Part 4, project 4 – research point

Historic and contemporary artists whose work involves the underlying structure of the human body.

Two strike me immediately: Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) for his methodical and systematic observational studies of anatomy, some of which must have involved dissection; and Gunther von Hagens (1945 – ) who used the bodies themselves in his controversial art/autopsy exhibitions. This 2006 (revised 2011) review by Gareth Bate describes the beauty of the “athletically posed specimens like The Soccer Player or the piece called Elegance on Ice featuring male-female pairs ice skaters, or the stunning head composed entirely of red blood vessels which creates an exact structural likeness.” but also the unease at the identity of these people or the “horror movie aesthetic” running through some of the exhibits. I think I would feel that same unease for similar reasons – how much did the people who donated their bodies know of the way they would be used? Could they even have imagined?

Da Vinci, on the other hand, was drawing to understand not to exploit and used his detailed observational work not just as references for anatomical appreciation but also to inform his art. I find it unendingly impressive that he succeeded in making ‘academic’ drawings that also had a unique artistic aesthetic. It’s possible to admire and also to learn without realising. These, via a google image search 27/08/19, show that attention to detail and exquisitely executed marks.

da vinci

Fernando Vicente (1963 – ) is a modern exploiter of the mechanical innovations of our age, replacing internal structures with pistons and fans and other machine parts. They have a steampunk look about them and remind me at times of the automatons popular with the Victorians. How far this reflects the underlying structures of the human body or represents a subversion of them is hard to say but it seems to me he is reflecting something of the age he (we) live in where the perception that machines are ‘taking over’ occupies many people’s thoughts. He may also be observing another more political perspective – that of being nothing more than a cog in a government’s wheel of power.

Paul Rubens 1577-1640, painter of robust bodies that are well-muscled or insulated, seemed particularly to focus on musculature and the shapes folds of adipose make as human bodies adopt different postures. These drawings, the result of a google image search and accessed August 29th 2019, show his apparent fascination with the ripples, peaks, and troughs of bodies and suggest he must have observed many. Unlike da Vinci and in common with Vicente and von Hagens they seem posed for their aesthetic rather understanding of the function that underpins their form.


Jane Alexander

(1959 – ) is a South African artist whose bizarre sculptures relate to her experiences growing up with apartheid. Much about them is said to reflect the torture and brutalities of a regime that set race against race and demeaned many in the interests of the few. This quote is from the Tate’s web page accessed August 29th 2019:

My themes are drawn from the relationship of individuals to hierarchies and the presence of aggression, violence, victimisation, power and subservience, and from the paradoxical relationships of these conditions to each other.
Sourced from South African History online

The bodies here are almost symbolic in their barely human appearance and, it seems to me, play the role of metaphor with their physicality made odd or bland in colour with non-human features showing their anonymity. Here, I think, the structures are smoothed and surrealised to make these political points, and I’d argue that this requires considerable knowledge and skill with regard to what it is that’s being de-formed to make them.


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