We are so used to the nude being part of mainstream art that we forget that there was a period when this was not the case. The nude was celebrated in classical Greece and Rome but in the Celtic, Gothic and Medieval worlds, bodies were clothed and covered up. Nudity was kept for depictions of martyrs such as St Sabastian, stripped and naked while they died for their beliefs or, for those transported to hell, while those who went to heaven were well-dressed and presumably took a few suitcases of things with them. Those who went to hell, went with nothing – not even their clothes… And, of course, there was the story of Adam and Eve which kept many artists busy with how nudity and fall from grace could lead to a lost world in the wilderness. Nudity was not for good and gracious people….
In the Renaissance, things slowly changed with an appreciation of the human body, of healthy activities in health spas, gyms and pools, with the intimacy of love. Then, being an era of logic, mathematics and science, there was a discussion about what was the perfect body. What were the perfect proportions to aim for (are we any different today)? Leonardo examined the way that the bodies were composed; the proportions, the golden ratios, the muscles, the ligaments; the bones and the structure, while Michelangelo explored the geometry of the perfect human.
Then apparently all of a sudden, rotund, curvaceous bodies intertwined with others became the norm, whether it was men wrestling or lovers enjoying innocent love in the countryside. And, horror of horrors, having your portrait painted in the nude (to a limited and discrete extent) became acceptable, How things had changed!
Like many exhibitions, the ending comes and you ask the question ‘so what?’. By a happy coincidence, the end of the exhibition throws you out onto a gallery with a selection of art by Richard Deacon which has an interesting link to nudes through work of 19th century (and later) artists such as Lord Leighton. The RA could have made more of this connection.