UA1-WA:P4-p3-Research point: Representation of the human figure

The artist’s approach to the human body has changed over the years.

The Bowmore Artemis  c. 180 AD Italy, carved marble

The Bowmore Artemis
c. 180 AD
Italy, carved marble

An ideal form was pursued in classical times, very often male, but in the Art Gallery of South Australia last year I saw this beautiful Diana (see 5-May-2013). The draped fabric highlights the athletic young female body in motion, the perfect form of the goddess.

Plaque 500-550 (circa) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Plaque
500-550 (circa)
© The Trustees of the British Museum

In early Byzantine art the focus was on symbology rather than an accurate likeness or an idealized form. This ivory plaque at the British Museum shows the Adoration of the Magi above and the Nativity below. It is very formal and stylized, full of meaning for the early Christian – for example below to the right Salome whose hand was withered when she did not have faith without proof.

Matins – The Annunciation Horae B.M.V. : illuminated ms. on vellum Paris  ca.1490

Matins – The Annunciation
Horae B.M.V. : illuminated ms. on vellum
Paris ca.1490
State Library of Victoria
http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/117039

I annotated this Gothic image in my post of 22-Jun-2013 (and wrote about my emotional experience of actually seeing and handling the book 17-Jul-2013). While still quite formal and full of symbolism, the figures are more natural and there is an effort towards perspective. The bodies show a sense of movement rather than being static and posed. The angel and Mary are of similar size, communicating together in the room, rather than relative importance being indicated by size and position. There is no real sense of individuals and some of the body proportions are odd, such as the small foot of the angel.

Antonio Pollaiuolo The Battle of the Nudes © The Trustees of the British Museum

Antonio Pollaiuolo
The Battle of the Nudes
1470-1495 (circa) a copperplate engraving
© The Trustees of the British Museum
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=763560&partId=1&searchText=v,1.33

In the Renaissance many artists were interested in showing knowledge and the mechanics of actual bodies, not idealized forms. According to Vasari, Pollaiuolo was the “first master to skin many human bodies in order to investigate the muscles and understand the nude in a more modern way.” (quoted in Bambach, 2002).

In The Battle of the Nudes detailed knowledge of human anatomy is shown in a series of action poses. The front centre pair show the same pose from the front and rear – ‘pivotal presentation’. The bodies strain, the faces grimace, in the effort of the battle.

After the skillful, highly detailed, anatomical accuracy of the Renaissance, artists turned to a more “mannered”, complex, virtuoso form of representation. Parmigianino was an Italian Mannerist painter. His Madonna of the Long Neck (also called Madonna and Child with Angels) (1534-1540, oil on wood, 219×135 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, http://www.virtualuffizi.com/madonna-and-child-with-angels%2C-known-as-the-%22madonna-with-the-long-neck%22.html, http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/madonna-with-the-long-neck/gAEsEn4eJXVHyg) has been stretched to create an exaggerated elegance. The madonna’s body forms a diamond filling most of the picture, her tiny head at the apex, her broad hips extended even further by the drape of her cloak, and at the base her small feet with elongated toes. The eponymous neck forms part of sweeping lines. Her right hand is long and graceful, the curve of the fingers denying their joints and even the ears are shaped to meet the artist’s purpose. The child is also elongated and distorted, a sleep like death – the pose is similar to Michelangelo’s Pietà. The space around also seems inconsistent, crowded on the left with angels, on the right incredible depth with a tiny St Jerome and what must be a massive colonnade. Parmigianino pushed beyond “natural” beauty to create incredible elegance and grace.

Parmigianino also painted a remarkable self-portrait (held at Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna but I can’t find a stable link, so see http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/self-portrait-in-a-convex-mirror/ZQEd-Sg2nqL5mg). It is a masterpiece of distortion and illusion, showing the artist reflected in a convex mirror, his calm and self-possessed face the centre as the world curves around him.

In Neoclassical art there was a conscious return both to the idealized harmony and proportion of the body and often to themes and dress seen in classical statues. In Jacques-Louis David’s The Oath of the Horatii (1784 http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/oath-horatii) the male bodies (and their actions) are idealized – taut muscles clearly delineated, resolve expressed in their gestures and sharp geometry. It is a political as well as an artistic statement. The balancing feminine triangle of the grieving sisters on the right contrasts in the soft, pliant figures – which also show classical proportions and idealized beauty.

Jacques-Louis David The Tennis Court Oath 20th June 1789 © RMN-Grand Palais

Jacques-Louis David
The Tennis Court Oath 20th June 1789
1791
© RMN-Grand Palais
http://www.histoire-image.org/pleincadre/index.php?i=215

In The Oath of the Horatii David places the figures in a frieze-like band across a shallow space, using them to create a clear and dramatic composition. The same triangular, heroic stances can be seen massed in David’s later work The Tennis Court Oath (see my analysis 5-Oct-2013). Here they are repeated, pivoted, converging on the central figure reading the Oath. The draft of the intended painting shows the well-modeled nude figures. Most, although not all, are well-muscled, idealized forms. One of the religious figures at the front just left of centre seems less energized and has a slight paunch. This could be a statement about the vitality and importance of the church. It could also show a tension between using classical ideals and depicting real individuals with anatomical accuracy.

The course notes ask about this very question – art based on the classical ideal and art pursuing anatomical accuracy. The classical nude is a conceptually perfected figure, not any one individual and not showing the variety of humans. It doesn’t seem to be particularly anatomically incorrect – simply a very restricted selection. In all the examples I’ve mentioned in this post the accuracy or otherwise of the figure is only one part of the artist’s purpose. This may be religious, or political, or displaying technical virtuosity or scientific knowledge. The figure is also a compositional device, one part of the whole artistic effect. I haven’t ventured into the modern era in this post – there have been so many movements and so many different approaches to the human figure! However I will point to one – Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) by Marcel Duchamp (1912, oil on canvas, http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/51449.html. Duchamp is exploring the painterly concern of showing motion in a painting – the figure is simply a vehicle for his experimentation.

References

Bambach, C. (2002) “Anatomy in the Renaissance”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. [online] Available from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/anat/hd_anat.htm (Accessed 26-Apr-2014)

UA1-WA:P4-p3-Research point: Representation of the human figure
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting
Project three: The human figure
Research point: Representation of the human figure

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