Exposed: : The Body in Art, from Dürer to Freud

The body and its myriad range of forms, meanings and potential as a source of inspiration is the focus of Exposed: The Body in Art, from Dürer to Freud. Bringing together a diverse range of artworks spanning a period of 500 years, Exposed explores the varied and intriguing ways in which artists have responded to the human body in their visual practice.

The exhibition was developed as a regional partnership between Birmingham Museums Trust and The Herbert Gallery, Coventry; Exposed features over 50 works from Birmingham’s fine art collection, together with a small number of works from The Herbert.

From the beginning, Exposed was conceived as a multi-media show and the inclusion of sculpture was particularly important – at the core of the exhibition is the story of one of the most famous sculptors of all, Pygmalion. Edward Burne-Jones’ 1878 series of oil paintings, Pygmalion and the Image, based on Ovid’s myth forms the show’s centrepiece. The exhibition’s main themes which explore the role of the figurative and the importance of the human body to an artist’s practice are drawn from these four works.

Burne-Jones was so inspired by the Pygmalion subject that he produced work based on the myth over a period of ten years; the 1878 series in Birmingham Museums’ collection can be seen as the monumental artistic culmination of this ongoing fascination. Burne-Jones’ initial inspiration can be traced to the epic cycle of poetry The Earthly Paradise written by his close friend, the designer, writer and craftsman William Morris, who included a version of the Pygmalion myth based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses in his poem.

The gifted young sculptor of Cyprus, Pygmalion, distrusted the women of the island, believing them all to be promiscuous and unfaithful. Vowing to devote himself solely to his art and never take a wife, one day he sculpts a piece of ivory into the most perfect image of woman ever seen and falls in love with his own work. Pygmalion prays to Venus for a wife who is the “living likeness of my ivory girl”, afraid to admit his real desire. However, Venus knows what Pygmalion truly wishes for and brings the statue to life. Pygmalion discovers his sculpture turned into living, breathing flesh and marries her, having a daughter by her named Paphos’.

For the series of oil paintings Burne-Jones refined the myth into four key moments: The Heart Desires – Pygmalion musing on the creation of ideal beauty through art; The Hand Refrains – realising the creation of his perfect ideal in sculpture; The Godhead Fires – Venus’ transformation of the sculpture into living, breathing flesh; and The Soul Attains – Pygmalion discovering his imagined ideal now as a real woman. Focusing on the complex relation the artist has with their artwork, the Pygmalion series forms the conceptual focus of Exposed from which the five themed sections of the exhibition are based: Observing, Perfecting, Transforming, Remembering and Imagining.

The first painting of the series, The Heart Desires, depicts the sculptor lost in thought. In the background we see a sculptural group resembling ‘The Three Graces’. It seems Pygmalion is musing on the ideal of beauty, which he believes is only achievable through its creation in art, and not found in the real-life women he shuns and who we see peering in through the studio doorway. The inclusion in this core section of Robert Sievier’s The Three Graces a later 19th century copy of the original by Antonio Canova, provides an apt visual foil to Burne-Jones’ painted depiction of the sculpture. Celebrated throughout classical literature and art as ideals of beauty and sources of artistic inspiration, ‘The Three Graces’ exemplify the traditional artistic strive to create physical perfection in sculptural form. With this in mind, we chose to display Sievier’s sculpture opposite The Heart Desires, encouraging the viewer to make direct visual correlations between the two.

The iconic composition of three nude interlocking figures reveals the body at a variety of different angles, allowing the artist to demonstrate his skill in rendering the human form. This is a central concept running through Observing, the first section of Exposed, which explores the body as the focus for an artist’s study and working practice, through themes such as life drawing, anatomical observation and the relationship between the artist and model. Auguste Rodin’s Eve (1881) is the sculptural highlight of this section, a piece which resonates particularly well with the ideas of observation of the body and the dynamics of the relationship between artist and model in the studio space. An Italian woman named Madame Abruzzezzi is thought to have modelled for the figure of Eve. Rodin noticed Abruzzezzi’s shape changing from day to day and adjusted his sculpting accordingly, but soon realised that Abruzzezzi was in fact pregnant. Rodin saw this as a ‘happy accident’, asserting that it ‘aided the character of the figure singularly’. Rodin’s ability to trace the subtle and gradual changes over time occurring to Abruzzezzi’s body due to pregnancy speaks powerfully to the viewer of the intense observation and dextrous skill employed in translating physical flesh into plastic form.

Rodin’s Eve provides a visual focal-point for the Observing section, acting in dialogue with other two-dimensional pieces displayed nearby. One such work is Bernard Fleetwood-Walker’s tempera painting The Bane(1931) which depicts a nude female model seated against white drapery, caressing a foxglove. A highly poisonous plant, there is perhaps an association here between threat and female sexuality. Parallels can be drawn with Eve, whose pose both shields and exposes her body; the upraised arms conveying her shame and remorse upon being banished from the Garden of Eden for giving in to temptation. Picking up on the theme of the artist and model relationship is an etching from Picasso’s Vollard Suite. Made while Picasso was involved in an affair with his muse and model Marie-Thérèse Walter; it is Walter’s features that appear repeatedly throughout the suite. Picasso also used the Pygmalion myth as a subject for some of the etchings of this series. 

From the classical, perfectly proportioned ideal epitomised in Sievier’s The Three Graces, the figure of Eve exemplifies Rodin’s organic and naturalistic approach to form, where the strikingly textural external surface and expressive pose reveal the turbulence of inner emotional depths.

Taking the visitor up to the post-war period, this reflection of internal force in external form is rendered with poignancy in Germaine Richier’s La Feuille (1948), which forms the central sculpture of the Imagining section. Imagining considers the body as a vehicle for artists to explore their identity and communicate their personal fantasies and emotions, or to convey an artist’s unique response to humanity and our place in the world. Richier belonged to a generation of post-war figure sculptors whose work drastically broke from the classical ideal of the human body as a unified and balanced whole. La Feuille is one of a series of works with which Richier explores the harrowing psychological impact of war. Here, the internal obliterates the external, effacing even the barest marker of the individual. We are left with the resemblance of a human figure that is scarred, indented and marked from mental suffering. Impressed onto the surface of the bronze are overlapping leaf imprints that communicate the human body’s organic and inherently vulnerable nature. Yet Richier also imbues a sense of hope in this fractured figure with the gesture of the reaching fingers that still seek to grasp and hold on, conveying Richier’s understanding of the human body as at once both fragile and resilient.

These traces of both fragility and strength can also be found in the patterns of Zardozi embroidery that are etched into the features of Indian artist Vidya Kamat in her lightbox Birth.Mark 14 (2007). Traditionally worn during celebrations, here the Zardozi appears to disfigure the artist’s face. Kamat described this image as a homage to a friend she met while travelling in South East Asia, who was the victim of an acid attack by her lover. No criminal case was ever filed and with this unspoken sanction of violence, the woman felt her identity and sense of place in society also disfigured. Questioning to whom the female body really belongs, Kamat explores the imprint of culture on the female form that is often enacted through violent means.

Next to this, Lisa Gunn’s triptych Victoria (2003) takes the artist’s own nude body as its subject to create an iconic and empowering image of the disabled female body, the broken segments of which reference Gunn’s own spinal injury. Drawing the viewer’s eyes up and thereby reversing the social order, Gunn challenges society’s views that the disabled female body is automatically stripped of femininity and sexuality, while also speaking of the simultaneous vulnerability and profound capacity of the human body to survive.

Exposed: The Body in Art, from Dürer to Freud was organised through a partnership between Birmingham Museums Trust and The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry and supported by funding from Arts Council England.

Edited touring exhibition, Exposed: The Body in Art, from Dürer to Freud

Shire Hall Gallery, Stafford, Staffordshire 12th July 2014 – 31st August 2014
Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery, Shrewsbury, Shropshire 7th September 2014 – 4th January 2015.

Main image: Installation view with Auguste Rodin, Eve, 1881 © Birmingham Museums Trust, (photos : Birmingham Museums Trust)

Aurora Corio