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Things look different after #MeToo. And not just after #MeToo, but after several years of a surging fourth wave of feminism. There has been fury against patriarchy – with the term itself, after decades of dormancy, surging back into use to explain everything from the rise of Donald Trump to sexual violence in India to pay inequality in western Europe.
Everywhere, dams of silence and fear are bursting, as women speak out about wrongs committed by men whose powerful positions once rendered them unassailable. Women have also rewritten the private stories they have told themselves (or buried) about their lives, from family relationships to workplace troubles to sexual encounters. In this atmosphere of revisionism, new stories have been needed. Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person, published at the end of 2017 in the New Yorker, owed its viral success to a wave of recognition from female readers. It told a story about dating and sex that seemed intensely true but, till then, barely told.
This new feminism has also affected the way people look. Museums and galleries – especially those representing a canonical European art tradition – burst with images of women disrobed and displayed for the delectation of men. Of course, there is nothing new about recognising the extent to which the spectacularisation of the female body has been part of a structure of oppression of women by men. The “male gaze” has been discussed by feminist critics for decades. It became part of popular culture when John Berger’s groundbreaking TV series Ways of Seeing invited a group of women to sit around a coffee table with cigarettes and glasses of wine to discuss the portrayal of the female body in art. “Men look at women; women watch themselves being looked at,” Berger intones gloomily at the start of the episode.
Nevertheless, in the last few years, the borderlines of acceptable looking have become blurred. In 2017, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York received a petition to remove Balthus’s Thérèse Dreaming, a painting of a young girl reclining on a chair, one leg up on a stool to reveal her underwear. In Britain, John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs – which shows the seduction of Heracles’s lover by bare-breasted water nymphs – was temporarily taken down from Manchester Art Gallery, in a move that was at the time widely regarded as censorship (wrongly, the museum argued).
Other reassessments of works made in the past include the “Rhodes must fall” campaign to remove statues of arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes from the universities of Oxford and Cape Town, as well as the recently announced move by Notre Dame University in Indiana to cover its 1880s murals depicting stereotypical images of Native Americans.
Last autumn, there was a flurry of a different kind, as the Royal Academy of Arts in London announced a new exhibition: The Renaissance Nude, an 80-work examination of the naked body in European art of the 15th and 16th centuries. The show was greeted as a post-#MeToo event, since it is to feature broadly equal numbers of male and female bodies. There was even talk of a “makeshift gender quota”.
The curators have been quick to refute this: it has nothing to do with #MeToo, they say, having been in the planning for many years. OCurator Per Rumberg told me that the broad equality of numbers was simply a reflection of the period: during the 15th century, the male body was scrutinised and portrayed just as much as the female form.
The exhibition might be seen as an attempt to complicate rather than simplify the story of representations of the naked body. Concentrating on a narrow, if culturally dominant, slice of art history, it looks at work from Italy, Germany, France and the Low Countries created during the long 15th century, just before the depiction of the naked body became the fundamental mark of an artist’s prowess – before Michelangelo covered the walls of the pope’s chapel in naked men (only for the genitals to be overpainted several decades later); and before Titian and Giorgione set the fashion for reclining female nudes, emulated down the centuries by artists from Velázquez to Picasso.
What radiates from all this is the sheer variety of reasons for portraying the human body naked, and the complexity of the visual traditions artists were drawing on. The dominance of the nude in the Renaissance, the exhibition argues, cannot entirely be ascribed to the rediscovery of the art of classical antiquity. Attitudes to the human body were just as complex, various and messy in the 15th century as they are now, and much more localised – with Germany and Italy, say, working within different moral and rhetorical traditions.
The naked body might be, for example, a locus of scholarly humanist enquiry, its depiction requiring a mastery of anatomy and an examination of real naked models. Studies by Leonardo of the shoulder and neck will make the point in the RA show, as do Dürer’s remarkable self-portraits, illustrated in the catalogue, in which his face and genitals are drawn with loving care.
There are the private, solitary pleasures implied by the act of looking at books of hours – tiny, exquisitely decorated volumes popular at the medieval French courts. In such books, the bathing Bathsheba is a popular subject, and her naked limbs – to the male commissioner of such a volume – might deliver both a frisson of desire and a warning against the dangers of female sexual power.
There is the reminder of mortal frailty implied in an extraordinary elmwood carving, from Ulm in Germany, of an elderly woman, who echoes the pose of classical sculptures of Venus, her hands across her genitals. The work is now known as Elderly Bather but, in a weird foreshadowing of Trump’s famous taunt of Hillary Clinton, was traditionally called Nasty Old Woman – though, as with all such Old Master titles, it was not given by its maker, but became attached to it later.
Scholar Jill Burke speculates that some depictions of male nakedness, such as Pollaiuolo’s famous large-scale Battle of the Nudes, may owe as much to Europeans’ encounters with the “barbarous” people of sub-Saharan Africa as to the more obvious example of Roman sarcophagi, which were frequently decorated with battle scenes in the second century AD.
As for the male body, most frequently it is Christ’s, of course, his skin and bones and muscle and torn flesh a reminder of his humanity and, very occasionally, of his mortal sensuality. Hans Baldung’s startling drawing The Ecstatic Christ sees him writhing on the ground, his left hand reaching beneath his loin cloth.
The exhibition will contain several depictions of Saint Sebastian, the iconoclastic martyr who was, according to Christian legend, tied up and shot with arrows. It is hard not to see some of these depictions as tinged with sensuality even when they are ostensibly devotional: Cima da Conegliano’s portrayal has the skimpily loin-clothed saint gazing soulfully into the middle distance, a single arrow piercing his thigh, his flesh otherwise creamy and unblemished.
The book Seen from Behind, Patricia Lee Rubin’s survey of the male bum in Renaissance art, is a revealing reminder of the complexities of past sexuality. Rubin notes that more than half the male population of Florence had what we would now call homosexual experiences at one time or another during this period. And one image of Saint Sebastian, according to the biographer Giorgio Vasari, was removed from a church for provoking “light and evil thoughts” among female parishioners.
In her forthcoming book The Italian Renaissance Nude, Jill Burke argues that because of the nude’s dominance in European art history, it has come to seem somehow natural, inevitable and universal. Some critics, such as Kenneth Clark, even regarded it as a great summation of human creative endeavour. Burke, who worked on the exhibition, argues that we might in fact see the dominance of the nude as strange: non-European artistic traditions, such as those of China and Japan, never developed a taste for the naked body in the same way.
It seems especially important, just now, not to remove nudes from walls, but to look critically, and to resist the universalising power of the familiar. Those sensuous reclining nudes of Titian – his gorgeous Danaës, raped by golden coins, his drowsing woodland nymphs, his Venuses – have an important precursor: a woodcut in an exquisitely decorated book, printed by the Venetian Aldine Press in the late 15th century. Called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, it shows a female figure, naked and recumbent. Over her looms a satyr – half goat, half man – his penis erect. The satyr disappears from the many subsequent depictions of similar sleeping, vulnerable women. But you could say he has never gone away.