A major museum exhibition can have two justifications: it can make a novel or interesting point, or argument; or it can present great, or at least interesting, objects. By those measures, The Renaissance Nude at the Getty Center was a disappointment.
If there was a point, it was hardly novel or coherent. Despite social inhibitions, artists found ways to paint nudes by casting them in religious or mythical scenes, seemed to be one point. A second was that nudes became more realistic with the rise of Humanism and scientific study. Neither point could be called original or in any way surprising. Nor did the works on display particularly illuminate these theses.
All would be forgiven, however, if we were treated to great works from the Renaissance involving nudes, of which there is no shortage. Instead, we slogged through the seven main exhibition galleries of the Getty, housing 120 works, and were treated, in my humble opinion, to only five paintings worth our 90 minutes: beautifully calm and statuesque portrayals of Saint Sebastian by Antonella da Messina and Cima da Conegliano; a ravishing Venus Anadyomene by Titian; a bizarre but fascinating Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim by Jean de Fouquet; and Giorgione’s Laura. Given that to otherwise see these works one would have to travel to Dresden, Strasbourg, Edinburgh, Antwerp and Vienna, the trip to Los Angeles was not in vain, but still the percentage of payoff for works viewed was low*.
Overall, I felt we were seeing minor works often raised from storage at their mostly European homes, with the excuse that they showed some degree of nudity. Nowhere was this more obvious than the small statuette of Lucretia from the Met. Because of Mia’s Rembrandt, I have looked for depictions of Lucretia wherever I go, and this one was as artistically trivial as I can remember. In fact, I don’t doubt that the Met alone could have put on a comparable exhibition of the Renaissance nude drawing entirely from its own collection.
*In compiling this list, I am excluding works owned by, and regularly visible at, the Getty, as well as a few prints – e.g., by Durer – that are commonly found. By not crediting them I don’t mean to diminish small drawings by Leonardo and Michelangelo lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (the show was originally seen at the Royal Academy in London), but there have been more and better examples in other recent shows and these were included more for marketing than any insight into nudity.