Bulbous Bodies, Ornate Design Intrigue in Gossaert Show: Review

"The Adoration of the Kings" (1510-15) by Jan Gossaert, at the National Gallery. Source: National Gallery via Bloomberg

Sexual freedom, bizarre fashions, new media, an obsession with nudity, wild architectural excess: Some things never change.

In lots of ways, the early 16th century sounds much like the early 21st. That’s one of the lessons of a new exhibition at the National Gallery in London, “Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance.”

This is a show with an intriguing theme: how the Italian Renaissance traveled to northern Europe. There are some splendid paintings on show as well as some strange and even hideous ones. Their oddness and occasional ugliness is part of the story.

Gossaert (c. 1478-1532) was an artist who straddled the division between northern and southern art. In the 15th century, the painters of Flanders had invented something revolutionary -- an absolutely naturalistic way of looking at the world around us. Gossaert inherited that.

He was best when painting something specific in front of him. There are terrific portraits on display, such as “Anna van Bergen” (c. 1526-30), or the “Portrait of a Man” (c. 1530), who is surrounded by the latest in Renaissance office equipment -- paper. It was suddenly cheap enough to use freely.

The best things about Gossaert’s great altarpiece, the “Adoration of the Kings” (c. 1510-15) are the heads, which actually look like real people. Among them is a noble black king, evidence that there was already an African presence in Europe.

Excellent too are the rich fabrics, preposterously trendy outfits and the ruined building in which the scene takes place. Ornate architecture was another Gossaert specialty. Also nice are the dogs: The one on the right is borrowed from a Durer engraving (prints being the 16th-century mode of image sharing).

Lusty Bishop

It was different when Gossaert painted people with no clothes. This was a popular subject, then as now. Nudes were fashionable in Italy where popes and cardinals held bunga-bunga parties (and ordered murders like Mafia godfathers). Pictures of naked men and, particularly, women went down well with Gossaert’s patron, a lascivious Netherlandish nobleman who eventually became bishop of Utrecht (without altering his playboy habits).

For him, and others, Gossaert painted plenty of bodies, several of which are on show. Vasari, historian of the Renaissance, credited him with being “the first who took from Italy into Flanders the true method of making scenes full of nude figures.”

Among these are pictures of Adam and Eve, Venus and a drawing -- for a lost painting -- of a roomful of women in a bathhouse (in 16th-century Flanders, these functioned much as some saunas do today). Gossaert’s naked people, though obviously intended to be sexy, are strange -- bulky, bulbous, a bit gross.

Nude as Fiction

Kenneth Clark, the art historian, once made a distinction between naked and nude. Naked is a person without clothes, a subject northern artists such as Jan van Eyck could do well. The nude is different. It’s a fiction -- a combination of anatomy, geometry and ancient sculpture. No real person ever looked like a classical nude.

The Renaissance nude was an Italian invention. Even great northern artists struggled to get it right. Durer, Gossaert’s contemporary, had trouble -- as several exhibits by him show. Michelangelo’s nude men look like supermen; Gossaert’s look as if they’ve spent too long in the gym. His women suffer from excess weight in unusual places. And his naked child angels, or “putti,” are pudgy toddlers with faces like Henry VIII’s.

Gossaert’s may be a more accurate view of undressed humanity.

“Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance,” supported by the Flemish government, is at the National Gallery, London, through May 30. The show previously was at the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Information: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE