Tuesday 14 January 2014

Exposed - The Body in Art


Exposed:  The Body in Art - from Durer to Freud

at the Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry.

An interesting and thought-provoking exhibition of over 60 works, exploring the way artists have viewed and explored the human body. As usual, I have concentrated on 20th century art, in chronological order, this time.

Albrecht Durer, Hercules at the Crossroads, 1948

Rembrandt Van Rijn, The Death of the Virgin, 1639, (etching and dry point)
Robert William Sievier, The Three Graces, 18th century, (marble)
Edward Burne-Jones, Hands of Edward Burne-Jones and Georgiana Burne-Jones, 1895, (plaster cast)
Life casting was common in the 19th century. It was used by sculptors as part of their artistic practice, but it also had a more personal and private function, as a means of keeping a souvenir of a loved one.
 Edward Burne-Jones, Pygmalion and the Image, 1878.
This was the centrepiece of the exhibition, acknowledging the profound influence that the myth of Pygmalion has had on Western art and literature. The myth focuses on two issues which have fascinated people for centuries - the complex relationship between artists and their work, and the ability of the artist to create a statue so lifelike it appears to move.
The paintings were intended as an illustration to William Morris' poem 'Pygmalion and the Image'.
The Heart Desires 

The Hand refrains 
The Godhead Fires 

The Soul Attains 

 Death Mask of Oliver Cromwell, 19th century cast from 17th century mould, (plaster cast)
During the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries it was common practice to make death masks of members of the royal family and other public figures after they had died.
Auguste Rodin, Eve, 1881 (bronze)
Laura Knight, Changing, 1926 (drypoint)

The dancer's short hair and clothing reveal her modern status. The lack of detail or eroticism makes this an everyday image of a woman engaging in the everyday routines of her job.
Louis Marcoussis, Le Lecteur, 1937, (oil on canvas)
The body of Le Lecteur, the reader, is broken up and the different parts are reassembled and layered over each other, showing the strong influence that Cubism had over Marcoussis.

Germaine Richier, La Feuille, 1948 (bronze)

Richier explored the harrowing psychological impact of war in this sculpture. The features are obliterated beyond recognition. The leaf patterns impressed onto the surface convey the vulnerability of the human body. Though the figure appears emaciated, its upright posture retains a sense of dignity and the reaching fingers suggest survival and hope.

looking closer
Ceri Richards, The Rape of the Sabines, 1948 (oil on canvas)
The bright contrasting planes of colour and scattered contorting bodies communicate the violence of this event. The swirling outlines suggest movement and rhythm, while the bodies seem solid and rounded.
Barbara Hepworth, Prelude I, 1948 (oil and pencil on board with gesso ground)
This work belongs to a series of drawings of the operating theatre, created when Hepworth's daughter was in hospital being treated for a bone infection. For Hepworth the operating theatre became a metaphor for the studio. The surgeons' routines of preparation before operating on a patient reminded her of her own rituals before sculpting a block of stone. The hands are the focus here, tools of both the surgeon's and the artist's practice. (You can see more about Hepworth's Hospital Drawings here ).
Patrick Heron, Standing Figure, Rachel, 1950 (oil on canvas)
Georges Braque's work strongly influenced Heron's artistic ideas. The figure of Rachel is depicted with a range of shapes, flat areas of colour and straight and squiggled lines. This abstraction simplifies the form of the woman's body, conveying a gracefulness and poise.
Keith Vaughan, Harvest Assembly, 1956 (oil on canvas)
The muscular figures of the farm workers communicate strength and hard work, yet they also seem remote from each other. The bold outlines and geometric areas of colour unify the human and spatial elements of the composition. Bringing together the disparate forms of the body and its environment, Vaughan creates a sense of harmony and order.
Francis Bacon, Figures in a Landscape, 1956, (oil on canvas)
Bacon's pessimistic view that humanity cannot escape its natural tendency towards destruction, and his search for the deep instincts and potential chaos that lie beneath the surface of 'civilised' everyday life, are evident here. The meaning of the violent struggle that the two figures are caught up is ambiguous. Their nakedness and crouching postures give them a disturbing animalistic appearance. The swiping brushstrokes create a tense, disordered mood and transform the human figures into twisted balls of emotion and anxiety.

Stanley Spencer, Miss Ashwanden in Cookham, 1958 (oil on canvas)
The sitter for this portrait was terminally ill with leukaemia, aged 17. Miss Ashwanden's parents commissioned the portrait when she had just returned from hospital. Spencer decided to capture her exactly as she was at that time. She makes a bold presence in the painting, her body taking up the majority of the canvas. Her anxiously clasped hands and her distant eyes communicate her fragility.
Joe Tilson, Transparency, The Five Senses - Taste, 1969, (photo screenprint)
Joe Tilson was one of the founding figures of British Pop Art in the 1960s. Focusing on a specific part of Marilyn Monroe's mass-produced image and placing the image on a section of film reel he emphasises the immediacy and transience of celebrity in our culture.
June Wayne, Shortcuts: Judy Chicago, 1980, (colour lithograph)
In a series of works entitled Shortcuts, Wayne celebrates her friendship with several women artists of her generation. Judy Chicago founded the Feminist Art Movement in California in the 1970s. Wayne uses a small part of a person's body to convey their personality. Here she places curls, representing Chicago's distinctive hair, over an abstract triangular form which refers to one of Chicago's most famous works, The Dinner Party.

 Peter Howson, Two Figures, 1980s, (oil on canvas)
Helen Chadwick, Vanity, 1986, (chibachrome photograph)
Here, Chadwick directly refers to the artistic tradition of female vanitas or vanity figures. These figures usually appear as a woman looking into a mirror at her own reflection, symbolising the transience of beauty and earthly pleasure. However, Chadwick gazes into a mirror and presses her body into a reflection that reveals both her body and one of her own art installations. Representing both artist and model, Chadwick subverts the traditional use of the vanitas.
Pam Skelton, Displacement Ahwaz 1978, 1989 (acrylic on canvas)
This is part of a series of paintings entitled Groundplans, in which the outlines of houses Skelton once lived in are used to explore her own past. The figures embedded in them convey ideas about people's relationship to place and memory.
Ahwaz is an oil town in Southern Iran where Skelton lived shortly before the Iranian Revolution. The figure's contorted posture suggests confinement and struggle. This image of entrapment within a domestic space could suggest the restrictive experience that the home represents for many women.
Anthony Gormley, Maquette for Iron Man, 1993 (mixed media)
This is the preliminary study for Gormley's Iron: Man which stands in Victoria Square in Birmingham. Gormley is interested in the relationship of the human body to space. He describes Iron:Man as 'part of the narrative experience of the city'. In this maquette he develops the idea of creating a human figure out of iron, symbolising Birmingham's industrial history. The figure is a solid and enduring presence, communicating both the strength of Birmingham's manufacturing tradition and the workforce of human bodies that powered its progress.


Lucien Freud, Woman with an Arm Tattoo, 1996 (etching)
Ana Maria Pacheco, Dark Night of the Soul, 1999, (drypoint with roulette and burnishing)
The martyr-like figure is tied up, blindfolded and bound to the mast of a ship. Two winged creatures appear to caress him with their wings and breathe light onto his body. This image explores the idea that the human soul is trapped between light and dark, or good and evil, while it occupies the human body.
Pacheco was born in the city of Goiania in central Brazil. Goiania's culture is rooted in traditional religion and ancient rural customs. Religious imagery, processions and folklore influence Pacheco's work.
Victoria, Lisa Gunn, 2003, (liquid light and acrylic on canvas)
Lisa Gunn was left paralysed at the age of 21 by a car accident. She returned to her fine art degree after four years spent in hospital. Victoria challenges stereotypical ideas of beauty, femininity and the disabled body.
Vidya Kamat, Birth. Marks 14, 2007 (lightbox)
This work forms part of a series entitled Birth. Marks in which Kamat explores how culture, memories and experience shape our identities and mark us in both visible and invisible ways.
In this work Kamat interweaves her own image with a form of ancient Persian embroidery called Zardozi. This is traditionally used to symbolise happiness and pleasure. However, etched into the skin here, the embroidery appears to disfigure the face. The artist described this image as paying homage to a friend who was the victim of an acid attack by a lover.

Gillian Wearing, Lily Cole, (2009)
Gillian Wearing often uses masks in her work, drawing on the complex ways in which they relate to identity and appearance. They also allow her to explore how our everyday appearance acts as a mask that is strangely disjointed from our inner selves.
Lily Cole is a fashion model and actress. Wearing made a cast of Cole's face, but then damaged it to reveal the fragility of the doll-like perfection of Cole's public image. Modelling a broken mask of her own features Cole is distorted into to an image that is both disturbing and vulnerable.
You can see more of Gilliam Wearing's work here .


  1. Eirene, what a wondrous collection of examples in this exhibition! And the building looks spectacular too.
    Coincidentally I have been thinking hard about representing the body today as this morning I started attending a life class. There are just so many of my favourites pictured in your post - favourite artists if not the actual paintings/sculptures. There are also a couple of new ones to me which intrigue: especially Vidya Kamat. Her work reminds me of Shirin Neshat's photographs with writing on the body.
    I especially love the drypoint by Laura Knight - one I had not seen before, and Germaine Richier's La Feuille. I'm afraid that Burne-Jones' work I find too spookily sentimental for my taste.

    1. It was a most enjoyable exhibition Olga, and I stayed there for quite a long time. It was also very quiet which always adds to the enjoyment. The Laura Knight was one of my favourites too, but I also liked the Hepworth: I find the drawings of the surgeons very moving. I also liked the Keigh Vaughan, and was delighted to see the work of Gillian Wearing, Helen Chadwick, and Ana Pachenco as I like their work a lot. And do you know, I was not going to include Burne-Jones' work, but I included so little of the pre-20th century exhibits, and given that they had given the Burne-Jones such a dominant position in the exhibition, I felt that my post would be more representative of the exhibition if I did - but I agree with you.

      I hope you enjoyed the life class and I hope I'll be able to see the results in your blog.