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The guilty pleasure that can come with admiring imagery of unclothed bodies is nothing new. Wonderment, attraction, shock — even repulsion — can ensue.
While the exploration now up at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown is set in the distant past, interim senior curator Kathleen Morris suspects contemporary audiences will relate to how complex and uncomfortable our conflicted relationship to nude images can be, "whether it’s through the internet, or through our entertainment avenues that are risqué and erotic and all the rest,” she says. “On the other hand we come from very puritanical stock, and I think in America in particular there’s always been this tension between those two impulses."
The new exhibition Morris helped pull together explores how that tension played out in 16th- and 17th-century Spain during the repressive Inquisition.
"Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado" features 28 fleshy paintings on loan from the esteemed Museo Nacional de Prado in Madrid. Twenty-five have never before been seen in the U.S.
They were collected, with great fervor, by generations of Catholic royalty. As you might imagine, their passion for nudes created a fascinating paradox.
Sensual, But Also Sophisticated, Spiritual
The first nude you encounter in the Clark exhibition is a painting of the goddess Fortuna by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens. There's no hint of shame on her fair-skinned face as she seems to move through the painting in her birthday suit.
“She is nearly life-sized, full-length, looking directly out at the viewer,” Clark curator Lara Yeager-Crasselt explains in the gallery. “This is Rubens’ fleshy, robust, confident female nude.”
And Yeager-Crasselt says that like the rest of the nudes in this exhibition, "Fortuna" offers more than a bodacious body. That's how the Spanish kings who collected the works saw her too.
"'Fortuna' represents fortune, chance, luck, fate. She is the invariability of life,” Yeager-Crasselt says. "And Rubens shows her balancing on a crystal ball in a stormy ocean, lightning breaking in the background. So in fact she becomes a source of contemplation for the rulers. So it's this way that the nude is able to operate on many different levels.”
Those levels allowed royalty to collect these luscious -- some might say lewd — works. They are sensual, but also sophisticated and spiritual, depicting stories, lessons and warnings from mythology and the Bible.
Yeager-Crasselt says like all good kings, Philip II, and later his grandson Philip IV, amassed a trove of paintings for the royal collection. They both had extreme tastes for top-notch nudes and commissioned them from some of the greatest artists in Europe.
Private Spaces For Their Nudes
How they pulled it off in 16th- and 17th-century Spain reveals a complicated chapter in social and political history. The religiously powerful, hyper-conservative Inquisition deemed nudity sinful, and Yaeger-Crasselt says the kings were expected to promote morality.
“They were Catholic kings, and their roles publicly [were] as representatives, as defenders of the Catholic Church," she says. "That public role had to coexist with their private taste."
This exhibition takes a scholarly dive into why and how kings collected, displayed and at times even hid their nudes. They did that by creating special, private spaces, often -- but not always -- in their palaces, known as Salas Reservadas. King Philip IV hung Rubens' stunning "Fortuna" in his hunting lodge.
“The king was allowed in there, of course,” Yeager-Crasselt says, “and close members of the royal family who may have gone hunting with him. [It was] a very limited audience.”
Even the queen was not allowed.
"We do have a reference in the earlier part of the 17th century that when the queen did go into a Sala Reservada, many of these paintings were covered up with a curtain,” Yeager-Crasselt says.
She says these reserved rooms evolved over time. Their functions changed depending on who was in power. Yeager-Crasselt and the other curators didn't even know these men-only spaces existed until they started developing this show with the Prado museum. They also learned that the Prado itself had a Sala Reservada from 1827-1838. That discovery actually inspired the direction of this exhibition.
The curator explained how King Philip II created a Sala Reservada referred to as the Titian vaults. One of the most provocative, outwardly erotic paintings in this show hung there, "Venus with an Organist and Cupid." In the work, Titian's beautifully rendered nude goddess reclines on a luxurious bed. She looks like she could roll right off the canvas.
“Venus is lounging ... her full body is visible for us,” Yeager-Cresselt says. “There’s a sense of softness to it. She has folds in her skin. She’s thick in some places. All that she’s wearing are jewels -- pearls throughout her hair. I mean, she’s just adorned by jewels and her own beauty -- and not much else!”
A young musician sits mesmerized at a pipe organ along the foot of her bed. He cranes his neck to stare.
“He is paused from his playing,” the curator muses, “She is nude, and he is looking directly at her genitals.”
Erotic indeed. But the paintings in the exhibition aren't only of disrobed women. There are some barely clad and nude males, too. One painting, "Hercules Defeats King Geryon" by Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbaran, shows the god from the back. His ripped, muscular behind is exposed and tenses as he raises a club to defeat his opponent.
It's quite a difference from the sultry, dimpled Venus in the next room -- a point not lost on museum visitors Jean and Robert Poppei.
"It’s interesting to come into this room where there’s this contrast between the eroticism of the female figure as object and the male body as hero and strong and powerful,” Jean Poppei shares.
Then her husband chimes in with amused sarcasm. “Not that we have that in our society.”
“No, of course not,” his wife says, laughing, “that's completely foreign to us.”
Another visitor, Rachel Cohon, understands how these nudes could be seen as a kind of high-brow porn for the powerful.
“Of course it sounds like pornography of the period of the Spanish Inquisition, right?” she asks, laughing. “On the other hand they’re painted by great artists, so there’s a lot in them. But it is a really interesting contrast between the rigors of the Inquisition, the existence of these paintings and these guys collecting so many of them.”
Those kinds of reactions are what the curators are hoping for.
“If they were understood or enjoyed in a erotic way it doesn’t mean I think they could also be enjoyed in a more intellectual way,” Yeager-Crasselt says. “And that’s that ambivalence which exists on every level.”
What is for sure, though, is that the ability to paint a convincing nude was seen as the highest form of artistic achievement. This collection provides a window into the golden age of European nudes.
And the curator says the kings who collected nudes understood that. They looked to the biblical and mythological scenes in these masterpieces for inspiration, going beneath the painted, supple skin to contemplate deeper human issues. Some even depicted cautionary, moral stories about the risks of voyeurism and sins of the flesh.
By the end of the 17th century Yeager-Crasselt says the publicly pious Catholic monarchs were able to amass more than 5,000 paintings — most of them nudes — despite the Inquisition.
“They were just so powerful that they were beyond it,” she says.
But not all of the Spanish kings had a thing for nudes. Philip III (Philip II's son) ordered them removed to protect his virtue. In the 18th century, Kings Charles III and IV wanted to destroy the paintings. Court artists saved them in a Sala Reservada.
If they hadn’t stashed them away, these masterpieces might not be here to stimulate onlookers — maybe even making us blush — centuries later in Massachusetts.
This segment aired on June 27, 2016.
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