London’s Royal Academy of Arts (RA), part conservatoire and part exhibition house, celebrated its 250th anniversary in the spring by expanding the campus to include more exhibitions, free art displays, architectural spaces and spots to eat. The revamp heralds a conscious move to modernize, and the 2019 program of exhibitions put forth by Artistic Director Tim Marlow, including one called “The Renaissance Nude” organized in collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Museum, shows this new direction. Marlow confirmed that “The Renaissance Nude,” which opens next March, purposely features near equal representations of the male and female form.
The exhibition will include around 85 works, ranging from figurines to figure studies, from 15th- and 16th-century Europe. With the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael and Dürer in the lineup, “The Renaissance Nude” doubtless won’t depart from the Western fine arts canon. If anything, the pieces themselves will prove more or less orthodox, showing how the nude figure transformed Renaissance art both secular and religious.
Take a 20-minute tube ride to the Tate Modern, and you’ll see a poster by the Guerrilla Girls titled “Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?” This is one of 50 by the anonymous all-female collective. The Guerrilla Girls formed in reaction to the Museum of Modern Art’s 1984 exhibition “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture,” which featured less than 10 percent women artists. Their poster glaringly points out the fact that the naked female figure enjoys far more representation than do actual women artists in fine arts.
The Guerrilla Girls have done activist work for decades now, but the RA’s announcement about the nudes gender quota is timely. Alongside spotlighting abuse victims in film and television, the #MeToo movement spread to point out the mistreatment of visual artists who identify as female. Last October, over 2,000 women and gender nonconforming visual arts workers penned an open letter called “Not Surprised.” The authors condemned the same patriarchal power structures that facilitate misconduct by higher-ups in the entertainment industries. The group of artists, scholars, administrators, curators, assistants, editors and more garnered extensive media attention and even earned the signature of prolific conceptual artist Jenny Holzer. States one of Holzer’s truisms, “Abuse of power comes as no surprise.”
Art enthusiasts have pointed out that “The Renaissance Nude” is a nod at the “male gaze” phenomenon, coined by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Women are popularly depicted from a masculine, white, heterosexual point of view for the pleasure of masculine white heterosexuals. Mulvey argues that in visual media, women are made a spectacle and evaluated per their “to-be-looked-at-ness” by men in the audience. Jill Burke, whose research focuses on the body in Italian Renaissance art, is another curator for the 2019 gallery opening. In an article for The Guardian, she argues with these claims surrounding “The Renaissance Nude,” writing that organizers went for “intellectual rigo[r] and artistic interest” rather than a #MeToo-inspired gender quota. Female nudes started enjoying popularity only in the 16th century, before which time scholars only accepted that looking at and drawing the naked male form was an intellectual enterprise. Burke also points out the complicated history of the male gaze in Renaissance art: long-standing discrimination against female artists, recognition of the male form as erotic, voyeuristic nobles’ buying female nudes for more fleshly purposes (The Guardian, “The Shock of the Nude: How Art Embraced Nakedness,” 09.6.2018).
“The Renaissance Nude” might portend great change for British art, for the Western art world and for women working in it. Ideated around three years ago, the exhibition is one of the RA’s efforts to revitalize its image. Since the British contemporary art boom in the 1990s, the Academy has foregone a dusty-painting-school reputation in integrating different types of media, such as video and performance, into its curriculum. At the same time, the new program may reflect a shift in the Western art world toward greater gender parity. Temperately, Marlow described “The Renaissance Nude” as a “very interesting exercise” in today’s “cultural climate.” (The Sydney Morning Herald, “Royal Academy Nudes to Reach Gender Parity as Art World Grapples Equality,” 09.04.2018). Per Rumberg, who also curates at the RA, said in a Telegraph interview that not only did the gallery aim for parity among the pieces, but it also sought to employ more women scholars (The Telegraph, “Royal Academy Nudes to Have ‘Gender Equality’ in New Post-#metoo Exhibition,” 09.03.2018).
Abuse of power comes as no surprise, especially when institutions like the National Gallery in London display the work of less than one percent women artists. However bleak Holzer’s statement may be, we cannot expect powerful art dealers, gallery curators and academicians to stop abusing women if there are no women among them. It is difficult to tell whether the RA’s announcement is superficial—a palatable way to say “we’re a progressive institution!”—or just another rendering of our obsession with European art. Still, displaying the same number of male and female nudes, while not particularly bold, pushes us a bit closer to eliminating the male gaze among audiences and art authorities alike. Especially when accompanied by efforts to hire more gals in our galleries, any semblance of gender parity is better than none.