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Is Renaissance art ‘history’?

By Geraldine Johnson

When the latest news in the art world is all about record-breaking prices for contemporary works and the celebrity buzz of London’s Frieze Art Fair, thinking about Renaissance art might seem, well, a little old-fashioned, if not downright eccentric. But if the two experiences I had recently are anything to go by, maybe we need to think again.

The first of these occurred during an art history class I was teaching to a group of newly-arrived master’s students fizzing with intellectual energy and excitement. The topic was how the concept of ‘the artist’ had changed in European culture from ancient times to the present day, with an intriguing sideways glance at the situation in pre-Modern China. By the end of the usual give-and-take of a graduate seminar, it had become clear to all of us that there were actually a surprising number of similarities between that first great celebrity artist, the ‘divine’ Michelangelo, and much more recent art world superstars.

As we know all too well from countless biographies, exhibitions, films, and television specials, nineteenth- and early twentieth-century rebel-artists seemed to gain critical acclaim in the long run (indeed, often only after they had died) by very overtly rejecting all trappings of worldly success. Think of Gauguin giving up a career as a big-city stockbroker to live in faraway Tahiti or van Gogh being unable to sell almost any paintings during his own lifetime. In contrast, Michelangelo, Dürer, Titian, Bernini, Rubens, and many other Renaissance and Baroque artists were absolutely desperate to become rich, famous, and if at all possible ennobled, and were clearly thrilled at the prospect of hanging out with popes and princes. This, in many ways, seems much closer to the red-carpet appearances, VIP-fraternizing, and multi-millionaire tastes of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Grayson Perry than to those old garret-loving, poverty-stricken members of the Modernist avant-garde. The lifestyle choices and self-conscious PR strategies of contemporary celebrity artists may thus have more in common with Michelangelo than with Manet or Matisse than one might at first think.

Another recent event that convinced me that Renaissance art is far from ‘history’ was the phone conversation I had immediately after my class had finished. A reporter from the Wall Street Journal had called to ask me to provide some background information for an article she was writing on changing reactions to nude men versus nude women in art. The catalyst was the opening of a new exhibition in Vienna’s Leopold Museum entitled Nackte Männer or Nude Men, which rather predictably was generating a great deal of controversy even before the first ticket had been sold.

Once again, contemporary art practices could only be fully understood by looking back in time. Initially, one had to turn to the art academies of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that privileged using the nude male model in art education and thus, by definition, made it nearly impossible for respectable young women to be trained in anything other than painting demure still lives and fully-clothed portraits. But ultimately, to find the sources for the almost endless academic studies of nude men—not to mention the four-meter-high photographic installation known as Mr Big currently lounging in front of the Leopold Museum—one had to go back to the future once again in the form of Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo, who saw the male rather than the female body as the ideal human form and who themselves looked even further back to the Classical bodies of ancient Roman and Greek sculpure.

Today in Vienna, large red stickers have been hastily pasted onto the exposed genitals of the three naked male athletes whose photograph by French artists Pierre & Gilles is being used on the Nackte Männer’s exhibition posters plastered throughout the city, much to the distress of the more delicate members of the Austrian public. Back in Michelangelo’s day, it was painted loincloths that were retroactively added to cover the bare buttocks (and worse) of the saints and sinners depicted in his Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, with the censorship carried out, in this case, at the behest of incensed clerics convinced that the pope’s chapel was being turned into a brothel. So, what goes around, really does come around, if you know your Renaissance art. And, funnily enough, there are even some ‘old masters’ on display at a spin-off of this year’s Frieze Art Fair.

Geraldine A. Johnson is a University Lecturer in History of Art and Associate Head of the Humanities Division at Oxford University, as well as a Fellow of Christ Church, Oxford. She is the author of Renaissance Art: A Very Short Introduction, co-editor of Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, and editor of Sculpture and Photography: Envisioning the Third Dimension. She is currently completing a book on art and the senses in Renaissance Italy.

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Image Credits: Ilse Haider, Mr Big [Courtesy of Galerie Steinek, Wien]; Michelangelo, Detail of the Creation of Adam, 1508-12. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]; Michelangelo, Detail of the Last Judgment 1534-41. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]


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