Perfect 10: The Human Body in Art
On any day of the week, strolling through the sculpture galleries of any national museum, you will be able to see artists ‘practicing their scales’, as it were; drawing the masterpieces on display. For centuries the true measure of beauty has been found in the human body, whether in the form of past artistic glories, the inspiration that one true love can bring, or a study from life.
The Greek model has been the benchmark of artistic greatness; followed by the Romans, reinvented in the 19th century and celebrated by Hegel as ‘the absolute’, the naked Greek has been a symbol for perfection. Why has the human form had such a timeless and impacting effect on the arts?
Every art student remembers the first, nerve-wracking time they partook in a life drawing session. The held poses – sculptural and mannered yet completely living, flesh and blood. Breathing. You feel a need to do justice within your work to the person – a real person with feelings – standing there. You hold your pencil at arms’ length and thumb it upward slightly, and then roll it down again like you’ve seen bereted artists do in the movies. At some stage the performance ends and the breathing stops. You realise, precisely because the person in front of you is real that your sketchbook doesn’t look like every other (semi)naked body you normally see, in a museum or otherwise. It might start from this point, but an artists’ pursuit for perfection continues.
The body can be shaped and molded. Everyone has glanced upon the scandalous air-brushing and the click-bait headlines that follow after it. Adapting the body is nothing new. Returning to the Greeks and their love of proportion, many male nudes are depicted with, err, modest if not ‘small’ man vegetables. It was just thought to look ‘right’. Michelangelo’s David follows this Greek tradition. Ingres’s Le Grande Odalisque, an image that has garnered a lot of criticism, just isn’t anatomically correct. Elongated in the name of beauty and elegance, this reclining figure would loom over you in reality, 8-foot tall, and chase after you in a ridiculous way, penguin stepping up the rear with one stumpy leg while searching around for the mystical kingdom where her leg actually joins her hip.
These things don’t happen in your run of the mill life drawing session.
John Berger said, in his famed 1977 essay Why Look at Animals?, that animals were the first metaphor. The lion is courage, for example. This assertion can’t be proved but that isn’t to say that the human doesn’t occupy just a great position in the world of allegory. Justice, Liberty and Divinity are not just cruel names for the Jeremy Kyle generation, they are social and cultural figures, incorruptible and unwavering concepts, embodied. And they are embodied in the human. Blind-folded and fair, we see a bronzed Justice atop a court house and feel judged; Marianne, the central figure in Delacroix’s famed Liberty Leading the People was, on that canvas wholly liberty. And she continues to be liberating, staring down from the walls of Paris’ Louvre. The human shape can be a very powerful one.
The reason behind this is simple: we are human. We can only fully relate to something that we recognize within ourselves. The moment we are made aware of a rustle in the bushes, of a whisper, of the possibility of another human, we freeze. Human interaction is the basis of everything we do and it rattles us down to our very being and self-understanding. Humans in art have the same effect, whether we like it or not, they are understandable only because of and up to the point that we understand ourselves.