of the nude and its influence on the subsequent Western tradition. The nude, as the exhibition makes clear, has never been a straightforward genre but one that is multivalent and constructed to contain myriad ideological meanings.
While iconic paintings such as Correggio’s Danaë, Titian’s Venus Rising from the Sea (Venus Anadyomene), and Fouquet’s Virgin and Child are knockout inclusions borrowed from major European museums, the show’s biggest surprises come through its smaller and lesser known works. For example, in a print titled The Bath House (c.1496), Albrecht Dürer constructed a homoerotic and parodic bath house scene in which a cock-emblazoned water spout protrudes next to a bather’s crotch; in Hans Baldung’s drawing Ecstatic Christ (c.1510-11), a dying Jesus appears to touch himself beneath a cloth; and in an illuminated prayer book (c.1480), a sexy Bathsheba’s nether regions are carefully emphasized rather than coyly hidden from sight.
Separate galleries address distinct categories, among them Christ, Venus, and Renaissance-era ideas about abject bodies or Humanist eroticism. These categories draw attention not just to the visual tropes we’ve inherited from the Renaissance, but also to the fact that the allegorical and ideological construction of the body remains a defining feature of image culture to this day. For example, Campagnola’s engraving, Nude Reclining in a Landscape (c.1508-09) pictures a monumental body whose contours take on the quality of mountains to communicate a larger-than-life beauty ideal, a specific construction of mythic femininity that we could trace to, say, Kim Kardashian’s reclined torso set against a mountainous landscape in Kanye West’s infamous Bound 2 music video. Although saints and goddesses may seem like relics of an extinct media culture, The Renaissance Nude demonstrates the myriad ways that the body was and continues to be formulated as a symbolic container. The sexualized nude constructed by Campagnola and others in the Renaissance continues to be a powerful precedent mined by image creators like Kim and Kanye in the present day.
The Renaissance Nude runs from October 30, 2018–January 27, 2019 at the Getty Center (1200 Getty Center Dr., Los Angeles, CA 90049).