As Many Bodies as Possible – Radical fragmentations of the human figure throughout Art History

Photo courtesy of Efrat El-Hanany

Body realities that may at first appear imperfect, vulnerable and even pathetic, actually celebrate diversity and freedom of expression says Efrat El-Hanany, PhD, a faculty member in the Art History and Women and Gender Studies departments at Capilano University. El-Hanany presents The Body in Art, a free online lecture (Oct. 29) addressing body portrayals mediated through artistic processes – and the political/poetical aspect of representation.

“It is interesting that in the 21st century artists often choose to represent aspects of bodily realities that have traditionally been considered inappropriate for public display or even polite discussion,” says El-Hanany.

The Body in Art, she says, refers to visual representations of the human form from prehistoric times to the present day – a study throughout various media, including sculpture, painting, photography and performance art.

As an art historian, El-Hanany specializes in the visual culture of the Italian Renaissance with additional interests in traditions of Jewish art, contemporary art, and, as well, Chinese art forms.

“I have been teaching and investigating the theme of the human body for many years. It’s remarkable how it continues to be such a central subject in Western art,” she points out. “Stemming from the Western Classical tradition, idealized male and female nudes have shaped the aesthetics of artistic form right up to the present day.”

Multiple Bodies: Defragmentations of the human figure

Robert Gober, Leg, 1990. | Photo courtesy of Robert Gober

It is possible to look back to early modern art movements – like Expressionism and Cubism – and notice the beginning of a radical fragmentation of the Classical ideal of the human figure, says El-Hanany.

The Body in Art addresses artists like Duane Hanson, Ana Mendieta, Cindy Sherman, Jenny Saville, Mark Quinn, Lucian Freud, Ron Mueck, Antony Gormley, Zhang Huan, Janine Antoni, Spencer Tunick, and others who challenged and transformed older norms of representing the body.

El-Hanany also emphasizes the sculptures of Robert Gober and Kiki Smith, for example, as pathetic, flawed subjects that negate Classical idealization, sometimes through the presentation of dismembered body parts (Gober’s Leg, 1990) or leaking bodily fluids (Smith’s Pee Body, 1992).

The historian points out that while many viewers might find the display of such bodies disturbing and provocative, this may not be the view of contemporary artists, who in fact validate the integrity and beauty of their subjects.

“One of my favourite works – that I will introduce in this presentation – is by the famous French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002). A large public work, it’s entitled Nana Danseuse (Rouge d’Orient – Bloum), from 1995. There is a real sense of celebration in this voluptuous female body,” says El-Hanany. “Here the artist has transformed the sedate classical proportions of the female nude into a larger-than-life image charged with colour and energy.

Based on the artist’s firm belief that all women are goddesses, this provocative body on public display is a playful and sensuous statement about the diversity of female bodies.

At the event, those radical fragmentations of the human figure throughout art history will put the viewer’s perceptions at test – supporting El-Hanany’s point of view: working both as curating theme and platform for expression, the body and its multiple discourses represent pressing social concerns that are urgent to be debated at the borders of the poetical, and the political.

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