SPLENDOR, MYTH, AND VISION: NUDES FROM THE PRADO
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|
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|
|Titian, Venus with Organist and Cupid|
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.