Dosso Dossi (Giovanni di Niccolò de Lutero). "Allegory of Fortune," about 1530. Oil on canvas. (The J. Paul Getty Museum)
Art and architecture critic

Good exhibitions complicate things without confusing them. By that standard, the Getty Museum’s “The Renaissance Nude” is a very fine show, adding layers of complexity to the general understanding of how the naked body became a subject for art in the 15th century. It focuses not just on the heroic nude in Italy, the idealized body inspired by the rediscovery of ancient art, but also on the nude throughout Europe. It surveys the various forces in play at the time — including changes in religious practice and new, more rigorous powers of observation — and how those forces created an appetite for depiction of the unclothed body. And it acknowledges the obvious: that desire was always a part of the pleasure of the naked figure, no matter how pious or allegorical or mythological the supporting narrative.

The exhibition, curated by Thomas Kren, looks at a period of about 120 years, beginning in 1400, and includes more than 100 works, many of them significant loans from major European collections. It features work by Giovanni Bellini, Donatello, Albrecht Durer, Jan Gossaert, Antonio Pollaiuolo and Titian, and includes paintings, sculpture, drawings (including anatomical renderings by Leonardo) and prints. It also places a particular focus on French artists, who produced a kind of hidden history of the nude in illustrated devotional books, images meant for private contemplation and delectation, and images that aren’t always incorporated into the broader understanding of the nude during this period.

Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano. "Saint Sebastian," 1500–1502. Oil on wood. (M. Bertola/Musee des Beaux-Arts)

Albrecht Durer. "Hierinn sind begriffen vier Bu#cher von menschlicher Proportion," 1528. (Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA/The J. Paul Getty Trust)

Two broad trends drove the emergence of the nude as subject. There was the Renaissance, as commonly understood, a reawakening of intellectual energies that spurred artists to a closer observation of the world, including the human body. But there also was a religious impulse — toward a more personal, mystical, intensely felt Christianity, which often took visual form. The desire to gaze on religious subjects, to feast upon their visual substance, led to more sensual depictions of key religious figures, including, in France, Bathsheba, whom David saw bathing. The market for prayer or devotional books, often commissioned by wealthy patrons, inspired artists to pursue novel representations and often racy refinements in these closely held miniatures. In some cases, they may have responded directly to the sexual tastes of the aristocrats for whom the books were made: The Duke of Berry, for whom a small painting of young male religious penitents flagellating themselves was made, was said to have had a taste for working-class men, along with very young girls.

Different understandings of propriety influenced the development of the nude form, as well. In Italy, in the early 15th century, images of the naked Saint Sebastian predominated, in part, because it wasn’t appropriate to draw naked women from life. A drawing of female figures by Pisanello, probably made in the mid-1420s to the early 1430s, may or may not have been drawn from actual observation of female models, but if it was, then it was one of the earliest such drawings. More curious is a sketch by Fra Bartolommeo, who got around the problem of drawing naked women by using a mechanical doll, or manikin, as his model for the Virgin Mary. She appears in a traditional pose — cradling the body of the dead Christ — but has the upper body and muscular arms of a man.

Antonio Pollaiuolo. "Battle of the Nudes," 1470/1475. (National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Purely artistic forces also were driving the new imagery. The impulse to virtuosity, to elaborate and refine and outdo earlier work, might explain the slightly surreal “Battle of the Nudes,” by Pollaiuolo, an engraving that was influential throughout Europe. It shows a brutal battle between 10 naked men, who wield swords, arrows, axes and daggers. The context for this bloodlust isn’t stated, or obvious, but the artist’s motivation might simply have been to show his skill at different poses of the male figure.

Observation may have driven some of the development of the nude, but observation also led to idealization, and for many artists, sketching the naked body was not about capturing a discreet moment in the life of a living figure, but about perfecting the form of the figure beyond the particulars of any one body. Artists such as Durer sought to schematize the body, identify its proportions and determine the ideal relation of its parts to one another. Artists such as Michelangelo pushed that idealization to create what still read today as superhuman bodies, perfect beyond reason. In some ways, that brought the Renaissance full circle, from its initial argument with the formulaic medieval depiction of the body to yet another formula — the over-buffed, supposedly “classical” nude one sees in the figures of the Sistine Chapel (an image of which concludes the Getty show).

Jean Fouquet. "Virgin and Child," about 1452–1455. Oil on oak panel. (Courtesy of Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen/–Art in Flanders vzw, photo Dominique Provost)

Throughout the show, one sees desire and sexuality operating in surprisingly overt ways. One chapter of the exhibition focuses on the use of real people as the models for religious figures, including a mid-15th-century painting by the French artist Jean Fouquet of the Virgin with a bare breast. The inspiration for the Virgin’s face was probably a renowned beauty, Agnes Sorel, who also was King Charles’s mistress. Another section looks at supposedly illicit desire, including homosexuality, which is seen in a delightfully frank woodcut of a male bath scene by Durer, in which the men are looking at each other with more than common interest, and in an engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi of Apollo and Admetus, a trope of same-sex desire borrowed from Greek mythology. A discussion on depictions of the suffering or mutilated body underscores not only an important exception to the tendency to idealize perfect bodies, but also emphasizes the degree to which sadism, masochism and other sexual variations were interwoven with common religious narratives.

Among the more gratifying images in the exhibition are those that suggest the variety of body types that were considered beautiful. An image by Durer of a woman praying, seen from behind, shows a more full and fleshy ideal of beauty, while several of the early Saint Sebastians depict male beauty as androgynous and even feminine. A powerful drawing by Hans Baldung shows “The Ecstatic Christ,” who has the powerful body of a classical figure but is seen twisting on the ground, with the wounds of the crucifixion clearly visible on one hand. Caught between death and resurrection, he slides one hand under a drapery that hides his genitals, a perplexing but powerful erotic gesture.

The Baldung drawing reminds the viewer of something that becomes a powerful leitmotif of the exhibition: that many of these works insist on operating in wildly different, even self-contradictory ways. The religious doesn’t exclude the erotic — the sacred and the profane cohabit. It isn’t the modern mind, salacious and insinuating, that reads sex into these images. In fact, this exhibition leaves one with the sense that the current moment is the puritanical and nervous one and that we still have a long way to go before fully acknowledging how wonderfully voluptuous the past has always been.

The Renaissance Nude Through Jan 27 at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.