History buffs

The Crocker gives us a flash of its nudes collection

“Venus and Cupid in a Landscape,” by Pietro Testa in <i>The Language of the Nude</i> at the Crocker Art Museum.

“Venus and Cupid in a Landscape,” by Pietro Testa in The Language of the Nude at the Crocker Art Museum.

Thanks to the Internet, images of naked human bodies in all sorts of contorted positions have become ubiquitous, says this friend of mine who would know about that. Well, some are more interesting than others—like the nearly 60 drawings from the Crocker Art Museum’s roughly 1,400-strong collection being show there in The Language of the Nude: Four Centuries of Drawing the Human Body as of this Saturday. With drawings from the major European schools, the exhibit spans hundreds of years (beginning with the 16th century) and as many postures. It’s not a comprehensive survey, but a judicious sampling of one singular collection, gathered mostly by Judge Edwin B. Crocker on a three-year jaunt to Europe in the late 19th century. And it’s a rewarding reminder of the obvious—that the human body is the most familiar yet persistently fascinating subject ever assayed by representational art. Whether as a vessel for deeper religious, mythological and literary meanings or for simple appreciation of the quotidian mysteries of personhood, life drawing will always be an artist’s rudiment.

Accordingly, even the simplest of The Language of the Nude’s images have the potential to turn heads. Have a look, for example, at Charles Le Brun&Rsquo;s “Man Clinging to a Rock,” in red chalk on buff laid paper. (Hey, that’s what they call it: buff laid paper.) It’s not a complete work and not supposed to be, but the transparency of its process only heightens the urgent effect: We see the artist’s ghostly disembodied warm-ups—separate studies of the man&Rsquo;s grappling hand and his anguished face, with brow furrowed and mouth wide as if in a desperate shout. Think of how vulnerable the poor guy feels—just clinging there, totally naked, for whatever probably embarrassing reason, with some artist drawing his picture but apparently not even bothering to help. (Actually, the piece was a study for Le Brun&Rsquo;s circa-1690 painting “The Brazen Serpent,” which alludes to a perfectly fine reason to scale a rock on very short notice—namely, a biblical plague of snakes.)

After showing here through July 27, the nudes will begin a national tour. It’s the Crocker’s first drawings exhibition to leave California in 15 years, and obviously one at which everybody wants a peek. Understandable; what’s best about this show is that it allows a kind of studious hedonism—the seeking of pleasure and knowledge at once.

It brings to mind the Saturday Night Live sketch “E. Buzz Miller’s Art Classics,” whose eponymous art appreciator, played by Dan Aykroyd, had a certain willful way of mispronouncing “Titian.” Of course, the Venetian master’s painting to which Buzz referred, though indeed undeniably “a very nice painting of a broad on a couch,” isn&Rsquo;t available here. No, to see “Venus of Urbino” in the flesh, as it were, you’ll need to go to the Uffizi in Florence. But that’s certainly a journey worth making, and just think of how conversant you’ll be after learning The Language of the Nude.

The Language of the Nude: Four Centuries of Drawing the Human Body. May 10 through July 27, with various related events throughout May and June. Crocker Art Museum, 216 O Street. For more information, call (916) 808-7000 or visit www.crockerartmuseum.org.