In Ancient Roman statuary, heroic (nude or armored) sculptures of the Emperor and other public figures were only partially portraits. More specifically, the heads alone were portraits, while the bodies were serial products that represented the Classical ideal. When the two were put together, the image that emerged was one of a godlike person, an equal of Jupiter or of Mars, the god of war. The first Emperor, Augustus, is almost unanimously described by historians as a fragile-looking person of precarious health, whose strength of mind compensated for the lack in strength of body, which was as valued in that time as it is in ours.
Still, the mythical image was crucial to the way the Emperor was seen by his subjects and, as there were no iPhones, no one could go online and see “shocking” pictures of the Emperor without “make-up.” Still, one can’t help but wonder how Augustus really felt over the fact that he did not have six-pack abs and round pectoral muscles, like the statue. After all, he must have been given a hard time for his lack of physical strength (especially by Marc Anthony – that one always seemed like an asshole. Plus, it would explain a lot.)
The point of this anecdote is that figurative art (painting, sculpture or graphic arts) has, perhaps even more than photography, the potential to both empower and bring down a person. While, in photography, the objectivity of the camera cannot be helped and the things shown are true because they are there, figurative art tells a crueler sort of truth – a subjective one. Art can be rejected by the viewer as untrue, but it is always true to its author. An artist’s model will not be painted for what they are, but for what they are to the artist, and, through the completed artwork, this is how they will be perceived by others as well. They will become what the artist thinks they are.
Much has been said about the concept of the male gaze in Western Art and the significance of the fact that the female bodies represented were often hairless, despite waxing not being a popular practice a few hundred years ago. While being aware of these implications, I have always found Renaissance and classical-style feminine nudes, up until the late 19th century, to be quite empowering.
For instance, Botticelli’s Venus is nothing less than a goddess, but still somewhat relatable through her composed fragility. Even today, she remains very alluring – yes, even with those folds on her stomach that aren’t fashionable right now – because originally she was an idealized representation of Simonetta Vespucci, one of the best known “socialites” of the Renaissance and Botticelli’s “celebrity crush.” One may say that this is one celebrity crush that transcended history. Another famous Renaissance nude, Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” still charms through the tenderness with which her flesh was painted. Michelangelo’s allegory of Night, part of the Medici tomb ensemble in Florence, is a female nude that shows signs of motherhood. A non-Renaissance example, the “Grande Odalisque” of Ingres may be anatomically impossible (the twist in her neck implies extra vertebrae) but it is so in a strange, intriguing way, rather than an intimidating one, and her expressive gaze is at the same time languid and alert.
I can’t speak for others, but I am more inclined to view my own body in a more positive light after looking at these artworks, or similar ones. The women are often relaxed, in a way that I would not call passive, and, while not entirely realistic, their bodies have discernible flaws and they are depicted in a loving way, one that suggests respect for the female form.
Other types of art make me uncomfortable about my body, and here I would like to name one artist in particular – Picasso. Now, before you scream, I am in no way contesting Picasso’s considerable role in the history of art. On the contrary, I feel that he is an artist whose genius and contribution are obvious even to those who might not enjoy his art. In fact, “enjoy” is the wrong word here, because Picasso is not an artist one enjoys. His art provokes strong reactions, it is impressive, outrageous and violent – but it was never meant to be enjoyable. The bodies in Picasso’s paintings are broken. You may argue that this is what cubism is about, but I feel it goes beyond an aesthetic creed. In Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon,” women’s bodies are strange, almost mechanical looking objects whose parts are discernible. Their faces, painted in a manner inspired by African masks, become symbols of faces. They have no identity. In this picture, Picasso is the only one who retains identity. This deconstruction, to me, at least, comes across as an act of violence and control. A popular anecdote about Picasso says that he painted one of his lovers, Dora Maar, a fellow artist, in a cage, begging to be fed, after he had turned her, from a brave, gutsy woman, to an emotional mess. He then painted something else over the scene. Dora Maar became a social recluse.
These are just a few examples, and only from Western art. There are many ways to represent a body, so many that no history of art ever written could be exhaustive. From idealization to deconstruction and everything in between, art can reveal things about our bodies and the way we relate to them that we weren’t even aware of, whether it makes us uncomfortable, or urges us to celebrate ourselves. Thus, the subjectivity of the artist often provides the viewer with a key to re-examine their own subjectivity.
Anca Rotar is a Romanian-born writer, over-thinker and caffeine addict. She is the author of two books, Hidden Animals and Before It Sets You Free, both available from Amazon.com. Among her interests, which she finds it hard to shut up about, she counts fashion, yoga, city breaks and deadpan sarcasm. She is also currently studying Japanese, so wish her luck. You can sample bits of Anca’s creative writing here.