'Prado nudes at The Clark': Making viewers comfortable one nude at a time
Photo Gallery | Figure drawing class at The Clark
WILLIAMSTOWN — On a recent Wednesday afternoon, a model, wearing a flesh-colored slip dress, reclined on the floor at the center of the Clark Art's pavilion near the base of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's sculpture, "Venus Victorious."
The group surrounding them, sketch pads in hand, were not part of a formal art class, but a collection of museum visitors participating in a weekly figure drawing class inspired by the Clark's latest exhibit, "Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado."
The weekly figure drawing session is just one way the Clark's education department is working to engage with the greater community in a conversation about the nude figure and its place in art and in the greater world.
"We often have very difficult conversations about race and gender. In our culture, the nude is very sexualized. When you travel to Europe, they have a very different way of thinking about the human body," said Ronna Tulgan Ostheimer, director of adult, school and community programs at The Clark. "We want to defang this idea [about nudity] and remove the discomfort around it. We want to extend the way we think about body beyond sex. The Prado show gives us this opportunity."
Programs such as the figure drawing session mimic the way artists study the human form.
"Being able to draw the human form is a very difficult task," she said. "We talk about this with our student groups. Artists would practice for years, until they were good at it. And although the depiction of the ideal body has changed over time, the human body has not."
Ostheimer said the education department staff isn't shying away from the Prado exhibit when groups of children or students visit the museum.
"When we have groups of students ages 13 to 17, we talk about different views of the idealized body," she said. "Our curators were really, really careful to include paintings of nude males. They allow us to explore what the nude figures represented to those who owned them. The paintings that depict [a nude] Hercules were owned by a royal family who believed they were his descendents. The paintings, to them, were about his strength."
For younger children, who are often more curious about the human body, the staff sees it as an opportunity to make the children comfortable viewing the nude figures.
"During of Summer Sunday family programs, we have many activities for children," she said. "One of the art projects was crown making, where children were able to make crowns like King Philip's. We also have a sculpture activity that has a wooden base. Children create the human form by following the lines of a figure with wire. It's a kind of nude figure, not naked if you will. It's removed enough and the product is beautiful."
The show also allows the staff to impart a history lesson around how the nude has been viewed throughout history and more specifically, 16th- and 17th-century Spain, the time period during which King Philip II and his grandson, King Philip IV, were collecting the 28 paintings on loan from the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.
At the time the collection was being put together, the depiction of the nude figure was considered a sin by the Catholic Church and the Inquisitors.
"There's this internal contradiction at the center of this show. The kings were the head of the Catholic Church and they really believed in the church and its laws," Ostheimer said. "What they were doing was sacrilegious. But at the same time they were saving this art. Art allows for honest conversations about the truth and lies we tell ourselves. It's an interesting reminder of the grey area of truth."
The kings did not publicly display the work, but kept the pieces in private salons only those of privilege were invited into.
But while the show has led to wonderful conversations with the community, the exhibit is not without its challenges.
"Some of the titles are challenging, such as 'Lot and his Daughters,' and 'Susannah and the Elders'," she said. "The themes of these paintings are somewhat creepy and disturbing. You really have to understand the context of the paintings ... It's a very muddy place. Being human is complicated and not necessarily as easy as we would like to believe. Otherwise, most of the imagery is relatively mild to modern eyes."
IF YOU GO ...
What: "Splendor, Myth and Vision — Nudes from the Prado"
When: Through Oct. 10
Where: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown
Gallery hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Admission: $20 (free — members, children under 18, students with ID)
Complete information: clarkart.edu; 413-458-2303
• Figure Drawing
What: Relaxed figure drawing classes with light instruction.
When: Wednesdays through the end of August, 2:30 to 4 p.m.
Cost: Free with admission, materials provided.
• Summer Sunday
What: Outdoor performances
When: Sundays through the end of August, 1 to 4 p.m.
Cost: Free with admission.
Upcoming dates and themes:
July 31: Human Tower Expo
Aug. 7: Body, Art, and Soul
Aug. 14: Arts Alive
Aug. 21: Bodies in Motion
Aug. 28: The Golden Age
• The Myth of the Perfect Body: Love Yours
What: In-depth workshop exploring body image with Goddess Camp Director Jane Shiyah, and create a full body cast with artist Berni McMahon.
When: Saturday, Sept. 17, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost: $120. $90 for members. Tuition covers admission to galleries and all materials. Lunch is not included.