Inspired by one painting from an exhibition I went to last weekend, I thought I’d take you on a journey. The journey will be bumpy, some bits more than others, it will be long and slender at times, and at others, more rounded. We will encounter antique idealism and modern realism. Along the way we can expect to find love in all its forms. We may even question our own ideology and perceptions around such an epic theme.
Well, the title perhaps gave it away, but seeing as it’s Friday, it’s time for some nudity. I’d like to take you on a journey of the evolution of the reclining nude.
So ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, let the pina… see the colada.
Giorgione – Sleeping Venus (Dresden Venus) – c. 1510
We start in Venice, that age-old floating capital of love, a republic for centuries, where independence and liberal thinking was encouraged from the roots of its civilisation. One of its favourite sons, Giorgione, who died barely into his thirties, created a painting in his final days, the single subject matter of which was thought to have been unprecedented in Western art; the reclining nude.
The sleeping Roman goddess of love, Venus, devoid of imperfection, lies on a collection of sheets in a landscape reminiscent of summertime Northern Italy. Her raised right arm enables us to see the full length of her body and her left hand partially covers her most private area, although whether it is covering this area or more directly involved with it makes this undoubtedly an erotic image. However, the surrounding scenery echoes her subtle curves; she is harmoniously integrated with nature. So, at least we can pretend we are celebrating a more platonic love of beauty in the harmony of nature, rather than looking at pornography.
Titian – Venus of Urbino – 1538
Titian, who completed the remaining landscape and sky of Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus after the latter’s death, thought he’d try his hand at his own version of a reclining nude.
Gone is the interplay between platonic and physical love. This is straight sex. He brings Venus indoors, to the interior of a Renaissance palazzo. The curved landscape that once aligned her with nature has been replaced by the linearity of the walls, floor design and window. No longer is she sleeping like in the Giorgione version; her eyes are open and seductive, directed towards the viewer and her sexual appeal is emphasised by the jewellery she is wearing. She leans on her right arm, the hand loosely holding a bouquet of roses (along with the dog, a symbol of fertility) and though her left hand lies in a similar fashion to Giorgione’s, her imploring eyes do not allow for any prude reading of its position. She’s enjoying herself and she wants us to watch. Her maids are presumably trying to find her clothes.
Diego Velázquez – Rokeby Venus – c. 1647-51
We shall continue on our journey, over one hundred years on, from the Venetian republic to Spain, where Diego Velázquez, clearly a man who prefers arses, flips Venus so that we can enjoy her accentuated curves from a reverse angle. Hanging now in the NG, London, Cupid holds a mirror so that she can appreciate her own flawless beauty, except of course, that we can see her face through the impossible angle of the reflection, suggests that this is not just a question of Venus admiring herself.
Francisco Goya – Maja Desnuda c. 1800 and Maja Vestida – c. 1803
Staying in Spain, Mr Goya takes on the familiar subject. Twice. Hung side-by-side in the Prado, Madrid, we are encouraged to make a basic comparison: which one is more naked?
Edouard Manet – Olympia – 1863
From Spain to France, where it is Edouard Manet’s turn. We now find ourselves not in a palatial interior as we have seen in the past, but in a brothel. If Goya’s clothed Maja might imply prostitution, here Manet actively embraces it. Titian’s dog has been replaced by a black cat, a symbol of the practice. Not only does she wear jewellery and flowers in her hair, but also one shoe is still on her foot, whilst the other has lies casually on the bed. Her skin has changed from the perfection of the past to the somewhat pale tone it is here, contrasting with the cat, the attendant and her black ribbon-necklace.
If the eyes of Titian’s Venus were seductive, Olympia looks disinterested. This time, we are viewed as a paying customer as opposed to a love interest, emphasised by her hand, which instead of its playful position in the past, firmly locks the door upon us, until we’ve paid.
Lucian Freud – Benefits Supervisor Sleeping – 1995
And for the final part of the journey, I’d like to invite you to look at the enormous mass of flesh that appears not to have understood it’s basic function as a solid, currently on display in the National Portrait Gallery. A development of the realism employed by Manet, the flesh practically fills the entire void of a tatty couch, which looks plump and comfortable despite its missing sitting cushions. Lucian Freud’s ‘Benefits Supervisor’, or Big Sue as he called her, adopts the Sunday afternoon sofa position.
As I looked at this last weekend, I couldn’t help but feel that this is Freud’s Sleeping Venus. Our journey ends where it started save for the minor aesthetic differences mentioned above. Where Titian, Velázquez, Goya and Manet abandoned the sleeping Venus, in favour of confrontational stares that asked questions of the viewer, here as viewers, we can return to direct admiration of a form of beauty and peace, in harmony with its surroundings, without feeling awkward. As the landscape mirrors the curves of Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, Freud’s nude moulds into the sofa. In its thick impasted form, even the paint blends with the subject. A different kind of love to that seen before, but love nonetheless.
Lucian Freud: Portraits is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 27th May
by Edward Lines