A brief insight into (the depiction of) the body in Western art
Last season I made the performance STRANGER. A study that questioned how identity is formed, experienced and interpreted. A work for the theatrical or museum space in which the performer's physicality was made visible, alongside a film that shows the same performer's body, but recontextualizes it - banishing it from socially constructed perspectives of masculinity. Together the film and the body formed a proposal to start a conversation about how to look at bodies. An awareness-raising exercise in looking unknowingly from your body, and not from a position of understanding, analysis, or narrative motives.
During an after talk in Amsterdam, I got a strong feminist sneer about how selfish it was to say something about just men in these times. I was deeply moved by this comment; I had never seen my work as a statement or position-taking. On the contrary. As a man, I worked with another man for the simple but essential reason that I experience for myself what it is like to have a masculine body, and thus can get closest to the experience and/or understanding of another man. I didn't want to make statements in which I, as a man, would pretend to know or interpret what it is like to be a woman, or what that might mean. I am not a woman. I work equally with my performers during every creative process. In this case, biological sex would get in the way of the essence of our thematic research. After all, I wanted to talk about genuine physicality. STRANGER is anything but a creation that was made from ego. Rather, it wanted to achieve the opposite: looking openly at a male body, to place in front of the lens the construction of looking - in which we are (very often) trapped as conditioned human beings.
As a maker, I did extensive research into the male body in the arts. A large number of insights not only resulted in what STRANGER has become, but were also the seed to start this research project about what sincere embodiment in portraiture within sculptural arts can be/mean. What did men's bodies look like 2000 years ago, and what do they tell me as a time document? I went into history. As an artist, I moved back in time. Now, the time in which I work is my point of reference for viewing an image from a personal point of view. I instructed myself not to project my idea too much onto that image. I re-looked, openly. The first thing I noticed is that in the early visual arts the male body was often depicted naked. The Hellenistic nude is the male source image. That's how it is. It is the central figure in our North-Western culture. The naked Apollo embodies the most cherished idea of Greek culture. Apollo is the standard that ensures that the subsequent currents could oppose him as a source image. He is the symbol of a society in which beauty is linked to quality of life. The body alone is sacred. The influence of Christianity has revolutionized our cultural history, adding a new function to Apollo's appearance. Adam is the first split off from the naked source image. As a character he represents - yes, a narrative around the source image was fantasized - a new kind of naked body. He embodies the guilty person. Where the source image shows divine, natural strength and beauty, Adam's story leaves a negative mark on the naked body. Sweating is no longer healthy, it is unclean. Just like eating, or having an erection, let alone having sex. The male body of yesteryear no longer reflects life, but shifts to the embodiment of (the way towards) death. Later still, even the divine Adonis body of Jesus is only rendered lifeless. The body is stripped of the human world and becomes an interpretable embodied symbol. We seem to have become alienated from our physicality over the years.
1. Michelangelo's David gets ready for its unveiling at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Though it is a model of the original marble version currently housed in Florence, Italy, the plaster 16 feet tall art piece was first given to the queen in 1857 as a gift by Leopold II, who was the grand duke of Tuscany. Pic by Splash News.
2. Anavysos (Kroisos) Kouros, c. 530 B.C.E., marble, 6' 4" . Pic by National Archaeological Museum, Athens.
I would like to let go of this interpretation as context to talk about the body in the arts, and draw attention to how artists depict the body. For the artist, the shift I cite in my reflection on the male source image over time presents challenges in the way the body is portrayed. The body was first depicted standing, then hanging, curved, or even entangled. Different rendering techniques were required, and various technically trained artists necessarily emerged until the fourteenth century.
The Renaissance is very essential in ensuring (honourable) restoration of ‘the doomed body’. Artists wanted to revive the then Greek principles and put them back on the map. Very interesting thought about being an artist at the Renaissance time: they believed that if you as an artist, through the mastery of your craft, could portray a naked figure as it appeared in real life, you were an artist approaching Divine perfection. Perfection is no longer in the image of the body but in the art of imagining and representing it. In addition to the male figure in the image, the artisan artist also could become a God himself for society.
Michelangelo (1475 - 1564) is our Western source artist who could show the beauty of the male nude like no other and extensively researched it. His oeuvre is a great celebration of the representation of the male body. Michelangelo di Lodovico di Lionardo di Buonarroti Simoni - that's the full name of the man - was an Italian painter, sculptor, architect, and poet who, like Da Vinci (1452 - 1519), fulfilled the artist's ideal of the uomo universale. For Michelangelo, the religious narrative aspect of his commissioned works is incidental. He is mainly interested in the dramatic effect of his work. He, for example, even makes the figures so big that you cannot ignore them. His gigantic figures have strong, muscular shapes.
His frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome are breathtaking - I speak from experience. With this masterpiece, Michelangelo left old values behind and opened up new possibilities. Over the years there have been several cases of religious tourists getting dizzy or fainting at the sight of the Sistine Chapel. The French writer Stendhal (1783 - 1842) described a mental illness that occurs when someone is completely overwhelmed by the beauty of art, called Stendhal's syndrome. The spectator's body is overwhelmed by the all-encompassing beauty of what it sees, experiencing so much emotion that the body switches itself off and has to reset. Physical symptoms include a fast heart rate, dizziness, confusion, and fainting. In severe cases, forms of mania, hallucinations, and other psychotic symptoms sometimes occur. According to the Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini (° 1927), the syndrome can be compared to the Jerusalem syndrome, in which strong emotional reactions to religious experiences occur. I can also get pretty overwhelmed by an art experience. My experience can be so intense that I can no longer see and have to leave the room to avoid passing out. Here is where the idea of the individual spectator is strongly expressed. To the faithful, these forms of mania, hallucinations, or other psychotic phenomena indicate appearances of a Divine nature; the pinnacle of religion. For the non-believers, these phenomena confirm the power of the divine mastery of the artist's craft. For some, it is the characters in the image who speak; for others, it is the artist who speaks to them through the bodies.
Changes in society are visible in how the bodies are portrayed. The images of bodies in the chapel are no longer complete without a shell. Clothing is on the rise, especially around the lower body. Artists see their depicted body as that of their world, away from the fig leaf, and therefore play with clothing to explore that body, and to extend and shape their ideas around it. Fashion enters the picture. Men like to show their bodies in different guises. Clothing becomes tight, concealing certain parts of the body and therefore accentuating it. The image of the body suddenly offers many more possibilities. The entry of the disguised body also beckons the imagination of the undressed body. Covering clothing emphasizes the desirable body. Watching enhances possible erotic desire. For the sculptor, the introduction of clothes requires new techniques. The mastery of reproducing the lightness of fabric in marble gives artists an almost divine status. The clothed body image now questions whether an image should be a representation of reality, or rather of a utopian desire, a fiction. The slim muscular man disappears from view and makes way for the everyday man, one that is taken from life and is thus more natural.
But what about the emotional state of the depicted body? Caravaggio (1571 - 1610) developed his chiaroscuro technique to be able to render the body more sharply in the art of painting, utilizing contrasts and in this way strengthening the inner emotion of the body. Following this technique, the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 - 1680) looked for ‘dramatic movement’ in a fixed three-dimensional image. He tried to express the body's moods realistically. Bernini's youthful self-portrait has often been compared to Caravaggio's Boy Bitten by a Lizard. How he makes marble scream is magnificent.
Damned Soul, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1619) - Pic by unknown.
Playing with emotion within the depicted body, and it’s capacity for emotional communication, is still completely new in sculpture in the sixteenth century. An artist would not be an artist if, within the narrow framework of his often religious client, he did not find a place to criticize society and express his vision between the lines. What moves the client in his work is not necessarily what moves the artist. The artist balances between what the viewer or his client wants to see and what he wants to see himself. Rubens (1577 - 1640), for example, is not interested in his many religious assignments - he sees them rather as good exercises to practice his body proportions and poses. In reality, he is more interested in depicting the expression of everyday bodies, often as portraits. In the 17th century, the female perspective created a new view of the male body. Finally! Other aspects of the male body’s physicality became more highlighted by it. Judith Leyster (1609 - 1660) was the first female artist in the Netherlands to be named a master painter. This title not only gave her the right to open her own workshop and to take on students, but added significant value to her artistic perspective. In practice, as an artist - coincidentally - she is forgotten, so that much of her work is attributed to Frans Hals. Instead, she is known as the woman who explores how the viewing behavior of a body is determined through fashion. Clothing becomes the fetish: after just draping the clothes, their colors and fabric now also determine how the skin can be read. Legs are exposed as cloth is held up, or bare shoulders revealed as clothing hangs loose. The female gaze becomes a means of exposing the inner, psychological characteristics of the depicted male body. By revealing a desire for the other body, the erotic relationship of the viewer with the image comes to the forefront even more clearly. The viewer's relationship with the image, the relationship with the image itself, becomes more explicit. The technical approach to depicting these bodies has focused on the human signs of attraction since the seventeenth century. For example, marble statues suddenly show veins, stray hairs from the head and pubic area, muscle contractions, and specific expressions that correspond to well-chosen postures.