The Modern Body and the Modern Work of Art

Throughout the semester, we have seen some major changes in art.  To reduce them to three sets, we might describe these changes as affecting:

Recall these earlier images of the nude female: Venus of Urbino by Titian and the Grand Odalisque by Ingres.  Titian's painting, of a woman who may have been a courtesan, combines a classical sense of the female nude as Venus with what was a contemporary setting for that time in the Renaissance.  Ingres tells us the subject of his painting is an exotic, near-Eastern courtesan.  He doesn't paint her in correct proportions but we are seduced by the exquisite fabrics and the elegance of the lines use in her body, and we don't really care about the lack of proportions.

Manet: Olympia, 1863-5

Manet's painting, the only one of these three to have caused a scandal, did so for several reasons:
• a prostitute who is not made into a Venus
• subverts the tradition of the female nude with her straightforward, almost confrontational glance
• the style of the painting is harsh and linear
• she points to her pubic area
• she is not hiding the reason for her presence and by not hiding it, she centralizes the issue of meaning of prostitution as selling one's body

Matisse: Blue Nude (Souvenir of Biskra), 1907

The Blue Nude was a turning point for Matisse.  In this painting he painted the figure entirely from his imagination, rather than from a model.  The composition uses echoing curves and arcs which appear to be derived from the body of the nude and which relate the body to the landscape, engaging the human body and the land in an exchange of energy.  We also see the figure from more than one viewing point simultaneously, a technique which creates a sense of flux in the painting, and a sense of sculptural reality.  The association of this figure with African sculpture, an association made by Matisse in his own sculptural rendering of the same figure, lent a sense of the exotic to this figure.  But the omniscient viewpoint of the spectator reinforces the control of the artist and the viewer over the object in the painting: an exotic female.

Picasso: Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907

Although Picasso's Demoiselles reflects a number of identifiable influences, it represents a decisive break with almost everything that preceded it.  Some of the influences we find in this painting are Iberian sculpture, African masks, Cezanne, Matisse, and Gauguin.  From Gauguin came a search for rudimentary, primitive forms, a search for a type of truth that is found in dissonance and which exists outside of Renaissance ideals of beauty, a truth that might lead to a new aesthetic: an aesthetic of ugliness or deformation.  Also from Gauguin and Matisse: the juxtaposition of different planes of reality---but Picasso will eventually do this in a more concrete sense.  Both Gauguin and Matisse juxtaposed pictorial representations of a dream or vision with a pictorial representation of reality.  Picasso brings together different realities as such, although he is only beginning to explore this direction with Demoiselles. We could continue with this sequence by adding de Kooning's paintings of women and the even later paintings of the female nude made by the young artist Jenny Saville.  But if we leave painting at this point and trace some of the changes which occur in sculpture during the same period, we might recognize the ways in which sculpture and painting interact around the issue of the human body.  We go first to Rodin, the sculptor most often thought of as the beginning of modernism in sculpture.

Rodin: Walking Man, 1905 version Boccioni: Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913 Archipenko: Woman Combing Her Hair, 1915

Rodin's statue of The Walking Man is not a whole figure, does not indicate the identify of a subject, and it is a walking subject. The partial figure succeeds in freeing the work of sculpture from the limitations and conventions of subject matter, of context, of narrative. As a fragment, it goes on to challenge traditional concepts of unity and beauty. It signifies a complete break with nature and inaugurates the beginning of a new idea of unity in which the whole is only a fragment rather than a collection of coordinated parts.

Boccioni's figure extends into space and this act of extension becomes palpable, as real as the object itself. The area which surrounds the object is invaded by the object but this space likewise invades the object-hence the phrase "militarized zone."  Neither Rodin's Man Walking nor Boccioni's Unique Forms is a complete figure: they are fragments or torsos with legs. The use of the fragment as a unitary whole is part of two changes in sculpture: the tendency to replace the human figure with the object and when this is not done, a move away from the monumental heroic figure, as we saw in the example by Lehmbruck (The Fallen Man).  But this move may take the form of subjects which represent the lower class, the ordinary, the depraved, the infirm, and eventually, the unreal man as machine.  Consider the works by Kiki Smith with their reference to the depraved body and Matthew Ritchie's "unreal" bodies which look like diagrams of chaos (see the Artstor images in unit 27 for examples).

Archipenko's figures do something different, yet again. Influenced by the geometric and splintered forms of cubism, these figures appear to be cubistic planes. But the truly unique feature of his sculptures is the way they treat void space. Space in these figures is deliberately shaped and incorporated into the statue. Instead of space replacing or coming between two solids, space is made into a solid here which replaces space.

Julio Gonzales: Woman Combing Her Hair, c. 1930-5 Alberto Giacometti: The Chariot (bronze version, 1950)

Clearly, many sculptors have responded to Rodin's  Walking Man.  Giacometti's statue of a figure in a chariot distorts the scale of the figure by making it pencil thin, distorts the surface so that it no longer appears to be the flesh of a human being. There is something of a sketch to these figures, which are denied substance, but there is another sense in which the lack of substance becomes a deliberate challenge to the belief that it is possible to represent the human body in sculpture in any way but this.  Gonzales, in contrast, relates more to the cubist sculpture of Archipenko and to a different implication of Rodin: a redefinition of the "skin" of the sculpture.

The third set of changes, which certainly affects the others, concerns the nature of representation and the nature of vision in the work of art.

Monet: Water Lilies (The Clouds), 1903 Jackson Pollock: Number 27, 1950, 
49" x 106"

Monet’s late impressionist style relates to a change in understanding the nature of vision.  From a model of vision which was similar to the camera obscura (a model which suggests that the scene in the painting is whatever the hole in the camera sees), artists progressed to an understanding of vision which suggested that vision was not only the effect of light and time but it included the artist’s decision to look at something and to become the camera, as it were.  This change is one which says that knowledge of the world is not independent of the viewer and that vision is more than an optical phenomenon.  Ultimately, this means that vision is not an objective experience.  The importance of this for art is that the artist does not see himself as imitating or copying a pre-existing and independent reality but recreating a visual equivalent of the real world.  But this "new" painting, because it cannot be called a representation or reproduction of real life, has become a new visual reality and it is a subjective reality.

As the model of vision changes, so does the subject: the nature of the subject has changed  from representing ideas of universal beauty, religious narratives, and history, to representing the contemporary world and contemporary life–the world of the immediate moment–and with Manet, in particular, we saw another change: the artist was moving beyond the goal of simply representing modern life.  On one level, The Bar at the Folies-Bergere was about the life of Paris in the latter 19th century.  On a different level, his painting was about the nature of seeing.  And because his painting is about how we see this world, his painting, dominated by the mirror (an object whose function is to reflect the world), is about the very act of reflecting the world.  In other words, it is a painting about painting, about how we reproduce what we see and experience.