Art is Long, Life is Short: Art and the Human Body

By Sheila Singhal on March 15, 2017

Throughout history, art has abounded in representations of the human form. From ancient hunters chasing aurochs across cave walls, to mind-bending performance-based works, the human body has long served as both medium and message.

This interdependence of art and the body is evocatively explored in Phaidon’s new French-language book, L’Art et le Corps [Body of Art in English]. As Jennifer Blessing — Senior Curator of Photography at the Guggenheim in New York City — writes in the introduction, “In each piece, the body of the artist is inscribed within the image, as both subject and as author. The artist’s literal embodiment is a reminder that both the producer of an image and its viewer reflect the work together, in the sense that we create meaning and respond to it based on our own perceptions, which are conditioned by who we are, as experienced through our distinct bodies.”

L’Art et le corps is divided into ten sections: Beauty, Identity, Power, Religion & Belief, Sex & Gender, Emotion Embodied, The Body’s Limits, Bodies & Space, The Abject Body, and The Absent Body. Each begins with a brief essay, followed by multiple works described in extended captions. 

Amedeo Modigliani, Nude, c. 1916, oil on canvas, 92.4 x 59.8 cm. Courtauld Gallery, London. akg-images / André Held

The book’s topic-based approach allows for some interesting juxtapositions. In the section on Beauty, for example, the Venus of Willendorf (c. 24,000–20,000 B.C.) is paired with the vaguely disturbing VB 46 (2001) by Vanessa Beecroft, a performance work in which some two dozen nude women in pale body makeup, platinum wigs, and white heels gaze blankly at visitors.

In a similar vein, in the section on Identity, the famous Mask of Agamemnon (c. 1550–1500 B.C.) has been placed with Untitled (2000) by Tierney Gearon, in which two naked children, wearing garish animé-style masks, pose on a beach. It is not as jarring as it sounds.

Visually, the book is a delight. The illustrations are generous in both size and number, and the sheer encyclopedic knowledge that has gone into the selection of images makes this a valuable addition to any serious art library. Where else would you find Raphael’s The Three Graces (1504–1505), Fernand Léger’s Three Women (1921–1922) and Picasso’s The Source (Three Women at the Fountain) (1922) all on one spread? Or Michelangelo’s sublime David (1501–1504) sharing space with the garish Reclining Nude (2002) by Dana Schutz?

One of the most fascinating aspects of L’Art et le corps, however, is its examination of the myriad ways in which the body can be used as a form of protest. As Winston Churchill once said, “Criticism . . . fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

A significant portion of the art in this book does precisely that. Dutch twins Liesbeth and Angelique Raeven starve themselves in the performance work Wild Zone I (2001), meant to draw attention to skeletal fashion models, concentration camps, and AIDS. In The Weight of Guilt (1997–1999) artist Tania Bruguera eats “meatballs” made of Cuban soil, water and salt, with a slaughtered lamb strapped to her nude body. And in his series Case Studies (1997–1998), photographer Boris Mikhailov depicts the tragic lives of the homeless, following the disintegration of the former Soviet Union.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, ‘An Heroic Feat! With Dead Men!’, 1810–1820, etching, 15.5 x 20.5 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Many of the included works are not for the squeamish. Sigalit Landau’s Barbed Hula (2001), for example, shows the artist using a barbed-wire hula hoop on her naked body. Equally disturbing are Kira O’Reilly’s Stair Falling (2009) performance, in which the nude artist topples down the stairs, and Kan Xuan’s Looking, looking, looking for . . . (2001), a three-minute video in which a spider explores the nude bodies of a man and woman as they sleep.

That is not to say that the book is gloomy. Just as human behaviour runs the gamut from misery to joy, L’Art et le corps includes images such as the sweet Self Portrait (1975) of a young Robert Mapplethorpe, George Condo’s giddy Orgy Composition (2008), and Karel Appel’s Hip, Hip, Hooray! (1949).  

There are also flashes of humour, albeit underlaid with irony. Untitled #216 (1989) by Cindy Sherman, for example, is a vaguely down-market homage to Jean Fouquet’s Virgin and Child (1450). Similarly, Olympia (1863) by Edouard Manet faces off against Portrait (Futago) (1988) by Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura, for which the artist has re-created Manet’s masterpiece, cheekily draping himself across a divan in a similar pose.  

Morimura’s work is part of a series in which he has reproduced famous portraits of women, with himself as subject. Morimura, the image caption notes, breaks down “the binaries between male and female, as well East and West.” Gender identity is a topic to which the books returns in more than one section, with the inclusion of works such as Untitled (1974), in which artist Lynda Benglis brandishes a large phallus in front of her own genitals. Or the melancholy Untitled (1921–1922): a portrait of Claude Cahun by Cahun and Marcel Moore, born Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe respectively.

Shirin Neshat, Allegiance with Wakefulness, from ‘Women of Allah’, 1994, gelatin silver print and ink, 118.7 x 94.3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Copyright Shirin Neshat, Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Outside of Raft of the Medusa (1819) by Theodore Géricault and Shirin Neshat’s Allegiance with Wakefulness (1994), there is little in the book to suggest that the human body is ever much involved in breaking news. This is somewhat surprising, given that contemporary Indigenous artists, in particular — as well as iconoclasts such as Ai Weiwei — often use their bodies for unrepentant commentary on political concerns. 

Despite this possible oversight, however, this is an invaluable study of the interdependence of art and body. With more than 400 illustrations, and insightful commentary throughout, it offers something for readers of all stripes, from curators to students of art history. There is also a helpful timeline detailing major events marking the ways in which art has employed the body. 

Leonardo da Vinci — whose Vitruvian Man (1490) is included in the book — once wrote, “A beautiful body perishes, but a work of art dies not.” As L’Art et le corps so elegantly demonstrates, the body may perish, but its place in art lives on.

L’Art et le corps, with an introduction by Jennifer Blessing and contributions from numerous other writers, was published by Phaidon in January 2017. The English version, Body of Art (2015) is also available from Phaidon.

By Sheila Singhal| March 15, 2017
Categories:  Recommendations

About the Author

Sheila Singhal

Sheila Singhal

Sheila Singhal is a writer, editor and blogger living in Ottawa, Canada.

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Copyright National Gallery of Canada 2017