Exhibition explores 'The Naked Truth: The Male Nude on Paper'

7 Jul

The male nude is an integral part of art history. Greek antiquity abounds with depictions of unclothed male bodies, whether in paintings, cast in bronze or carved in stone.


One of the most famous works is the statue of "Laocoön and His Sons," also called the "Laocoön Group," excavated in Rome in the early 16th century. It shows a father and his two sons suffering in agony as they are attacked by giant snakes. According to the Vatican Museums, where the sculpture has been kept since it was found, it was probably made around 40-30 BC. It is believed to have been created by the sculptor trio Athanodoros, Hagesandros and Polydoros of Rhodes.

At the time of the discovery, even though the Catholic Church associated nudity with shame and punishment due to Adam and Eve's expulsion from paradise, Pope Julius II acquired the sculpture and placed it on public display in the new Belvedere Garden at the Vatican, now part of the Vatican Museums. At that same period, Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Albrecht Dürer also focused on the nude.

An over 500-year-old exploration of the naked body

Dürer's woodcut "The Men's Bath," dating from 1496/97, is the oldest work on show at the Kunsthalle Bremen exhibition "The Naked Truth: The Male Nude on Paper." It portrays a group of six scantily clad men playing music and drinking together. Dürer made the woodcut after returning from his first trip to Italy, which inspired him to explore the naked human body in his works.

The nude was a motif that could be used to express various subjects, whether mythological, biblical or secular. A popular motif was Christian martyrs, whose vulnerable bodies were placed in the foreground, often naked except for a loincloth. Around 1500, Dürer made two copper engravings of St. Sebastian, who miraculously survived being shot with arrows.

Diverse perspectives on the nude

Around 80 works, mainly from the museum's own collection, are on show in the two halls of the museum's Kupferstichkabinett (Department of Prints and Drawings). The drawings and prints from the 15th to the 20th century give an impression of the prevailing ideals of beauty at the time of their creation. The exhibition also looks into how female artists started drawing nudes as well. 

Until the 20th century, women were denied access to state art academies. Artists such as Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) had no choice but to study in private schools in Berlin and Paris, where she learned to draw male nude models. Many of her nude studies have survived.

Also on view in the exhibition are new discoveries by Giulio Clovio and Anton Raphael Mengs, engravings by Marcantonio Raimondi and Hendrick Goltzius, and rarely shown drawings by Rembrandt and Paula Modersohn-Becker.


The exhibition "The Naked Truth: The Male Nude on Paper" can be seen from July 6 to November 6, 2022 at the Kunsthalle Bremen.


Author Verena Greb

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