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up to and including 09 October 2016

Timeless Eroticism - Renaissance Prints and Fashion Photography

What do a Davidoff advert and a print by Antonio da Trento from c.1530 have in common? More than you think. Both the print and the advert are intended to captivate and seduce the viewer. And the images are almost identical: a semi-naked man viewed from behind.

The Swiss guest curator Martin Hesselbein discovers how classical the poses in fashion adverts actually are and the extent to which they are copied from prints from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He curated a small yet exquisite exhibition in the museum’s Print Room, juxtaposing prints from the period 1475-1550 by artists such as Jakob Binck, Marcantonio Raimondi and Cherubino Alberti with adverts for labels such as Armani, Jil Sander, Red and Versace.


Prints had a clear function during the Renaissance: for artists they were like a showcase to demonstrate their skill in perspective and their magnificent technique. Like adverts today, they were a way of generating publicity.

Print Room

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s collection of 65,000 prints and 15,000 drawings is among the finest in the world. It includes famous drawings by Dutch, French, German, Italian and Spanish old masters, including Bruegel, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt and Goya. The Print Room also contains prints and drawings by modern and contemporary artists such as Paul Cézanne , Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Yayoi Kusama and Paul Noble.

An essay accompanying the exhibition

By Martin Hesselbein, guest curator

Reading the Corriere della Sera I came across a full-page perfume advertisement that depicted a dozen semi-nude men with one woman in their midst (fig. 1). The erotic exuberance of the scene was intended to suggest that Diego dalla Palma's perfume can bring such steamy encounters within everyone’s reach. The theatrical yet natural poses brought to mind other images, among them the Bacchanal by Mantegna of 1475, an engraving I could buy if only I had the means (fig. 2). Holding such a sheet in my hands would be tantamount to experiencing the eroticism exuded by the magazine advertisement.

Fig. 1 Detail from a page in the Corriere della Sera of 15 November 1989, publicity for Diego dalla Palma
Fig. 1 Detail from a page in the Corriere della Sera of 15 November 1989, publicity for Diego dalla Palma
Fig. 2. Andrea Mantegna: Bacchanal with Satyrs and Bacchae at a Winepress, 1473-1477, Rijksmuseum
Fig. 2. Andrea Mantegna: Bacchanal with Satyrs and Bacchae at a Winepress, 1473-1477, Rijksmuseum

The perfume advertisement prompted me to take a fresh look at my collection of Old Master prints. It suddenly dawned on me that the best prints are charged with a sublime eroticism that overpowers their historical and mythological meaning, even in our time, roughly five hundred years after they were made. Taken out of context and stripped of their historical interpretation, these prints appear to have intentionally erotic overtones. Only the fact that they belong to an iconographic tradition and cultural context prevents these prints from being seen as blatantly indecent, which would no doubt be the reaction of many viewers embedded in other cultures.

All of these Christs, saints and heroes of antiquity deploy their sex appeal in different ways and to different degrees. They usually do this with less inhibition than the Virgin Mary, the Magdalen, Venus and Diana, to name but a few of the females. All those Bacchanals and battle scenes are essentially hedonistic tableaux that broadcast the message: Carpe diem! Surprisingly, having become aware of such connotations, one even notices a rather steamy atmosphere in many scenes of Golgotha, not to mention the often explicit Flagellation of Christ. Carnal desire is frequently evoked under cover of a biblical pretext.

Not long ago I read an article about Susan Sontag and her concept of ‘The Erotics of Art’, which made me less apprehensive about pondering this matter. Sontag had noticed that, in her case, the sensation created by a work of art was much more important than searching for its meaning or placing it in an art-historical context.

I agree wholeheartedly with Sontag’s analysis of art appreciation, which made me understand why, when I discover a beautiful, intriguing print in a shop, I seem to lose my capacity to reason. I forget to examine the chain lines and watermarks, and to look for the tell-tale signs of inept restoration. I am in thrall to the print, and in my desire to possess it, I gladly submit to its aesthetic impact. If Sontag felt that way, why shouldn’t I?

I happened to be in a print shop in Rome when an elegant Neapolitan lady walked in and demanded something nice to hang on the walls of her bedroom. While the shop owner was presenting her with possibilities, I discreetly pointed to two sheets from the 1650s, which I pulled out for her to see. They featured male nudes in lascivious poses. She ended up buying both prints, each displaying three nudes on coloured paper, and asked to have them framed. Little did she care who invented, engraved and executed them, or where and when they were produced, even though it was clearly legible: Annibale Carracci, Carlo Cesio, Westerhout, Palazzo Farnese, Roma. ‘Non importa’, she remarked as she laid down the cash (fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Carlo Cesio after Annibale Carracci, Six Nudes From the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, 1597/1657

Another experience showed me that the first visual impact with erotic stimuli can even deceive the watchful eye of an art historian. While viewing the exhibition of Le Corbusier drawings at the Landesmuseum in Linz, I was struck by a label that said, quite simply, ‘Gruppensex’. Naturally I took a closer look at this fine ink drawing and discovered at the upper right a very small inscription: ‘Dans une tombe à Tarquinia’, followed by the date of a visit to the Etruscan tombs, where this rather staid banquet scene had no doubt been copied.

The surviving Renaissance prints, apart from a few exceptions, are as non-explicit as modern-day fashion photography, yet they both thrive on aesthetic seduction, or, as Sontag put it, on ‘the erotics of art’. They also have comparable goals and employ similar methods.

In the first place, both aim at branding. A ‘look’ is linked to the name of a designer/artist. The technical intermediary is the photographer/engraver who makes the image accessible to a broad public. In fashion, the photographer takes over the whole scenography and directs the posing of the model. His impact on advertising is far greater than that of the stylist himself. In prints, too, the engraver takes on at least as much importance as the author and is therefore entitled to sign the plate together with the creator of the image.

Second, neither fashion photos nor Renaissance prints are the main product: they are multiples of the real thing, a photograph or a drawing, respectively. The readily available depictions in fashion magazines are specimens of the autograph outfit, which wears a price tag and is waiting for the customer in a boutique. The same is true of prints: in the beginning – before they become collectibles in their own right – prints simply served to publicize the artist’s style by depicting a detail or an entire composition of a work of art that in some cases could be bought for a much higher price.

Third, both the stylist and the artist must live up to their clientele's expectations. Prints and advertising serve as a kind of appetizer: the brand must be kept afloat by a large number of followers. Aesthetic voyeurs are welcome to dream away by looking at the promise on paper – the glossy magazine or the print – and let themselves be transported into another world, where perfectly built people or gods appear in suave and often intimate poses.

Finally, a small dose of eroticism is essential if the dream is to be kept alive. Good publicity imitates art; it does not parody it. The viewer’s attention must be captured with sensual blandishments: a beautiful body, a frank glance, an inviting pose, a suggestive setting. The sum total must trigger fantasies, enticing the viewer to become a customer.

This reminds me of a true story. A museum director once made a disparaging remark about the magazine his wife was reading, to which she replied: ‘Your Tableau is the same thing as my Libelle – a vehicle for dreams.’

From 13 August to 9 October 2016 the exhibition Timeless Eroticism is on show in the Print Room of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen: a juxtaposition of Renaissance prints and fashion advertisements. The classical protagonists, wearing their veils and togas, come to life when they share the stage with present-day actors; by the same token, those modern actors and models, however scantily clothed, prove not to have forgotten the classical poses.