Issue Number: 98
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) hasn't caused a controversy since he printed propaganda for Martin Luther. So the recent furore over his nude Venus on an RA poster – initially banned by London Underground – is notable for several reasons.
First, since this German Renaissance painter is hardly a household name, it is astonishing that this story hit headlines worldwide. But it also raises issues of art's power to shock, of public attitudes to the female nude and of the banning of images – subjects as relevant in Cranach’s time as they are today.
Before withdrawing their ban, London Underground argued that the nudity of this 500 year-old painting of a mythological goddess might offend some Tube travellers. But why worry about Venus when we are constantly bombarded by sexual images in the media? What about the raunchy underwear ads on the Tube and buses? Or the 'Hello Boys!' Wonderbra billboards that endanger drivers? While the models' modesty is hidden (just), the sexual message is explicit. And forget about fig leaves for the increasing amount of soft porn on TV after the watershed. Many viewers are offended by this coarsening of visual culture, but we manage to avert our eyes, flick the channel and maintain a sense of humour. To quote Marcel Duchamp: ‘éros c’est la vie’ (‘love is life’).
For Cranach, sensuality and religion were not mutually exclusive. His celebration of the female form in all its alluring, fertile, nurturing glory goes hand in hand with his images of Christ blessing the little children. A witness at Luther’s wedding to an ex-nun, as well as painter of nudes for aristocratic connoisseurs, he saw all of this as part of the cycle of life, as Jerry Brotton points out in his feature on the pragmatic artist.
Interestingly, Cranach’s nudes appear almost prudish compared to those of his near-contemporaries, such as Titian. Indeed a Cranach painting of Adam and Eve was chosen as the lead image for the television programme Desperate Housewives because it was not too sexually explicit for American network TV.
Another temptress from ancient times to have captured the public imagination is Mary Magdalene, whose ancestral lineage – according to the best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code – can be traced to Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh. An unlikely heir to this history is Helen Rosslyn, director of the London Original Print Fair, whose family inherited the castle to which the chapel belongs. She talks to Ariane Bankes about the eclectic art on her walls, from prints to Russian paintings inherited from a distant ancestor (page 66).
As the 'From Russia' show continues to draw crowds, many viewers have been struck by the Russian art on view. The eminent historian Orlando Figes explains how events such as the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861 led to a glorification of Russian folklore that influenced Russian art, from the Wanderers to the Avant-Garde.
A co-curator of 'From Russia' is Sir Norman Rosenthal, the renowned Exhibitions Secretary of the RA for over 30 years, who is now a special adviser to the RA. Who better to launch our new 'Secret Knowledge' column than this outspoken art impresario? As he says, 'Art is like love. You don’t look for it. You come across it unexpectedly'. Who knows, you might even find it on the Tube.
Sarah Greenberg, Editor