The naked body is no more than the point of departure for a work of art. Kenneth Clark, in: The Nude, A Study of Ideal Art, 1956
The heroic, idealised nude derives from Greek art depicting the youthful and victorious athlete and it is this that the Western art of the Renaissance and Baroque have inherited and carried further. In that respect this exhibition is our tribute to the Olympic year.
The selection of drawings on display, from Christ Church's permanent collection, were created by Italian masters from the late 15th to the early 18th centuries and explore the changes from the almost timid artistic re-discovery of the human form to the confident academic studies after life models. The almost clumsy rendering of a nude throwing a ball by an unknown Venetian artist of the early 15th century is an interesting example of the beginnings of the subject, when artists drew more from imagination than observation. Lorenzo di Credi’s (1457 – 1537) drawing of the figure of David, some decades later, shows how a Renaissance artist attempts to represent a ‘realistic’ image of the body. It is still a very stylised affair, inspired by Greek and Roman sculpture, rather than the direct study of a life model. Classical statues remained a strong influence in the depiction of the nude as some drawings in this exhibition testify – among them a sheet with three views of the famous Torso of Belvedere. The Florentine artist Baccio Bandinelli (1493 – 1560) combines both sculpture and nature in his preparatory drawings for his statue of Hercules. A group of life-drawings by Agostino and Annibale Carracci show their endeavour to change art by drawing from real life models. In the same tradition stands the interesting drawing by the Venetian artist Matteo Ponzone (1583 – after 1663) of a man pulling a goat. These are only some examples of the more than thirty works on display in this exhibition.
The subject of the unclad body exploits themes like, gods and goddesses, saints and heroes, Adam and Eve, which make it acceptable for the Renaissance and Baroque artist to depict the nude and for the viewer to look at it. The drawn and painted bodies are idealised and removed from the ordinary; this distance to the everyday life allows the images to be viewed as a celebration of the beauty of the human form.
It was mainly the male body that was artistically explored and transformed into images of gods and heroes. Female life models were not available. The few drawings of the female nude seem to derive from Roman statues of Venus. This group of drawings, depicting goddesses and nymphs, show the figures passive and poised, whereas their male counterparts are engaged in heroic deeds showing off their muscles.
The English language distinguishes between the terms 'naked' and 'nude'. The former is perceived as the undressed evoking a feeling of uncomfortable exposure which regards the clad body as the natural state. The latter is the self-confident flaunt of the human form as nature intended and clothes are seen as an unnatural addition. This distinction between the unacceptable naked and the acceptable nude is often used in describing art. Strictly speaking, therefore, the exhibition showed drawings of the nude, but the title Heroic Nakedness captures the depictions more accurately. It amalgamates the voyeuristic aspect of looking at the naked, exposed figure with celebrating the wonder and beauty of the human body.
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