Given our complicated feelings about our bodies, it’s no wonder that most of the art works included in BODY, edited by Anthony Bond, are unsettling.
This book — the catalogue of a 1997 exhibition of the same name that was held at The Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia — focuses mainly on nudes of one sort or another, but not just any nudes.
The curator of the exhibit and the book’s essayists aren’t very concerned with elbows or toes. Rather, the emphasis is on those parts that pack the most emotional impact for us. Lots of penises, breasts, vaginas and butts. Consider BODY’‘s front cover with its image of Auguste Renoir’s “Young Boy with Cat” (1869) and the back cover with Gustave Courbet’s “The Source.”
Even those artworks featuring the clothed human body are often unnerving. Indeed, the most disturbing image for me doesn’t exhibit any erotic areas, but a seeming acre of bare skin that suggests them — George Lambert’s “Chesham Street” (1910).
A well-to-do, well-muscled, well-whiskered man is holding up his shirt almost to his neck (where he still has on a tie). His pants are open, well below the navel, and a doctor sits before him, apparently examining him. In his essay on the exhibit, Bond describes this as “an incongruous exposure.” And he’s right inasmuch as this isn’t the usual way a semi-nude person (usually a woman) was portrayed in art of a century ago.
Nonetheless, it’s far from incongruous in the life of anyone who gets regular medical treatment, even as simple as an annual physical. This patient, usually so self-contained in his clothing, finds himself exposed and vulnerable. And alone in a particularly bewildering way. This image is likely to stir up uncomfortable feelings in many viewers.
A thread running through BODY is the question of the viewer’s role in coming face-to-face (so to speak) with this sort of art. When is the viewer a voyeur? How does the viewer participate in the art?
No question, in mid-19th century France, there seemed to be a premium on producing cotton-candy nudes for males who wanted to gaze, from an artistic (i.e., untouchable) distance, at naked women sprawled out as if caught unaware, such as in Alexandre Cabanel’s “The Birth of Venus” (1863). This approach had as much to do with power and patriarchy as it did with sex.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, a much better artist, also specialized in nudes, such as “Venus Anadyomene (1848). His Venus is just as naked as Cabanel’s, but the difference is clear, as Sarah Faunce writes:
In this [academic] tradition the female nude figure is conceived in terms of an ideal of perfection, as an exemplum of completely controlled form, which can by definition possess no further potential and therefore moves away from the direction of life.
Ingres’ figure of Venus is perfectly contained within her lineal silhouette and her smooth surfaces; her attributes are suavity, pliancy and objectification.
That word “objectification” speaks to the question of the viewer as voyeur. Yet, while there is certainly a sexual subtext in Cabanel’s Venus, it’s not the same in the one by Ingres. His “Venus Anadyomene,” with all its smoothness and idealization, seems akin to a sculpture. While alluring, she looks to be cold comfort.
A real woman
Just a few years after Ingres exhibited his Venus, Courbet completed “The Bathers” (1853) which viewed the nude in a much different way.
“Without a doubt,” writes Faunce, “it was composed as a kind of principled insult to the tradition of ideal perfection represented by Ingres.” In contrast, Courbet “insisted on the primacy of the actual, the world of ordinary people, of animals and natural environments.”
Ingres sought to show the ideal of a woman. Courbet depicted a real woman.
Faunce’s essay in BODY is titled: “Courbet: Feminist in Spite of Himself.” Her point is that, while the artist expressed the sentiments of a typical male of his era about women in his letters, he “revealed something very different” in his art. Indeed, her examination of his work shows “a deeply positive conception of woman across a wide range of subject matter.”
Consider another Courbet painting: “The Painter’s Studio: (1855). In the context of an art culture that prized “the values of perfection, closure, and hierarchy,” Faunce writes,,
Courbet’s painting stands as a powerful critique of all of this. He conceives of the artist as a living being with the real world, and of the artist’s studio as a microcosm of that world. The artist is at the center, but he is not raised; he is not receiving homage; he is a worker, making a painting.
At the center of that world, with the artist, is his nude model. Courbet’s point, though, isn’t so much to “display the female body,” but to credit her as “a partner,” as a co-worker, in the making of art. Nothing about the ideal here. Like the artist, the model works in the real world.
“Action, modernity and power”
Along the same lines is another Courbet work “The Grain Sifters” (1855), against which the Venus by Ingres and, even more, the Venus by Cabanel took insipid.
Here, though, the clothed woman isn’t just a worker. She’s triumphant.
The figure that dominates the composition [writes Faunce] is heroic without being thereby masculinized, in the manner of traditional imagery of female heroes. She is young, healthy and strong, with a narrow waist and broad hips, and her heroism consists not of military victory but of work, which sustains the life of the family and the community….
“The Grain Sifters” is an image of woman that challenges these conventions [of women as weak, vulnerable and in need of protection] and makes this female figure a statement of action, modernity and power.
“It can never be still”
Two images of the clothed bodies in the book and exhibit seem to go deeper than the body’s skin, and both involve men — Courbet’s self-portrait as “Man Mad with Fear” (1843) and Yves Klein’s photograph “The Leap” (1960).
In each case, the artwork shows a body hanging over a chasm, an image likely to spark a visceral response in the viewer — a feeling of vertigo, the thrill of falling and the adrenalin rush of fright.
One other leap — this time by a headless female nude — seems, in some way, to portray the inner and outer life of a body under great stress. The work is Auguste Rodin’s “Iris, Messenger of the Gods,” on display at the Musee Rodin in Paris.
In his essay “Posing the Question: Rodin’s ‘Iris’ and the Modern Body,” David Bromfield writes: “The headless ‘Iris’ is disturbingly unlike all the [other sculptures in the museum], at once a whirlwind of potential movement and rigidly constrained, bound tight by her mass and pose.”
The figure is wide open, her genitals and breasts in full view. Yet, what strikes the viewer most is the sense of the impossibility of the pose — and its possibility. Bromfield writes:
The left arm is absent so that the entire work presents only the logic of tension with no relaxed counterbalance. It can never be still.
Which returns us, I think, to where we started.
BODY presents more than 150 images, many of them nudes. Yet, with or without clothes, they’re unsettling.
They shake us up in many ways. And the best, like “Iris,” shake us up in ways for which we don’t even have words.
Patrick T. Reardon