Throughout art history, the body has been manipulated, idealized and explored by artists. There is a fascination as to the way it works, how one unified form can come in so many shapes, both beautiful and ugly. I found I was no stranger to this fascination after going to see the latest exhibition to open at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, which combines a range of artist’s studies of the human form. The exhibition’s focal inspiration is the story of Pygmalion from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the tale of an artist who sculpted a woman in ivory who was so beautiful that he fell in love with her and asked Venus to breathe life into the work.
This story opens up complicated ideas about the relationship between the artist and their work and the exhibition brilliantly elaborates on this idea. Can an artist create something so perfect that we mistake it for reality? Should art depict total reality, or seek to rise above human imperfection? Portrayals of the body are used to remember, study and document the delicate and complex way our forms work. For this particular exhibition, although the area where it is held is small, the arrangement of space, and progression of works means the viewer is taken through the narrative of the body. Traditionally, the creation of the “ideal” body was seen as one of the highest achievements an artist can strive for and much of the art of Classical and Renaissance Periods sought to show the strength, agility and idealized perfection of the body. Indeed, the show’s earliest work by Durer is a print of the strong, overly muscled Hercules.
While these versions of perfection are of course beautiful, I found that the most striking and interesting study of the body was when the artist made no effort to hide the flaws of their subject. We see idealized Venues and luminous nudes in so much of the art of Western culture, but as you wandered through the history of the exhibition, the focus moves away from this archetypal form to real studies of blemished body. Perhaps the reasons this exhibition inspires such interest is the fact that it does not simply use the beauty from the Pygmalion story, but gives us, who are indeed imperfect bodies, a relatable experience. This is why the piece I found most striking from the exhibition, and I encourage you to look out for it, if you happen to visit, is Freud’s Woman with an Arm Tattoo, the latest work in the collection.
This image, drawn in black ink, is pretty hideous. There is no effort to flatter the sitter, with her bulging arms and way her hand is almost lost in her greasy hair in her despairing pose. She is no beauty. But the drawing is so unusual that I found it led me to question the traditional way I have regarded the body in art before.
The exhibition also includes works from Ford Maddox Brown, Francis Bacon, Gillian Wearing and a variety of others and each present new and dynamic ideas. It is running until the 31st April and I would highly recommend you pop in and have a wander around if you get the chance.