My recent visit to a spectacular exhibit at The Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts revealed one of Spain’s curious 17th-19th century sociocultural “institutions”—the Sala Reservada. Sequestered chambers in palaces and bastions of the aristocracy, las salas collected and secured paintings of nudes—largely mythological and biblical—for private viewings by predominantly male, aristocratic audiences.
While royal and elite collectors and aesthetes no doubt savored the paintings’ sensuous, sometimes erotic subject matter, las salas also shielded those works from the Inquisition, which periodically sought to incinerate them.
On view at The Clark through October 10, the exhibit—Splendor,Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado—features twenty-eight paintings by Titian, Velazquez, Rubens, Zurbaran, and others. Collected by Philip II (1556-1598) and Philip IV (1621-65), most of them are first time visitors to the U.S. How did the Clark snag them? By loaning out 31 Renoirs to the Prado in 2010.
'Twas an Hombre's World
The exhibit’s final room featured the male form, including several arresting Saint Sebastians. Guido Reni’s vulnerable, well-toned youth below, I thought, rightly deserved an avid following in whatever sala reservada may have once shielded it. It brought to mind the iconic April 1968 cover of Esquire magazine, in which Muhammad Ali, stripped of his title for resisting the draft, posed as the martyred saint. In Ali’s heyday, his body was so exquisitely chiseled that the surgeon who performed his appendectomy had misgivings about cutting into the flesh.
Primed for sensuality (and marketing), my wife and I seamlessly transitioned to the next room: a topically themed gift shop. When I turned my back, she purchased the mug below for my looming birthday. Fill it with boiling water and its cast of characters—all art world icons—lose their clothes. Should that be a big deal? We’ve seen them all in the buff before—it’s integral to their identity. “Of course, we have,” remarked a friend. “But it’s all about the transformation—the tease. It’s like that old Maria Muldaur song: It’s Not the Meat; It’s the Motion!”
Click on mug to activate: