WILLIAMSTOWN >> With its fleshy contours and dynamic sense of motion, "Fortuna" is in many ways an iconic Peter Paul Rubens nude. An allegorical representation of chance, she strides across a windswept sea, balancing on a crystal globe, with a veil billowing out like a sail behind her. She is voluptuous and strong, and catches your eye in a direct and shameless gaze.
She is the first painting you see in the Clark Art Institute's big summer show, and is flanked on either side by two staid portraits of Philip II by Titian, and Philip IV by Velazquez. With their long Hapsburg faces and knowing eyes they were the most powerful men in Europe, whose taste and patronage is an important part of the story behind these masterpieces.
"Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes From the Prado," which opens Saturday at the Clark Art Institute and will run through Oct. 10, features 28 masterpieces from the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid — 24 of which have never been shown in the U.S.
The show explores not just the visual pleasure of the nude, but how private taste was often at odds with public morality.
"[The exhibit] is about representations of the nude, but also how they interact with how they were collected and displayed," said Lara Yeager-Crasselt, the Clark's interim curator of paintings and sculpture.
The Hapsburg kings of Spain in the 16th- and 17th-centuries ruled an empire that spanned continents, fueled by a massive flow of wealth from the Americas that enabled them to sponsor the leading artists of their time, like Titian, Brueghel, Rubens, and Velazquez.
Early modern Europe was a time of political and spiritual upheaval, but also of discovery and curiosity. The spirit is captured in a painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder and others from Flanders — then part of the Hapsburg empire — "Sight and Smell" (c. 1618). It shows stacks upon stacks of paintings on historical and mythical subjects, as well as Greek and Roman statues, and early scientific tools, like a telescope and globe. "[It's] a sophisticated intellectual space," Yeager-Crasselt said. "A fascinating play between the real and ideal."
By the end of the 1600s, the Hapsburg art collection included an estimated 5,000 pieces, spread across a network of palaces, fortresses and hunting lodges. It was, by definition, an exclusive royal universe, which the Clark tries to capture in a small way.
The galleries in the lower level of the Clark Center — the new Tadao Ando-designed spaces of concrete, glass, and steel — have been decked out in deep, rich colors, some walls with period-appropriate stenciling.
"We want to give you that experience of being transported to another world," Yeager-Crasselt said during a tour of the show.
At the time, the nude was still an edgy frontier in painting. The art and skill of portraying the human body had been nearly lost in the Middle Ages and had reemerged in Italy only during the Renaissance.
One of the pioneers was the Venetian painter Titian, whose nudes — including some shown reclining, in a pose with no clear classical antecedent — were ground-breaking. Among them was "Venus With An Organist and Cupid" (c. 1550) in which the goddess lounges with music in the air and a lush garden in the background. It was one of many variations the artist made of the image, each with varying degrees of eroticism and connection to classical themes to suit different patrons and audiences.
While these kinds of images appealed to the Hapsburgs' taste, there were limits to how they could be shown. Such sensual images wouldn't have been proper for a Catholic monarch, especially at a time when he was charged with defending the Church in the religious turmoil of the Reformation. The compromise worked out was the sala reservada, a kind of private space for personal viewing, Yeager-Crasselt noted.
"These were spaces that took on different forms in different palaces," Yeager-Crasselt noted.
The first reference is to a small room Philip II reserved for works like this. But it later included specific kinds of private space — some of the works hung in Philip IV's nap room, or at his hunting lodge where he could hang out with his closest circle.
The paintings display the variety of ways the body could be shown. On one wall are a pair of paintings by Jacopo Tintoretto depicting Biblical scenes as a pretext for revealing nude bodies. On an opposite wall is his son Domenico Tintoretto's "Lady Revealing Her Breast" (c. 1580), a rather self-explanatory portrait believed to be of a well-known Venetian courtesan, whose appeal is deepened by the fact that her gesture at the time was considered a signal of sincerity.
The images could also include complicated moral lessons. "Susannah and the Elders" (c. 1617) is based on the Bible story of a blameless woman who is blackmailed by a few lecherous old men. Guercino depicts the moment just before the men surprise her, as she enjoys a quiet bath while the two creep in from the left. One leers at her, with a foreshortened arm seeming to project into the viewer's space; the other gestures in the viewer's direction to be quiet as if complicit in the act.
For all its undoubted technical brilliance, the disturbing nature of its subject suggests a conversation that extends well beyond the confines of a sala reservada and right into today. Many of the paintings point to relevant contemporary issues, like sexual violence and gender inequality, which the exhibition scrupulously avoids.
The focus remains aesthetic and historical, on the artists' masterly execution, and in the way they were gathered — as with a series of enormous Rubens canvases depicting scenes from Ovid's "Metamorphoses" and small Flemish images designed for smaller rooms and spaces.
Some of the paintings were commissioned, while others arrived as gifts — as with Francesco Furini's "Lot and His Daughters" (c. 1634), a wedding gift for Philip IV from the Grand Duke of Tuscany.
While female nudes feature in most of the works, a few male nudes are included. They highlight how differently the idealized male form was treated.
A series of paintings, for example, from the tales of Hercules painted by Francisco de Zurbarán — part of the Hapsburgs' effort to claim him as a spiritual ancestor — were displayed high over battle scenes and representations of the family's political acumen at the time.
There are also three paintings of Saint Sebastian, the early Christian martyr traditionally posed naked, bound to a tree, and pierced with arrows as he looks to heaven. Ironically, these weren't consigned to a sala reservada, but were valued for their spiritual themes (Sebastian was considered an intercessor against plague), even as the image would eventually become a homoerotic icon.
In 1762, Charles III decided to burn all the sinful images in his collection but was dissuaded by advisors who removed the images to a new kind of sala reservada, ones more about safekeeping than private display. They eventually ended up at the Real Academia de San Fernando where they were available only to painting students.
In the early 19th century, when the royal collections were gathered in the open-to-the-public Prado museum, the sala reservada was in place for a few years early on, but it was already "leftover tradition." By 1838, the idea disappeared and whatever stigma lifted.
What: "Splendor, Myth and Vision — Nudes from the Prado"
When: Saturday through Oct. 10
Where: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown
Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Admission: $20 (free — members, children under 18, students with ID)
Complete information: clarkart.edu; (413) 458-2303