The Naturist Gaze: The Renaissance Nude

Author Thomas Kren — Royal Academy of Arts 2018

Some of us were privileged to attend a private viewing of an exhibition, The Renaissance Nude organised by the J Paul Getty Museum in association with the Royal Academy of Arts. The latter housed the chosen works of Renaissance masters (and mistresses) within its Burlington House headquarters in London. But there was a difference; everyone who attended the exhibition were themselves naked.

I have visited the RA in London many times over the last 35 years: but usually to attend their Summer Exhibition. This annual event has been one of the highlights of the artistic year in England now for over 250 years. The grand courtyard entrance, marble foyer and steps to the galleries are as familiar as my own home, but then step into that space without clothing then the feeling is unsettling and dreamlike. Yes, indeed, it was like that anxiety dream we all have.

My fellow Naturists drifted up the steps, past the friendly but nevertheless frozen faced security staff on our way to the main gallery. As we entered the subdued lighted rooms, the purpose of our visit began. Which was what exactly?

On the surface, it must have seemed like a bit of a wheeze for the gallery. “Let’s put on a show about how nudes were portrayed in the 15th and 16th Centuries and then get a bunch of 21st Century nude people to look at the art works.” And for the Naturists themselves? Well, any opportunity to get naked and promote naturism as a reasonable and mainstream activity is always welcomed. But then we have the obvious problem: what connection is there really between the two? It might just as well have been an exhibition of steam engines. We might all have been dressed as Firemen.

I looked around the rooms where about 50 of us in complete undress were studying the paintings, drawings and small bronzes apparently oblivious to one another. Despite the narrow space between exhibits, not one person accidentally brushed against the other. No-one looked at anyone else. Talking, except to one’s friends, was discouraged. A seventh sense seemed to exist that allowed complete propriety to exist.

There was about a 3:1 ratio of men to women and I would say that only about a third were younger than 30. The range of body types was vast from the chubby and the droopy to the toned and the tanned. I then turned to the works themselves.

My personal interest is Art is in drawing, and so I was particularly looking forward the seeing some of the works of Durer and the Cranachs (Younger and Elder) as well as some of the famous Leonardo Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings. I was delighted to be introduced to others such as Pollaiuolo and many unknown Masters.

Of course, there is no one reason why these works were created or why they have survived over the centuries, but what is clear to me (and to the essayists in the accompanying catalogue) is that you can’t avoid the conclusion that they were produced for the delectation of men (gazing at both male and female bodies) though sometimes hidden behind Christian iconography or Classical mythology in the interests of taste. The drawings and illustrated prayer books in particular would have been kept in the private quarters of gentlemen, appearing only to their friends. In some cases, they may have been given as presents to their womenfolk for moral instruction!

The one thing we can be sure of is that they would not have been displayed in such public space as this to be viewed by a parade of naked art lovers passing by.

As an amateur artist and sometime naturist, I can combine the two interests and say this:

Art is about how we look at the world closely and produce a work that has something to say. In the case of work that produces nudes, what we want to say is that people are structurally beautiful, sometimes externally beautiful, sensual, surprisingly varied, arousing, often unreal and in most cases unattainable as ideal bodies. Naturism, to me, is about the joy of life and our connection with the world and that we want to share that joy unhindered by society but respectfully with others.

Take a look at Durer’s famous Adam and Eve engraving. I look forward to the day when the leaves will no longer matter.