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Nineteenth century reactions to nudity in art

(continued from Previous Post)- Nineteenth century reactions to nudity in art, such as the British Matron’s letter, may have caused Eastlake to censor erotic images, which set the tone for future acquisitions.32 Scholars are still debating the exact meaning for this complex scene and have even renamed Bronzino’s painting, An Example of Luxury, as it could also represent the dangers of excess.33 Eastlake’s legacy can still be felt today, as the ways he chose to title erotic artworks obscured the sexual content and is still implemented by galleries today. * The threats of illicit sexuality in the public sphere were also considered when artifacts from Ancient Greco and Roman cultures surfaced at the British Museum. Even though excavations during the nineteenth century revealed sex and the expression of sexuality for both heterosexual and homosexual Greek and Roman citizens were part of everyday life in Ancient Rome, the artifacts were banished to the stores of the British Museum on the basis of their ‘obscene nature’.34

In keeping with Victorian traditions of sexual regulation in visual culture, representations of sexual organs, erect phalli and scenes of a sexual nature created during the sixteenth century in Italy, were also banished to the British Museum’s museum secretum.35 When the British Museum was bequeathed several ‘phallic artifacts’ from George Witt (1804-1869), the Triumph of the Phallus (Figures 9.1, 9.2,9.3) an eighteenth century engraving after Francesco Salviati’s sixteenth century original was also placed in long-term storage, emerging in 1991 to a public that was still not allowed to photograph the object.36 Even though the contents of the British Museum’s former museum secretum could inevitably enrich knowledge about the history of sexuality during the Renaissance, there still remains a stigma towards displaying these explicit objects. The British Museum’s website still does not explain the narrative in the Triumph of the Phallus and only lists, in detail, the provenance and medium.37 It is no surprise that artists keenly studied small artifacts such as coins and spintrae from Ancient Greece and Rome during the sixteenth century. The classical influence in Renaissance culture is more thoroughly investigated in the 2008 exhibition, Art and Love in Renaissance Italy.38
The social regulation of sexuality in galleries is still prevalent today, as we have seen wall labels for erotic images in galleries are similarly devoid of addressing the subject. Take for instance; Titian’s the Three Ages of Man (1512-13) (Figure 10). The wall label at the National Gallery of Scotland states it is an image of the ‘three stages of life: infancy, adulthood and old age.’39 Yet the iconography suggests the narrative is more sexually charged, and tells of a lustful encounter between two lovers, which is absent in the National Gallery of Scotland label. Curator at the National Gallery, London, David Jaffe suggests, ‘the couple have just finished making music, and the suggestive position of one pipe, apparently protruding from the youth’s groin, implies that they have also been making love.’40
Jaffe continues to explain that in depicting the girl deshabille, Titian has ‘rendered the image more provocative by exposing her undergarments that were not usually exposed.’41 The clothed woman is representing a more sexual image than a nude woman, as her clothing appears to have just been put back on; or recently taken off. The putti to the right of the figures on the foreground may also represent the consequent love between the couple. The title for the Three Ages of Man obscures a highly involved portrayal of mutual love, sexuality and spirituality indicated by the church in the background. The level of interpretation provided by David Jaffe, et al. in the 2003 exhibition catalogue, Titian is lacking in the Renaissance galleries at the National Gallery of Scotland label.42

If the scholarship has carried out correctly, why has the gallery been using outdated interpretations of the paintings? Which leads to the question, how important is it for the gallery to stay current with art historical scholarship? How does this effect the ways the public views art history, or the topic of sexuality in art? To be sure, sexuality in Renaissance art makes for a difficult and controversial topic to address since aesthetics dominate amongst interpretation labels for old master paintings. * Outdated and un didactic interpretive materials in museums and galleries for the female nude contrast scholarship by art historians such as David Rosand who declared that to ignore the historical context of sexual or erotic images and label them simply as ‘pin ups,’ ‘is a lazy response to the complexity and vitality of Renaissance culture, and the appropriation of the classical as a way of dealing with the present.’43
Renaissance society identified with mythological stories of love, deceit, rejection and punishment, which were a result of the complicated process of marriage and the rituals that defined the place of the family within society. Andrea Bayer states that during the sixteenth century, marriage had little to do with love, however, love, beauty and attraction mesmerized Renaissance men and women that are evident in poems and treatises written during the time.44 The National Gallery of Scotland’s 2005 exhibition, Venus Rising, aimed to ‘… explores western artists’ fascination with the nude female body from ancient to modern times. It also links this artistic interest to long-term attitudes about women within our society.’45 Although there have been numerous exhibitions around the world since 2000 based on the goddess of love, this is the first in Britain that attempts to explain ‘long-term attitudes to women.’ From first impression, the exhibition mission statement is promising and establishes a feminist tone. After close inspection, however, nowhere on the website or the published exhibition pamphlet are there any explanations for the reasons why paintings such as Titian’s Venus Anadyomene would have been created and what they can reveal about taste and the female body in art history as well as how it has affected women in society today.46
It would also have been interesting to learn about the purposes of images such as Venus Anadyomene and Venus of Urbino; since during the Renaissance it was believed that images of Venus over the bed, and further, conceiving a child under the sign of Venus may increase chances of inspiring beauty.47 Placing images in the bedroom or chambers, such as Venus Anadyomene, were believed to encouraged thoughts of sexuality, fertility and beauty, thought to help a couple conceive a child.
Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) also promoted the placement of beautiful images in the bedroom as he is said to have declared ‘…[in] the bedroom of the master of the family and his wife there by hung only images of dignity and handsome appearance; for they say that this may have great influence on the fertility of the mother and the appearance of the future offspring.’48 Marriage was the ‘unit of civic life’ and resembled a business transaction in Renaissance Italy as mentioned earlier by Andrea Bayer, and although the deification of Venus contradicted the Catholic renunciation of pagan worship; they believed she influenced the success of a marriage, defined by producing healthy children or heirs.49

However, the worship of Venus was a private affair for man and wife, and paintings in her honour were commissioned and painted by men, who controlled society. Women were seen as accessories to men and as an object that would be adorned with jewels and luxurious fabrics to show the wealth of their husbands.50 The woman was simultaneously instructed to perform the duties expected from a good wife meaning she must be sexually desirable and chaste.51 The misogynistic view that women were incapable of anything more than providing gestation for a child and exemplifying good virtue was echoed by Ludovico Dolce who said ‘…but in a woman one does not look for profound eloquence of subtle intelligence, or exquisite prudence, or talent for living, or administration of the republic or justice, or anything else except chastity.’52 Therefore, the existence of secular images in which young idealized beauties are depicted, are also a reminder of the conflicting high expectations of women in society.

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Titian’s Venus is an example of a youthful ideal beauty (wife) who was also fertile, recently emerged from the sea implying she was devoid of impurities and therefore, a chaste virgin as stated by Dolce. Discussing the views towards women during the sixteenth century would have actually helped exhibition visitors learn about the ‘long term attitudes towards women’ which was claimed earlier in the mission statement for the Venus Rising exhibition. Historical evidence would have revealed the political and social inequality that women experienced during the sixteenth century. Titian’s paintings are documents that provide evidence of this history. However, how has current art history been omitted from interpretations in art galleries? What are the ways in which twenty-first century viewers have become accustomed to identifying Titian’s female nudes as essentially non-erotic images? As seen in Beth Eck’s sociological studies that have found Titian’s Venus of Urbino was consistently considered ‘un-sexy.’53 When looking at Venus Anadyomene her breasts are barely indicated by subtle shading and a stray curl of hair defines the bust by separating the two expanses of pale skin. This rendition of Venus by Titian was considered attractive and was probably greatly admired by both the men and women who were allowed to see it in the sixteenth century.

500 years later, the meaning of Titian’s female nudes to an extent, seem to be misinterpreted by the contemporary audiences in galleries. Judgment also occurs in the interpretive labels for Cranach’s Venus and Cupid and Titian’s Venus Anadyomene as they state ‘[Cranach’s Venus and Cupid] (Figure 1) is less curvy and her pose is more static,’54 The labels are negatively discussing Titian’s Venus and later suggest, ‘Titian’s Venus is a big, beautiful woman…’55 However, Judging Venus’ body using contemporary notions of ideal body image and beauty by using catchphrases to describe Titian’s Venus that do not apply to the sixteenth century nude and transmit messages about body image that may have detrimental effects on its viewers. Titian’s Diana and Actaeon as well as Venus Anadyomene was most likely met with veneration both for its beauty and erotic appeal, which is in contrast to the interpretations provided in the National Gallery of Scotland exhibition.

Although it would be easier to hold museum educators who wrote the labels and educational materials responsible for the lack of interpretation, it is not entirely their fault. The way they interpret erotic images are a result of a system of more complex and unrealistic societal pressures and expectations for public galleries today. A system where the female nude is objectified and fetishised because she bares no resemblance to modern notions of beauty, but ‘represents the tastes of the dominant white middle class patriarchy.’56 Titian’s representations of the female nude are interpreted as passive objects ‘for a voyeuristic (male) gaze’ which feminists have argued ‘has an impact on the perception of real-life women and their bodies.’57 It is therefore important that museum educators in galleries understand the ways in which female nudes from the Renaissance are discussed affect not only body image, but are in a large part incorrect interpretations relying on outdated historical references which have since been explored further in art historical studies. Evidence from the visual culture of the Renaissance such as Venus Anadyomene and the artifacts produced by the Ancient Greeks and Romans suggests these societies had a deep understanding of human sexuality (both heterosexual and homosexual) complemented by the idea of love.

This is something that if addressed in museums and galleries today would inevitably lead to a greater understanding and compassion for different sexual orientations and forms of sexual expression.58 The methods used by some galleries to frame erotic artworks today is similar to Eastlake’s methods of dealing with sexual images from the Renaissance. While Research Curator, Susanna Avery-Quash stated galleries are no longer operating under the puritanical roots from Eastlake’s tenure at the National Gallery, London, evidence suggests allegory and aesthetics are still favoured in gallery labels over the original context and meanings of the erotic female nude. The label provided for Titian’s the Three Ages of Man bares no resemblance to David Jaffe’s 2003 catalogue entry for the Three Ages of Man that explains the iconography and subject of the work of art. What are the reasons behind not using Jaffe’s entry? Why are outdated biographies based on artistic genius favoured over current art historical research and thus deemed more important by the public over the subject of the painting? The labels are being written for an audience that has much different needs than nineteenth century Victorians and this must be realised and changed if art from the Renaissance is to truly prove its universal purpose.

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