Body of Art

Special Feature
Abstract, real, symbolic, scandalous: Flesh has fascinated creative minds since time began.
The nude in art has been around almost as long as man has walked on Earth.

One of the oldest pieces of art in the world is the “Venus of Willendorf,” a limestone statue little more than 4 inches high, carved some 25,000 years ago. Though faceless, the figure is clearly female, with massive, pendulous breasts, swelling stomach and conspicuous pubic triangle. Scholars theorize she was carved by a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer as an ode to—or perhaps reflecting the artist’s obsession with—fertility. In other words, even before humans could build dwellings, they were depicting the human body. 

And they’ve never stopped. Throughout time, the body has been the most fundamental of artistic subjects—and an unintentional storyteller: Whether female or male, nude or clothed, idealized or distorted, how the human frame is represented can be a chronicle of a culture, telling much about everything from political contentions to private convictions. 

In ancient Greece, the ability to represent the human body accurately meant a great deal, as indicated in marble sculptures as early as 600 B.C. (one sculptor, Polykleitos, even codified principles of proportions in a treatise). For the ancient Greeks, the ability to create perfectly proportioned torsos was more than good art: It was a visual statement about order and control, a monument to their mastery of the world through reason. After conquering Greece, the Romans absorbed its artistic aesthetic. A work like “Aphrodite of the Gardens,” a 1st century A.D. marble sculpture displayed by dealer Axel Vervoordt at the International Fine Art & Antique Dealers Show (Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave., 212.642.8572, Oct. 25-31) is composed according to Greek principles: a flowing, toga-draped female torso beautifully balanced and symmetrical, down to the pair of perfectly rounded breasts. 

Photo: François Karimi
Randy Cooper’s wire-mesh “Clint” (2013) at Eden Fine Art.

The ancient world’s ideal body inspires artists even now. Case in point: the shadow sculptures of Randy Cooper, on view at Eden Fine Art (437 Madison Ave., 212.888.0177). The nude bust- line of “Andrea” (2013) may be larger than that of classical counterparts (and the waist undoubtedly narrower), but her debt to principles of ancient proportions is clear: She has the “classic grace of a Greek goddess,” Cooper says. However, the sculpture’s classical form is married to modern material. Made of wire screen, “Andrea” projects a shadow that, when lighted, translates the torso into a distinct, luminous form. Eden Vice President of Business Development & Marketing François Karimi characterizes the effect as “initiating an impromptu dialogue with the steel mesh sculpture, creating a holographiclike experience.” 

Other contemporary artists enchant audiences not by imitating ancient traditions, but by rejecting them. Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero is famous worldwide for his whimsical, cheerily corpulent figures. Any visitor to The Shops at Columbus Circle (Time Warner Center, 10 Columbus Circle, 1.212.823.6300) can encounter Botero’s work firsthand. There, two 12-foot-tall 1990 statues, “Adam” and “Eve,” preside over the lobby like merry bronze behemoths. The couple has attracted plenty of attention, particularly “Adam”: Visitors routinely pause to rub his dwarfish member (the attention has, over time, given it a golden patina). 

Photo: Courtesy of Showplace Antique + Design Center Sculptor Wei Xiaoming

Sometimes, though, the departure from realistic representation becomes a way of communicating more serious emotions. “Shadow in the Spotlight” (1995), a 33-inch bronze sculpture by Chinese artist Wei Xiaoming, is one example. Xiaoming’s work, which can be found at the Showplace Antique + Design Center (40 W. 25th St., 212.633.6063), stretches upward, outstripping proportionality, its elongated arms raised in defeat, or perhaps self-protection. While the ancients used realistic imitations of the body to articulate philosophical ideals, Xiaoming employs an intentionally distorted body to immortalize intensely personal, ephemeral feelings—the story of modernity, told in a series of misshapen, naked forms. 

One of the most influential sculptors of the 20th century, Henry Moore (1898-1986) made modernist values manifest when he declared, “Art is the expression of imagination and not the imitation of life.” Moore turned the human body abstract, teasing it into a play of surface and space that pressed the torso nearly beyond recognition. The artist is particularly famed for his family groups and his queenly, recumbent women—one of which, “Reclining Figure: Cloak” (1967), is displayed by Trinity House gallery (24 E. 64th St., 212.813.0700) at the International Fine Art & Antique Dealers Show. 

Photo: Richard Nicol In Tip Toland

Popular as they are as a subject, nudes have also courted controversy, as late as the 20th century. “Le Coin d’Atelier” (1922) by Naturalist painter Émile Friant (1863-1932) depicts a naked young girl nestled in a plush chair, legs crossed, immersed in reading. Though it seems an innocent scene, Friant’s painting, which William Brady & Co. is showing at the International Fine Art & Antique Dealers Show, was scandalous at the time. Traditionally, respectable artists would only portray exotic or mythological characters—magisterial gods or ancient heroes, pink nymphs, Arabian concubines—in the altogether; to depict ordinary people in mundane settings without clothing was shocking. But by the mid-1800s, the camera had been invented, scientific truth reigned and artists longed to represent the real, not an ideal—so they depicted real human bodies, complete with imperfections. In “Le Coin d’Atelier,” the subject, a painter’s model, is not simply nude; she has been caught in an unguarded, unposed moment. Her buttocks spread against the seat of the chair in a fashion that’s not flattering, though it is true to life. Friant’s decision to depict his model this way announced a new commitment: real bodies for a world ruled by anatomy, not fantasy. 

Photo: © Jeff Bark/Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler
The development of photography has added a layer of realism to depictions of the body in art. Photographer Jeff Bark’s “Untitled (Dusk)” (2005) from his Abandon series, on view at Hasted Kraeutler, furnishes a riveting (if somewhat unsettling) portrait of an odalisque.

Even today, the naturalistic sight of a bare body can be disturbing—especially in art photography, when the distinction between voyeurism and viewing begins to blur. What makes staring at a graphic picture of a nude different from studying an artistic one? Jeff Bark implicitly addresses the question in his Abandon series, at the gallery Hasted Kraeutler (537 W. 24th St., 212.627.0006). Bark’s hyper-realistic photos, which have been called by art critic Lucy Chadwick “hymns to the eroticized everyday,” can seem unflinchingly stark in their depiction of stark-naked bodies, whose faces are often obscured—rendering them disturbingly anonymous. In Bark’s hands, the nude becomes a means of commenting on art’s ability to objectify people. But it is not merely the nude’s submission to the artist that makes the figure powerless; he or she submits countless times to the gaze of a sea of unknown viewers—to you and me. 

Though it appears frequently in Western art, complete nudity is a rarity in traditional Japanese art, even in erotic drawings. For the Japanese, “the naked body was not … as exciting as the suggestion of an opportunity to reveal a fully clothed body,” says Katherine Martin, director of Scholten Japanese Art (145 W. 58th St., Ste. 6D, 212.585.0474). And that tradition remained unbroken until the mid-19th century, when Japan’s isolation from Europe and America ended. With the Western presence came an influx of Western art and its naturalistic depictions of naked bodies. By the early-20th century, select Japanese artists were looking for a way to retain their stylistic traditions, yet also to update them in light of contemporary techniques. The result can be seen in wood-block prints such as those by Takahashi (Shotei) Hiroaki (1871-1945), part of Scholten’s exhibit Uncovered and Discovered: The Nude Figure in Modern Japanese Prints, viewable thru Nov. 10 by appointment only. He and his colleagues depicted women, often bathing or grooming themselves, stylized and idealized in the historic manner; in a nod to modernity, however, they are shown with full- (or nearly full-) frontal nudity. In these works, the naked body tells a tale about Japan’s history, its reaction to foreign influence and its reworking of its artistic heritage. The depiction of the female nude was not a break with native cultural traditions; it offered a way of returning to or reinterpreting them. 

Photo: © Scholten Japanese Art
Historically, Japanese artists shied away from overt depictions of naked bodies. After exposure to Western styles, however, a new frankness emerged, as in this ca. 1927 wood-block print by Takahashi (Shotei) Hiroaki, "Makeup Before the Mirror," on view at Scholten Japanese Art: The beauty’s drapery reveals more than it conceals

Some artists see the body as a token of mortality, and strive to expose its fragility and their own fears—not just of death, but of modern existence. In his photos, videos, paintings and performance-art pieces, Dean Dempsey uses elements of Japanese Kabuki to depict bare yet androgynous figures with masklike makeup in theatrical reconstructions of banal, daily activities, such as eating dinner. According to art critic Renato Miracco, Dempsey’s work places the human body, “which is considered an inexhaustible source of life … in the artificiality of the contemporary universe.” Dempsey’s latest work is featured in an eponymous solo exhibit at BOSI Contemporary (48 Orchard St., 212.966.5686, Oct. 10-Nov. 7). 

Clay Bodies, an exhibition at Barry Friedman Ltd. (515 W. 26th St., 212.239.8600, thru Oct. 30), is an expansive exploration of the body’s expressive potential, as envisioned by nine artists from around the world. Each of the featured artists has created sculptures that address issues ranging from cultural assimilation to environmental damage. Among the works is “Pulse” (2008), a painted, life-size stoneware sculpture by Tip Toland of a naked woman, leaning backward on a moving swing, her hair cascading down behind her. The figure’s precarious position, coupled with her nudity, communicates both the vulnerability carried by all of us—and the ecstasy of transcending it. Through bodies that belong to nobody, Toland evokes feelings common to all. 

The human body does not change, yet it still manages to be a source of infinite invention. In art, it tells us endless stories about ourselves in ways language cannot. And those stories can be heard everywhere—in galleries, in museums and even across centuries.