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Pain and Pleasure in the reception of the violent nude male: Reflecting on Nethersole, Scott (2018) Art and Violence

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 10 Aug 2018, 18:17

Pain and Pleasure in the reception of the violent nude male: Reflecting on Nethersole, Scott (2018) Art and Violence: In Early Renaissance Florence New Haven & London, Yale university Press.

Antonio del Pollaiuolo Battle of the Nude Men (probably late 1470s) engraving 42.4 x 60.9 cm, Cleveland, Museum of Art[1]

I seriously think that books based on PhDs are very difficult to enjoy, though intensely instructive. Hence, I don’t want to describe the book here but to use some ideas from its richly complex and nuanced arguments to develop my own interests. My own interests stemmed from thinking about the elision of the classical male nude by Winckelmann with a concept of an achieved style that he characterised as the sine qua non of true art and as absent when:

Manly beauties had ceased to be an object of regard, that people no longer knew how to prize them, then this very disregard may be considered as one cause of the decline of art at that time.[2]

Nethersole (2018:191f.) makes the key observation that the sources of pleasure in art as known to Winckelmann are not those that necessary motivated the use of classical male nudes in the art of the Florentine Renaissance, that whereas the former’s aesthetic and erotic engagement places us as viewers in a distance and lost past, represented by antiquarianism, scholarship and aesthetics, the latter relates to it as a ‘vital, living force’. It does this by identifying the male nude in the act of inspired or received violence from other (usually male) aggressors.

Nethersole shows that such aggression in 15th Century Florence was anticipative, caught in the moment just before a stroke was delivered or bruise / body-marking made. In fact, probably the most contentious of his readings is that art of this period, soon to be brought to an end by Savonarola, art was precisely that moment when the artist engaged the viewer collaboratively within the violence of the creative process. Thus, just as creative invention can be conceived as a violence, so is the viewer’s ability to anticipate the pains just to be inflicted on an, as yet, virgin body. The key trope for this, according to Nethersole (op.cit. : 100f.) is the aestheticisation of the scenes of Christ’s flagellation to be found in versions, for instance, by Francesco Bottocini, Bartolomeo di Giovanni and Fra Angelico. These examples place Christ frontally before a pillar, rather than behind and facing it, and avoid showing any marks (as yet) on the flesh. The role of the reader in anticipating these wounds and blood flow is to recreate the sin in the viewer for which Christ died – in effect, viewing such art is becoming Christ’s torturer.

The argument is of course more complex and guarded but ends, using Aristotle’s notion of catharsis, in suggesting that the viewers creative participation with artist is violent for both collaborators. And our pleasure lies therefore in recognition of the depth and truth of the representation of unsullied beauty and the human male’s potential to be that which sullies, mars or destroys that beauty in the beaten-up Christ or gladiator they create through expectations based on their visual memories  in the current viewing process. The argument depends somewhat on the creation of a ‘period eye’, and hence on Baxandall, but it achieves quite a novel end – almost a new theory of art in the making. To recreate that process would be to try to recreate the entire book and why it needs, to establish its final argument, to instance the Florentine Renaissance attraction to topics like Christian flagellation, social punishment, bestiality, the centaur as symbol of violence and artistic form and why and how these topics link in the mind of the period.

It was though good to be left with some ideas that about the instance from Antonio del Pollaiuolo that he chooses (see above). This shows how far from Winckelmann is the Florentine take on the nude male, with our interest not in body as such but the poses and gestures that anticipate giving and receiving violence. Nethersole’s (ibid: 177ff.) discussion of it is excellent but I feel that it suffers from understatement, as PhDs should.

This picture though captures a moment of stasis before the most horrible and catastrophic consequences occur on the bodies of these men but yet anticipates that moment quite wonderfully, even in anticipative facial gestures of pain to-be-felt. But the marvel is the link of this pre-violent (imaginatively realised as violent) to artistic pose both in the complex contrapposto stances and their shapely designed interaction. There is pattern and dance throughout – not only in bodies but weapons. These both create beautiful forms that network the whole, just as the background millet forest is networked by complex growths. These are mirrored in the chain in the centre of the picture that snakes violently but also links the two central men about to complement each other in their mutual deaths. The issue seems to be: see my excellent disegno, adore my invenzione. Nethersole quite complexly argues that invenzione became for Florence in the Renaissance, equated with scenes of classical battle.

A very satisfying argument in a book that is a little uneven and sometimes feels hard to hold together in one’s head. I’m still thinking about how to use these readings in my own work. What work? Still working on that too.              


[1] Sourced from: By Antonio del Pollaiuolo - Own work Sailko Taken on 4 February 2014, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39480508

[2] Winckelmann, J.J. (1849:274,170) trans. Lodge, G.H.  The History of Ancient Art Vol. II. Cambridge, Mass. (Kindle Ed.: nos. are Location nos.).

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