Art and power have a strong mutual attraction; in the West, their passionately shared interest is the nude body – particularly the female one. Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado, now on view at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, offers 28 paintings from the Spanish museum’s permanent collection, 24 in the United States for the first time, all of which, with the exception of portraits of the two kings (thank goodness), depict the nude, male and female.
The core of the Prado’s collection was acquired by Kings Philip II and IV, grandfather and grandson, who, each in their own time, ruled the Spanish empire across three continents and acquired a lot of erotic paintings. The exhibition thus explores not only the nude, but the collecting habits of the kings and the transformation of their private obsession into a public museum.
The Spanish kings had numerous residences, with painting galleries prominent in all of them. The most striking revelation of the show is that each of these collections had salas reservadas – rooms set aside within them solely for the display of nudes. The sala reservada, which persisted into the 19th century, offered not only a means of restricting access to the paintings in conservative Spain but also provided a venue for which nudity was the chief criterion for inclusion. Paintings with mythological, biblical, and secular subjects all rubbed (bare) shoulders within their confines.
The Spanish royal taste for nudes can hardly be separated from the Spanish royal taste for Titian, the Venetian painter who innovated the influential, seductive nude Venus-type that the two Philips avidly acquired. The most famous of Titian’s works that still remain at the Prado – “Danaë,” “Venus and Adonis,” “Adam and Eve,” “Bacchanal of the Andrians” – did not join the party in Williamstown. Titian haunts the exhibition nonetheless, foremost in “Venus and an Organist” (c. 1550–55), plodding and smudgy, signed by the artist but without a sense of his touch, the chief amusement of which is the organist’s fixed gaze at Venus’s marmoreal crotch.
Luckily, the rest of the artists interpret Titian’s legacy much more interestingly than did Titian in this instance. This is most overt in Pieter Paul Rubens’s radiant, to-scale copy of Titian’s “Rape of Europa” from 1628–29 (you can drive back and forth between it and the original, in the Gardner Museum in Boston, to compare). In his “Rape of Hippodamia” (1636–38), Rubens adopts Europa’s figure type but makes her abduction by Jupiter look like a ferry ride in comparison: Hippodamia is pulled between pillaging centaurs and her vengeful relatives, the red satin drape at her midriff suggesting both her contested genitals and a rip in her flesh as she is torn between them.
Where Rubens maintained Titian’s emphasis on the figure, in a suite of small paintings on copper by Jan “Velvet” Brueghel and assorted collaborators – cleverly juxtaposed against Rubens’ monumental canvases – the nudes are just another luxuriant object among many. Two different depictions of “Abundance with the Four Elements” (1606 and c. 1615) are on view, each with their own distinct surplus of vegetables, flowers, birds, fruits, shells, plants, small mammals, and pearly nudes to sort through.
By this midpoint in the exhibition, the viewer is beginning to get a grasp on the uniformity of the female nude: breasts are gravity-defying hemispheres, hips and belly are fleshy, with just the right amount of swell to the stomach and thighs to subtly define the pubic triangle. If visible, this appears without hair or labial cleft. If not, it is concealed by a standardized vocabulary of decorous, side-saddle body positions or by fluttering drapery that adheres by a strange magnetism to the pudenda.
These abstractions of femininity, especially to jaded modern eyes, hardly seem hot enough to restrict to a special room. As their confinement in the seraglio of the sala reservada demonstrates, however, the nude was seen as a powerful danger, an inducement to illicit sight and touch. This danger is the topic of some of the paintings themselves.
In Francesco Furini’s “Lot and His Daughters” (c. 1634), for instance, nudity drives Lot to override the taboo against incest. His daughters, seeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, concluded that they were the last people on earth and that to continue the human race, they must get pregnant by their father. Painted in a refined, brushy manner inspired by Titian’s midcareer technique, their smooth and glowing backs to the viewers, the daughters overwhelm Lot’s better judgment. (The painting was a gift to Philip IV at the wedding to his niece, Mariana of Austria, from the Grand Duke of Tuscany – was it a jab or commiseration about the burdens of continuing a lineage?)
Guercino’s “Susannah and the Elders” (c. 1617) offers a reverse dynamic to the sexual aggression of Lot’s daughters: here, the virtuous Susannah bathes innocently at a fountain, her flesh illuminated by a pale light. On the left of the painting, two elders, who will subsequently tell her to have sex with them, or else they will tell everyone that she has had sex with them, can barely contain their excitement at the sight of her. One leans into the painting, grasping a gnarly, phallic branch to support himself as he looks; the other leans forward, face cast in shadow, left hand grasping towards Susannah, the other towards the viewer. His right index finger is raised, connoting both his desire for her and warning to us. The men’s response models our own: astonishment at the power and beauty of Guercino’s artful nude.
Male nudes are represented in the exhibition in their heroic (Hercules) and saintly (St. Sebastian) manifestations. The Hercules paintings are by Francisco de Zurbarán, and are two of a series of ten he painted for the Buen Retiro palace. In his paintings of saints, Zurbarán endows his figures with an uncanny sense of stillness, created in part by the strikingly lit folds of their attire. Called upon to depict a nude hero rather than a robed saint – his more typical subject – Zurbarán clothes Hercules in an armor of interestingly lumpy muscles.
These works offer a striking contrast to Rubens’ paintings. So worldly, learned, and versed in classical composition and anatomy, Rubens offers a nearly frictionless viewing experience. Zurbarán, by contrast, brought in from provincial Seville by his old friend Velázquez for this commission, delivers a distinctly idiosyncratic vision of the heroic narrative: in his “Hercules Defeats King Geryon” (1634–35), Zurbarán not only confers his subjects with unusual anatomy, he also poses them so that we can see neither man’s face. Our affective connection to the painting instead must come through imagining the weight of Hercules’s club on his shoulder and his satisfaction as he surveys the defeated King Geryon, face down before him – or through understanding the emotional expressiveness of male buttocks.
The saintly nude, by contrast to the heroic one, draws on some of the conventions of the female nude to induce sympathy. Guido Reni’s “St. Sebastian” (c. 1617–19) leans yearningly into his bloodless arrow wound as he gazes heavenward, his soft pectorals suggesting pubescent female breasts. While paintings like these were not confined to the sala reservada, Sebastian’s drapery, which once coyly revealed a significant section of the hollow of his groin, was doubled in size to conceal it in the eighteenth century.
Indeed, the eighteenth century proved nearly devastating to these paintings. Charles III, a Bourbon king with little sympathy for the tastes of his Hapsburg predecessors, ordered the most licentious nudes in his inherited collection to be burned. To save them, Charles’s court painter Anton Raphael Mengs argued for their value in teaching art and they were ultimately transferred to yet another sala reservada, this one in closed rooms at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes.
While the title of the exhibition – Splendor, Myth, and Vision – suggests sensual abandon – each of those nouns a big pillow for Venus to lean against – the pleasure of this show, while significant, is more cerebral. As much as the nude served as a site of pleasure, it was also a place of artistic striving and viewer’s anxiety. The subtle organization of the show and its unobtrusive, thoughtful wall text artfully guide you through a well constructed intellectual space opened up by the exhibition – a sala reservada of its own.
Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado continues at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (225 South Street, Williamstown, Massachusetts) through October 10.