ART MARKET : Nureyev's exercises

Fascinated by the movement of the body, Rudolf Nureyev collected male nudes done by students in 19th-century art academies. Geraldine Norman on this week's sale

RUDOLF Nureyev began to collect studies of male nudes - known as academies - when he bought his Paris apartment in 1979. Having maintained his own body to the peak of physical fitness, he was fascinated by the movement of the human body and the structure of muscles. His collection was an extension of his profession, of "the feelings that he experienced through dance", says his friend Douce Francois.

It was Francois who helped Nureyev remodel and decorate the apartment on the Quai Voltaire in the heart of old Paris, overlooking the river. They spent three years planning and furnishing it to ensure it was exactly right: Nureyev's aim was to recreate an old-fashioned salon overflowing with beauty.

"All the catalogues of antiquaires were sent to me from all over the world," Francois says, "and I'd watch out for things that would interest him. He had very little time and I helped to keep his hours as useful as possible. He was difficult, demanding - and a marvellous friend."

Space in the apartment was limited, she says, so once he had bought all the furniture (choosing exclusively rich Russian pieces) he couldn't go on collecting more. In two areas, though, his collecting was an ongoing process - historic textiles and pictures: like rich textiles, the paintings appealed to the strongly sensuous side of his nature. The main focus of Nureyev's picture-collecting in his last years was the male nude.

This week, the general public can see the collections in London. Tomorrow and on Tuesday, Christie's is auctioning the contents of his Paris flat on behalf of the Rudolf Nureyev Foun-dation. Roughly 100 studies of male nudes are for sale, minus selected gems that are being held back for a memorial museum the trustees hope to establish at a later date.

Artists' fascination with the beauty of the male body began in ancient Greece around the fourth century BC, and was taken up in Europe during the Renaissance, when classical art was rediscovered and imitated. Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel demonstrate this to the highest degree. With the establishment of the first art academies in Italy in the 16th century, drawing and painting from the live model became one of the standard components of art teaching - and it was the man's body rather than the woman's that was held to display the most perfect proportions in nature.

Oil studies of the male nude are found from that time onwards - often dressed up to make the image more saleable, with wings, drapery, arrows and other props so that the painting could be given a biblical or mythological title. The earliest study in the Nureyev sale is a head and shoulders attributed to a follower of the 17th-century Italian master Caravaggio, seen from the side in a gorgeous feathered hat (estimate pounds 1,500-pounds 2,000). It was a gift to Nureyev from Richard Buckle, the renowned British dance critic who wrote for the Observer.

The term academies was first applied in the 17th century to drawings and paintings made from live models - male, of course. But it was the 19th century that saw the real flowering of the genre. At the beginning of the 18th century there were only 19 art schools or academies in all Europe; by the beginning of the 19th there were 200, and by its end some 2,000.

Every pupil, in every academy, was required to make figure studies. Vast numbers of them were made. Though many were destroyed or painted over, there are still very large numbers around. Until about 10 years ago, they were considered unsaleable; it was then that dealers, noting an expanding interest in the 19th century generally, started cleaning them off and putting them back in their shops.

It was the French, with their love of method and order, who formalised the 19th-century system of teaching art; imitated all over the world, it has come to be dismissed in our century as "academic". But the students at the Paris Academie des Beaux-Arts, through long and wearisome hours of drawing casts of classical sculpture and live models (often their teachers), achieved a technical mastery that is never likely to be repeated. It can be admired in all its glory in the Nureyev collection, which concentrates largely on this school and period.

A nude by Theodore Gericault, the short-lived genius of French romanticism, is the earliest example in Nureyev's collection. "He loved Gericault," says Francois, "and bought his first one in Paris from a dealer called Lebel - he was not even thinking of collecting academies at the time." Gericault, who died at the age of 35, left only one major painting, The Raft of the Medusa (now in the Louvre) but his many admirers ardently collect his sketches and studies. The Nureyev sale contains four, plus one "attributed to Gericault" and two more catalogued as by "followers of" Gericault.

Lawrence Eitner, a retired Stanford professor who is a leading expert on Gericault, explains how difficult it is to tell which nude studies are by Gericault himself and which by contemporaries with exactly the same training; these student exercises were not generally signed. Over the last 15 years, Eitner has gathered a file of some 100 photographs of academies which, in his view, have been wrongly attributed to Gericault. "They are academic exercises by French students made around 1800-1815, all with a vague resemblance to Gericault." Christie's catalogue follows his attributions.

Among the fully accepted Gericaults is A Shipwreck: Study of a Man on a Rock (main picture; estimate pounds 40,000-pounds 60,000), a fine example of a nude study with a landscape background added to make it saleable. The nude, bent over to lean on his hands, appears to be climbing out of the sea on to a rock. According to Eitner, it belongs to a "group of heroically muscular life studies of posing nude models" that Gericault made around 1815-16.

The "attributed to" is a half-length of a model with his hands behind his head, leaning against two boxes, his sexual organs draped in a red blanket (bottom left; estimate pounds 40,000-pounds 60,000). The authorities can't quite make up their minds whether it's a Gericault or not. What is known, however, is that 20 artists painted this posed model in a famous prize competition in 1813, all from slightly different angles. The competition was won by an artist called Louis Pagnest (1790-1819); so admired was his work that many students copied it. Nureyev owned one of these copies, which is now for sale with an estimate of pounds 1,200-pounds 1,800.

Copying the Pagnest was like working through old exam papers for students today, Eitner comments. He points out that the academies Nureyev collected are a direct reflection of French students' struggles towards the ultimate accolade of their teaching system, the Prix de Rome. To win you had to produce three pieces of work: a compositional sketch of a subject provided by the jurors; an oil study of a posed nude; and a finished painting of a given subject. Besides painting the nude for its own sake, the students painted a model in vigorous mythological poses to help with the compositional sketch and the finished painting.

The nuts and bolts of this are revealed in two particular studio studies in Nureyev's collection - ludicrous or charming, according to taste. Christie's has catalogued them simply as "French School 19th century". In one, the model is posed with one foot on a book, to imply movement up a gradient, and a club over his shoulder - Christie's describes him as "standing full length in the attitude of Hercules" (left, second from top; estimate pounds 180- pounds 250). In the other, the naked model has one knee on a battered box and leans against a pile of three more; he has a scabbard slung on a harness over one shoulder and is holding a short sword (left, top; pounds 400-pounds 600).

So who is going to buy them? "You would expect the gay community to buy them but they don't," one London dealer told me. The British generally regard academies as "filthy Continen-tal taste", she says, "but the French - to whom the subject is less important - accept good life studies whether they are male or female".

In this sale, people will be able to say they are buying a "Nureyev", not just a male nude - and there could be unexpected competition. It could even set a new fashion for academies.

! Christie's sale of Nureyev's academies is at 8 King Street, London SW1 on Tuesday at 2.30pm.

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