The Renaissance Nude review

4 out of 5 stars
The Renaissance Nude review
Agnolo Bronzino, 'St. Sebastian' (c.1533) © Museo Nacional Thyssen- Bornemisza, Madrid

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Before smartphones, sending a nude was seriously hard work. There were no quick pics in the bathroom mirror in renaissance Europe; instead, they had to rely on good old-fashioned pen and ink.

This neat little show – dedicated largely to drawings, engravings and woodcuts from the time – explores the different ways that the nude was used back in the middle of the last millennium.

The most obvious function for nudity was as a symbol of purity and vulnerability. There’s Christ, his face and body twisted and greyed, waiting for flagellation in an insanely weird Jan Gossaert work; there’s a satyr mourning a beautiful injured nymph in a Piero di Cosimo image; there’s the pristine Saint Barbara having a breast chopped off in a properly grim Konrad Von Vechta painting.

Then there’s the nude as a symbol of pre-Fall of Man innocent beauty, like in the mythical works of Titian and Dosso Dossi. Piousness, heroism, religion; chuck in the anatomical obsession of the stunning Raphael and Michelangelo drawings and you get a general sense of what nudes were for.

But then things get a little… sexy. Beyond the religiosity and puritanism, the nude was used for ulterior motives. Some of these works are unambiguously pornographic. Phyllis rides Aristotle around a garden in a Hans Baldung Grien woodcut; a scholar has a wet dream about Venus in an Albrecht Dürer engraving; a young couple canoodle and grope in a Veneziano painting.

And it’s not all hetero thigh-rubbing: Dürer shows two men exchanging charged glances in a bath house, Perugino has Daphnis tooting his little flute for Apollo, and then there’s Luca Signorelli’s painting, which is basically a paean to butt cheeks, an unabashed love letter to the tush. These works are a rush of forbidden love.

But the best room is the one full of blood, gore, demons and hags. Not because that revs my proverbial engine, but because it’s so brutal in its use of the human form that it shocks much harder than the rest of the works here.

What you come out of this with is a sense that the nude is a complicated thing, with countless meanings and uses. I’m not sure I totally follow the flow or reasoning of the show, and it certainly struggles to tell you much of the whys or hows of nude renaissance art, but it’s a wild ride into the blushing brilliance of soft-core old art. This show ripples with such barely concealed eroticism, you just might need a cold shower after.



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