WILLIAMSTOWN — If the pleasure you take in looking at erotic images is compromised at times by feelings of guilt, rest assured: Such feelings are nothing new.
Even in the golden age of the European nude — the 16th and 17th centuries, when the greatest painters the world has ever known (Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, Velazquez) were whipping up sexy nudes on demand — the monarchs, popes, and nobles who commissioned them were similarly conflicted.
In fact, self-contradiction — a kind of warning against the very act of looking at naked flesh — was often built into the paintings themselves: Many of them illustrated biblical and mythological stories (Susanna and the Elders, Diana and Actaeon) that equated looking at nudity with disaster.
A new summer show at the Clark Art Institute tells the story of how many of Europe’s greatest nude paintings ended up in Spain, in the collection of an austere and repressive monarchy obsessed with propriety. It’s fascinating.
“Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes From the Prado,” which opens June 11 and runs through Oct. 10, has just 28 paintings, all of them from Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado. The show is really a sort of amuse bouche — and a delayed thank you for a show of 31 Renoir paintings the Clark sent to the Prado in 2010-11.
In one sense 28 paintings doesn’t feel like quite enough. The theme is ambitious and the exhibit could do, frankly, with a bit of fattening up.
That said, the paintings themselves, which are by Italian, Spanish, French, and Flemish painters, are first-rate, and contain acres of dimpled fat. They have been judiciously selected, and the Clark (as the Clark does) has taken it all very seriously, mobilizing an impressive team of scholars and curators to produce a great catalog and an intelligent hang.
Up until the 15th century the naked body was associated with shame in Christian Europe, and if it appeared in art it was almost always to fulfill specific iconographic functions. But during the Renaissance, humanist intellectuals began to associate the unclothed body with forms of spiritual and aesthetic potential rather than with sin, and nude figures — male and female — became increasingly common, if not de rigueur.
Still, conflicted feelings remained. The problem was acute not just in the Protestant north, where stricter rules around nudity obtained, but in Catholic territories, where liberties won in Renaissance Italy were reeled in by the Counter-Reformation, and, in Spain, the Inquisition.
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Spain’s Philip II and his grandson Philip IV assembled one of the greatest collections the world has ever known. One palace alone, the Alcazar, had 76 paintings by Titian, 62 by Rubens, and 43 each by Velazquez and Tintoretto.
Philip II is portrayed here in a superb portrait by Titian; Philip IV in a small but riveting work by Velazquez. The two portraits flank a rippling full-length female nude, “Fortuna,” by Rubens — a reminder that among these two dour-looking kings’ collections were dozens of works depicting the kinds of lascivious nudes the Inquisition expressly forbade.
How this came to be has as much to do with the influence of artists upon one another as with royal tastes. But it says a lot about the ambivalence inspired by sensuous paintings of nudes that the interim monarch, Philip III, was deeply uneasy about the collection his father had assembled. For the sake of “modesty and virtue,” he ordered it removed.
The key work in the show is Titian’s “Venus With an Organist and Cupid.” Titian had presented an early version on the same theme to Philip II’s father, Charles (the Holy Roman Emperor), as a gift. He and his workshop painted at least five more versions of that original. All show a naked Venus — almost certainly also a courtesan — reclining on a couch in a villa. A window behind her opens out onto a formal garden or mountainous landscape. All but one also include a musician — in this case an organist — serenading the naked goddess as he turns to gaze at her sensuous body.
And it really is sensuous. Nobody in the history of painting has combined supercharged, idealized nudity with such a convincing effect of reality — made palpable here by the model’s reddened knees, pouchy stomach, and hint of ribcage.
No wonder both Charles and his son fell in love with Titian. And no wonder that Rubens, when he came to the Spain of Philip IV for two months in the winter of 1628-29, went crazy for Titian. He spent much of his time in the royal collection copying Titian’s paintings — including his great, late “Europa” (also known as “The Rape of Europa”), painted for Philip II, and now in Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.—
That copy dominates a room of large-scale, flesh-heavy canvases by Rubens and his assistant Jacob Jordaens. Given Rubens’s stature at this stage of his career, it is a strikingly faithful copy. Up close, however, you can discern differences in Rubens’s treatment of flesh and skin. Europa’s neck, in particular, is more mottled and wrinkled than in Titian’s original, and the bull’s neck seems to have an extra ripple of muscle.
In the wake of that visit, Philip IV commissioned from Rubens a cycle of more than 60 mythological paintings — a groaning feast of naked flesh dressed in decorous allegory.
Rubens’s plumped-up vision is tempered in the next part of the exhibition, which features Flemish cabinet paintings showing ensembles of nudes in landscapes. Several were collaborations, with one artist painting the landscape and another the nudes.
The show’s surprise inclusion is a painting from about 1634 of “Lot and His Daughters” by the Florentine painter Francesco Furini. Old Lot, in the book of Genesis, was plied with drink and raped over two successive nights by his daughters. They wanted to get pregnant by him in order to carry on his line. Lot was so drunk, according to the Bible, that he “perceived not” when each daughter lay with him, “and perceived not when she arose.”
Taking liberties, Furini sets both daughters’ naked bodies in front of their bald father’s astounded, blurry-eyed face. Apart from the two daughters’ luminous bodies, the only palpable object in the painting is the ornate carafe held by one daughter — the agent of their desperate action.
“Am I seeing double?” he seems to wonder. But no, he isn’t. The painting incarnates a moral netherworld, where seduction meets taboo. It makes you queasy.
Not all the paintings are focused exclusively on unclothed women. Several depict ensembles of men and women in various stages of undress. And five are devoted to male nudes.
Two paintings by Francisco de Zurbaran depict a naked Hercules in rigid poses of masculinity. More memorable are the three eroticized renderings of the martyr Saint Sebastian, pierced by arrows, hanging side by side. All similar in size, the works are by Guido Reni, Jusepe de Ribera, and Juan Carreno.
Saint Sebastian, a Roman soldier who died for his faith, was a beloved subject during the Counter-Reformation, when the Church favored paintings emphasizing piety and encouraging steadfastness.
Almost always, however, there was an erotic aspect to his portrayal, as if artists — those strange people who spend so many hours caressing canvases with loaded brushes, building up blooming flesh tones layer by layer, day after day — perceived an inherent connection between sex and the spiritual. And perhaps, after all, they were right?
SPLENDOR, MYTH, AND VISION: Nudes From the Prado
At Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown. June 11-Oct. 10. 413-458-2303, clarkart.eduSebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.