Nudes of the Prado Unveiled at the Clark

Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA
Through October 20

If you've been to the Prado, perhaps you've considered skipping the current show at the Clark Art Institute: Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado. After all, it's just 28 paintings, plus it's in Williamstown, a place no one confuses with Madrid. (In fact, I can't recall that anyone has ever uttered the words "exciting" and "Williamstown" in the same non-ironic sentence.) It would be a mistake to take this point of view.

Rubens, Fortuna--a manly girl
First off, several of these canvases—especially out-sized paintings by Titian and Rubens–have never before left Spain. (This show is a partial payback for the Clark's loan of 31 Renoirs in 2010-11.) But mainly, seeing these paintings in a small show like that of the Clark allows us to really look at them and, in the process, educate ourselves in new ways. I've been fortunate enough to have been at the Prado, where I saw scads of pictures from this show's stars: Tintoretto, Titian, Velasquez, Rubens, and others that once hung in the galleries of Philip II (1556-58) and Philip IV (1621-65), rulers when Spain was Europe's richest and most powerful kingdom and paintings were among the many precious commodities found in the royal coffers.

A recent talk on this show was titled "Art, Power, and Politics," and this sums up a better way to approach the nudes on view–especially Christendom's hypocritical attitudes about sex. In theory, our good Christian monarchs were supposed to focus on heavenly matters, not the temptations of the flesh, but because Spanish kings were so politically powerful, they convinced clerical censors to allow fleshy nudes in the royal palace so long as they were displayed in salon reservados hidden from the public areas of the palace. It helped also, if the pictures purported to recount Biblical or mythological themes. These made them didactic "art," not just a bunch of naked people upon which randy kings and courtiers could gaze. Oh yes, another thing—a revelation that was new to me. Have you ever looked upon a solid Rubens or Tintoretto and wondered why female backs and buttocks were so muscular? During the 16th and 17th centuries, it was viewed as unacceptable for male artists to use naked female models, so they posed men and imagined breasts!
Titian, Rape of Europa

Rubens copy, Rape of Europa
Furini, Lot's Daughters
Tintoretto, Lady Exposing Her Breast
By today's standards, this show is barely (pun intended) salacious—except in a few instances. Two of the more famous canvases, a Titian and a Rubens copy of The Rape of Europa, seem more like studies in anatomy and drama than the sexual violence implicit in Zeus' forced seduction of the maiden Europa. If you are looking for something more alluring, look at two lesser known paintings: Francesco Furini's Lot and His Daughters and Lady Exposing Her Breast. In each case, the models were clearly female, not men in unconvincing drag, and both shine with the luminosity of real flesh rather than allegorical skin. Furini was a new painter for me, but a search of his work quickly reveals that he had an appreciation for the female form that strongly suggest that he violated nude female modeling taboos. The picture on display is soft and beautiful; one's skin crawls only if one actually knows the Biblical story of Lot's daughters. Tintoretto's model gazes into the room unashamed of her exposed breasts. She was probably a courtesan, but I also learned that baring one's breast was considered a form of sincerity. Shall I make a bad joke about how easily I would be convinced of the subject's probity? Let's not go there.

Titian, Venus with Organist and Cupid
These were my favorite paintings in the show. For me, the only truly creepy paintings are those dealing with voyeurism. Giovanni Barbieri gives us lecherous old men secretly spying on the naked Susannah, a Biblical story, but also clearly a painting intended to titillate in a pornographic sense. And then there is what might be the single most famous canvas on display: Titian's Venus with Organist and Cupid, which is both odd and unsettling. Why is there an organist in this composition at all? Why display him as if he were a Peeping Tom about to tell his friends something to the effect of, "I was hired to play music but, holy shit! There was this stark naked chick on the sofa cavorting with some damned flying baby. I couldn't keep my eyes off her crotch!" I've always wondered why this painting is so famous and I still don't know.

A critique of the show: the curation could have been much stronger. I wonder about the above painting because I was offered very little that would help me "get" it. Almost all the commentary is about technique, quite a lot of it redundant, and most of which could have been reserved for an art history lecture. You'll need a copy of Bullfinch's Mythology handy, as almost none of the classical myths are related in any detail and you're not going to get any cellphone coverage to help you in the Clark's subterranean special exhibit space. (Yes, I'm still railing over the museum's uber-expensive-butt-ugly makeover.)

So Williamstown isn't Madrid, and the Clark show is only half as informative as it should have been, but let's hear it for small shows in vest-pocket places. I didn't really "see" these paintings at the Prado because, well, it's the frickin' Prado. You find yourself in a place like that and, despite your better instincts, you try to cram it all in because you never know if you'll ever make it back. So you stare at these painters and dozens equally famous until you're so numb you're strolling past images that scarcely register. The Clark's 28 loaners tell us a lot, even if it's not what the curators want us to consider.

Rob Weir

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