Roselee Goldberg: The body is the starting point for just about every kind of art form. You start with the body, you start with this physical being, what we know. It’s absolutely the beginning.
Zainab Bahrani: From the first moments in which human beings began to think about representing the world around them, the human form became something of interest.
Pepe Karmel: As some people have suggested, art may have actually started with the body, not in terms of people making pictures of bodies, but of decorating the body, and then moved outwards from there.
Andrew Bolton: The body is constantly in vogue and it’s constantly in vogue in art.
Anne D’Alleva: And that’s because in many ways art is about the human experience. And it is about the experience of being here. And what better way to express that, or to begin to express that, or to think about that, or to shape that than by representing the body.
Segment Title: Identity
Zainab Bahrani: It seems to me that people often negotiate all sorts of ideas about identity about self and other through the representation of the body.
Susan Sidlauskas : The body in art can give us a seemingly endless supply of information and can be molded to give a seemingly infinite number of messages. The body can connote class. A body can also convey age, gender and sexuality, obviously.
Rosemary Joyce: Sex, of course, we take for granted as being something natural, but when you begin to actually look at whether you’re looking at an image of a man or a woman, you’re essentially making decisions about how people represent bodies. And that means you’re making decisions about how we think of bodies as related to our social roles.
Christa Clarke: There are two Bamana twin figures that we have in the collection at the Newark Museum. One’s male and one’s female. They are very clearly differentiated as male and female, but they are also at the same time very similar in form. And so it’s a very powerful expression of male and female differences, but at the same time the ultimate need for men and women to work together to achieve ultimate harmony.
Zainab Bahrani: So I think one thing that we can say is that gender is not reflected in representation, that gender is constructed in and through representation.
Vidya Dehejia : That’s what’s so fascinating about studying the body of any particular cultural tradition. I think it reveals so much about the thinking and the thought processes of that culture itself.
Segment Title: Real vs. Ideal
Deborah Vischak: The reason that Egyptian art in many periods looks quite carefully similar to what came before or that changes tend to be rather gradual or subtle is very intentional. It’s not the result of not knowing what else to do.
They’re purposefully trying to maintain a cultural tradition that argues in the bigger picture for stability and the rightness of the world and, of course, their place in it.
So you come to ruler like Akhenaten, who is less interested in tradition and more interested in change and is quite radical. It would be quite surprising if the art did not shift.
Akhenaten was a pharaoh in the Eighteenth Dynasty in the New Kingdom in Egypt. The sort of traditional image, for example, of the king is broad-shouldered, sort of narrow waist, very muscular body, typically very strong legs and muscular arms as well. So, the image of Akhenaten is sort of drained of that musculature in many ways and is a lot softer and rounder.
The dramatic visual nature of the art from Akhenaten’s period has encouraged a number of people to consider the possibility that the transformation in the image of the body is related to or was related to the specific nature of Akhenaten’s body, meaning there was something wrong, he had some kind of disease or some sort of genetic disorder of some type that caused him to appear quite different and as a result the images were adjusted to perhaps reflect that reality or communicate that reality as acceptable.
But what’s important to remember is that Egyptian images were never created to reflect reality in this way. They’re communicating concepts. Most important about the image of the king is not to recreate what he looked like in life exactly. It’s to create an image of the ideal.
Zainab Bahrani: Of course, it’s always a difficult thing to equate works of art to real life, to say that because we have a series of works of art that they reflect the reality, the lived experience of people. Think about something really simple like the way female beauty is represented in magazine advertisements—you might get an impression that all women on the street look a particular way. But clearly they don’t.
Rosemary Joyce: Advertising gives you these images of people who, to a certain extent, you’re supposed to want to be like and at the same time, you know that you’re not really like them. So, you’re always falling short of some sort of an ideal. In the same way, looking at ancient images of embodiment, you can get a sense of what the ideal was that people might be measuring themselves by and trying to live up to.
Andrew Stewart: The Spear-Bearer, or Doryphoros, was made about 440 BC. He is intended to be the best of all best types, namely the best warrior. We know that Polykleitos aimed at the mean, the median between fat and thin, tall and short, and so forth. So, he’s making a statement here that the best-trained body is that which falls in between the extremes.
This is a work in bronze, and the tense reflectivity of burnished bronze speaks to the kind of hard-bodied, iron-clad musculature that this warrior has and that can only come through massive, intensive training.
There are statements from fourth-century authors that say nobody can make his body look like paintings or statues. So the Greeks were very well aware that their art transcended mere reality.
Greek nakedness is a very strange thing. It is unique in the ancient world. Two centuries of research have failed to find any previous ancient culture that stripped to exercise as the Greeks came to do by the fifth century BC and that privileged the male body to quite that extent and was willing to take all its clothes off both in art and in life. In fact, the opposite is true of, let us say, ancient Egypt where nakedness is reserved essentially for prisoners of war, for those undergoing punishment, or corpses, or anybody you’d want to degrade— you take their clothes off.
By the fifth and fourth centuries, at least some thinking Greeks were very aware that this differentiated them from other peoples around them. It was special and it was a marker of Greek civilization, which they then turned into a marker of advanced civilization as against the barbarian world around them.
Segment Title: Nudity
Rosemary Joyce: Nudity is one of the topics that anybody who looks at ancient bodies has to confront at some point. It’s one of the things that modern European society has given us a full understanding of and especially Judeo-Christian society.
So when we do actually find that a large part of the visual representation that we’re looking at shows completely unclothed or partially unclothed bodies, we’re already approaching this thinking we know what nudity means. And that’s a huge problem.
Zainab Bahrani: When representations of nude females first began to emerge in places like Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, the ancient Near East, the earliest archaeologists who found these figurines, began to describe them as mother goddesses. But, in fact, it’s actually much more complicated than that. They’re clearly not all goddesses. They’re not even all images that represent fertility or motherhood. We have a large number of images in which what we seem to have represented is of the erotic aspects of the female form.
What we have in Mesopotamian art is the representation of the nude in all its complete details—for example, the emphasis on the breasts or the emphasis on the pubic triangle. We have these images where the female nude actually lifts her breasts with her hands and seems to offer them to the viewer.
The later Western tradition, in my opinion, has many more taboos on the representation of the nude or the naked body, whether male or female, than anything we can see in antiquity, whether it’s ancient Near Eastern, Greek or Roman, or Egyptian. Clearly many, many more taboos emerged in the Christian era.
Stephen Campbell: Over several centuries of Christian art there are only two subjects in which you saw nude human figures. One was the expulsion of Adam and Eve and the other was the Last Judgment. And that, basically, reflects a sort of general way of thinking about the body. The body represents the flesh and the materiality of earthly existence and its fallen nature.
With Michelangelo, there are so many other ways in which the body is allowed to move and to appear, and it seems no longer informed by that thinking. When you walk into the Sistine Chapel you look up, you look around, you see all kinds of things. You have this curious other series of youthful naked men. Who are they?
As you go up the chapel towards the altar wall towards the holier part of the chapel, you’ll find that the animation, the excitement of these figures increases. The postures become deeply impossible, acrobatic, dance-like, and they are asymmetric.
Michelangelo’s frescos are very much about the affirmation of the right of the Christian artist to represent the body and the body full on, full frontal, naked, beautiful. Because what that art is about is the dignity of the human body.
Zainab Bahrani: I think most of the time, when people speak about the body, they’re assuming nudity, they’re assuming that we’re speaking about nudity. But, of course, the body is not just about nudity.
Segment Title: Adornment
Vidya Dehejia: There is no such thing as a nude in the art of India. It is always the body adorned. Very often you look at some of the images and they seem as if they don’t have clothing, but if you look closely you will see the lines along the ankles, around the neck, around the wrists, bits of floating, translucent fabric. The artist has taken a great deal of liberty, but it is not a naked body, it is the body clothed.
Adornment is exceedingly important in the context of the culture of India. In fact, the best way I could put it is to say that the only people who are not adorned are those who are in mourning. It brings fortune. It brings wealth. It brings good living. Everything good surrounds adornment.
Andrew Bolton: I think there is just a natural impulse to ornament, to decorate one’s body, whether it’s to do with exaggerated forms of clothing like neck braces or neck collars, corsets or panniers, or bound feet in China, there is always a way of pushing your body to the extreme.
Susan Sidlauskas: This is John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, painted in 1884. Madame X, Virginie Gautreau, was an American expatriate who came to Paris, to France, with her mother, who was French, to find her fortune.
Gautreau was involved with a group of people who believed that the figure should be as decorated as its environment. And she styled herself as a kind of living art object. She presented herself as someone who had an extraordinary body, wanted it to be called attention to, and did everything she could to shape it with corsetry, with her dress, with the jewelry, very simple jewelry.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about her was that she painted her body with a pale, lavender powder, unmistakably lavender. She was known to have a kind of blue tint.
Now one of the challenges that Sargent encountered when he started to paint her is that she posed for him in the full sunlight, in the natural light of her husband’s home in northern France in Burgundy. And he realized that the blue was off. The blue was very different than the blue he had remembered in the low gas light of the lobbies, of the society rooms where she circulated.
And he was very disturbed by this. He wrote many letters to friends saying, “I can’t fix, I can’t get the color blue. It looks terrible. What am I gonna do?”
This is a painter painting a woman who has painted herself
Anne D’Alleva: In a Western context we tend not to value body art terribly highly. We think about painting and sculpture and architecture as our high art forms.
In our current American context, getting a tattoo is often an act of rebellion. So you turn eighteen and, okay, you can’t have a drink. But what you can do is go out and get a tattoo and your parents can’t stop you. And so it is, it can be an act of rebellion.
Now it is different in the Pacific, where you often find cultures where body arts are very highly valued.
One of the things I think is important to understand about tattoo in New Zealand or in Tahiti, in Polynesian cultures, is that it is considered as a sacred art form, one that is a gift from the gods, one that wraps a person in images that are full of sanctity, that are full of spiritual power.
In Tahiti, evangelical missionaries arrived in 1797, which was very early in the Pacific. These missionaries helped to draft the first written laws of Tahiti. And one of the original laws was no tattooing, outlawing tattoo. And this is because of the prohibition in Leviticus against marking the body. And this is something that they as Christians took very seriously.
So the body becomes a site, a contested site where people are trying to force a certain concept of the individual and of society literally onto local people.
Segment Title: Power
Shigeyuki Kihara: Photography arrived in Samoa together with colonial expansion throughout the South Pacific region and a lot of the photos that are taken towards the end of the nineteenth century, early twentieth century, had a strong ethnographic slant to them.
When the missionaries arrived, Samoan people were strongly encouraged to wear clothes in order to appear civilized. The interesting thing about when it came to these photographs is that while the missionaries and the colonizers were strongly encouraging us to wear cloth, to cover our bodies, as soon as Samoan people went into the photographic studio, we were asked by the photographers to take off our clothes.
Anne D’Alleva: Yuki, of course, plays with the irony in her work of the photographer saying, “Oh, but we also, by the way, want to make erotic photographs of you. So now you have to completely strip down and pretend that this is your natural state, as if you always walk around stripped down and with bare breasts.”
Shigeyuki Kihara: So here it is, my ancestors being in the photographic studio going, “What the hell is going on?”
The works in the Black Sunday series talks about this very idea of putting on clothes and taking off clothes and how these actions have been dictated by forces that are outside of Samoa. And a lot of the images that are used and referenced in my Black Sunday series are formerly half-nude images. So what I’ve done is I’ve put clothes back onto the models.
Anne D’Alleva: Yuki is a very interesting artist because she is working from the position and the experience, the identity of the fa’a fafine.
Shigeyuki Kihara: There’s a certain history that comes with the usage of the term fa’a fafine in Samoan culture, but today it’s broadly understood as people who are loosely fitting into a broad category of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, and inter-sex people. The fa’a fafine community in Samoa is generally an accepted group of people in Samoa society.
Anne D’Alleva: One of the things that I think is so interesting about fa’a fafine is that you can understand from just the word itself some of the performative dimensions and artistic dimensions of the role. Because “fa,” the first part of the word, means “to do” and “fafine” is “woman.” So “to do as a woman” is the literal translation. So it is about the performance.
Shigeyuki Kihara: The Fa’a fafine: In the Manner of a Woman series was a body of work that was made in 2005. The body of work involves myself masquerading in a variety of different gender identities in Samoa.
One of the reasons I made these works is because much of the Pacific has been personified by exotic Polynesian femininity. When you think of the South Pacific region you immediately think of a hula girl, the “Belle Sauvage,” the exotic, primitive woman.
But for me, the idea of beauty and harmony in the Pacific, and specifically to Samoa, is embedded in the combination between male and female energy. So I’m sort of turning the idea, the whole idea of romanticism on its head.
Anne D’Alleva: She is absolutely challenging the Western fantasy and saying, what do you think this is based on? In a local context fa’a fafine can be absolutely as alluring and appealing in feminine terms as any fafine.
Shigeyuki Kihara: In my research into Samoan colonial photography I was struck by a photograph of this one Samoan woman who was wearing what I would perceive as this Victorian mourning dress.
So I started to build a narrative around this photograph, which eventually became Taualuga, the Last Dance. It’s about story telling through non-verbal bodily movements. I am referencing traditional Samoan dance, but at the same time I’m trying to actually take it somewhere else. I like the whole idea of being restricted in this dress but at the same time finding fluidity through this restricted body.
For me, when I go into a photographic studio space or to the theater space, in the process, I’m reclaiming the body that was once taken away from me.
Zainab Bahrani: The body becomes the site for the assertion of power in many periods in history.
Susan Sidlauskas: Almost every generation will have at least a handful of women artists who are struggling to control their own representations.
Roselee Goldberg: In the sixties and seventies, for example, a lot of artists were working with the body. It was very helpful in terms of Feminism for women to get attention back on the body.
They were taking charge and taking back their bodies in a way and finding ways to be the ones who articulated what they wanted to say about their bodies.
Cindy Sherman really starting with the body, dressing herself up, using her own body as her material, really changed the entire late twentieth-century art, and it has nothing to do with the history of photography and everything to do with the body as this place to put all these different ideas.
Segment Title: Experimentation
Roselee Goldberg: I look at the entire history of twentieth-century art, and not just our sort of current version, as a story about where we put the body in that history. It’s been all about experimentation and philosophy and exploration.
Pepe Karmel: The body enters into Pollock’s work in a radically new way. Earlier painters essentially worked with their hands and their wrists.
Pollock did not work with little movements of the wrist, he worked with his whole body, at least when he was working on the great big pictures. You can see him in the photographs and films leaning out over them, sweeping his arm around, pulling it back, so that the body is present in the pictures. It seems pretty clear that there is a direct line from what Pollock was doing to performance art.
Roselee Goldberg: I think the live is where so many radical ideas really begin. It’s somehow the most experimental place that one can start an idea. The visual artist uses the live to explore areas that they just can’t go to using objects. The body becomes this way of representing stories.
Susan Sidlauskas: The power of the body to communicate has never ebbed. And I think that we continue to try to figure out ways to shape it so to communicate what we want.
Pepe Karmel: It’s basically impossible to know what the future of art is going to be. At the risk of reciting a cliché, the only thing we know for sure is that we don’t know what the future will hold. But it seems almost equally certain that the body will play an important role in it.
Susan Sidlauskas: The body is our form, that’s who we are. And I think that it certainly, it comes and goes in art, or it seems to come and go, but I don’t think it’s ever gone.