Arts and Culture 2007-2015


20th Century Masters: The Human Figure

First appeared
Thursday, 30 August 2012


Art historians are wont to match shifting representations of the human form with significant shifts in the collective self-consciousness of our species. This narrative starts with “The Mind in the Cave”, as the title of archaeologist David Lewis-Williams’ book has it: the shamanic-creative impulse behind the earliest rock paintings. Then there are the totems and fertility statuettes and ritual masks of so-called “primitive” peoples.

As in most human enterprises narrated from a Western perspective, the ancient Greeks usually get a mention at this point – the kouroi and korai (male and female) sculptures that were the precursors to more famous classical anatomical studies such as the Diskobolos and the Dying Gaul. After that, apparently, artists forgot how to portray the body naturally or realistically for more than a thousand years, until Michelangelo and his High Renaissance mates came along.

The problem with such histories – apart from the fact that they typically don’t account for artistic developments in, say, sub-Saharan Africa or East Asia – is that there are too many exceptions subverting the rules. In Christian iconography, for instance, one finds vividly realised characters populating the biblical scenes sculpted in relief on gothic cathedrals constructed centuries before the Reformation that supposedly ushered in early modern conceptions of individuality. Likewise, fifteenth-century depictions of the Christ-figure naked or carrying the signs of disease remind us that the “Enlightenment” indirectly resulted in a step backwards, towards a dualistic prudishness about the body in its visceral physicality.

Claims about developments in twentieth-century art can be equally contentious. But in “20th Century Masters: The Human Figure”, the current exhibition at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg, curator Sylvie Ramond presents a nuanced and convincing account of the changing tides in European and even world art over the last hundred years or so. Although she affirms that “each era invents its bodies, and disowns those that had previously been considered credible, attractive, sublime”, Ramond’s selection and presentation of the works in the exhibition emphasise continuity as much as change.

To understand the body-depictions of contemporary artists, Ramond suggests, one can turn to the nineteenth-century “revolution” of Impressionists such as Manet and Degas, who rejected the “academic analytical ideal” of their French compatriots and precursors by “restoring the weight and texture of the body, giving it back its erotic charge and flaunting its deformations”. A trajectory can then be discerned, through the work of Matisse and Cezanne, to Cubists such as Picasso and Braque – in their “making and unmaking” of the human form – and thence to more recent practitioners.

It is something of a coup for the Standard Bank Gallery to have these famous names appearing on its walls; no doubt many of the visitors flocking to the Gallery are motivated by a comparatively rare opportunity to see such “masters” in Johannesburg, even if they make up only a portion of the exhibition, which contains works from the four major art institutions in the Rhône-Alpes region in the south-east of France (Ramond is Director of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon). But, lest we perform a reflexive “colonial cringe” in our awe of the metropolitan centre, it’s worth questioning exactly what these twentieth-century masters are doing visiting the periphery.

“The Human Figure” exhibition is part of the “France-South Africa Seasons” running in 2012 and 2013 – an exercise in maintaining diplomatic relations as much as in cultural, economic and scientific exchange. As Standard Bank Chief Executive Jacko Maree notes, “such collaborations are not new to us” (they have previously been involved in bringing the work of Chagall, Miro and Picasso to South African shores), but it is worth observing that the 2012/2013 “seasons” are endorsed at the highest level of state in both countries.

Indeed, included in the batch of official messages filling the preliminary pages of the exhibition catalogue are letters from presidents Jacob Zuma and François Hollande. While one might draw parallels between these two, who both came to power on a populist-socialist ticket, the differences between their (or their speechwriters’) comments on the exhibition are telling. Zuma’s is a bland celebration of “public-private partnerships” and “official cultural ties” that date the connections between the two countries back only as far as 1994. Hollande, at least, demonstrates a somewhat longer view, mentioning painter and musician Gerard Sekoto’s lengthy exile in Paris from 1947.

The official banalities aside, the catalogue’s excellent content – it is a substantial book in its own right, and more extensive in its scope than the actual exhibition – begins with a brief but insightful account of the exhibition’s provenance by Ramond, followed by a typically wide-ranging and fascinating essay by Sean O’Toole about “deep encounters” between South Africans and the French. These can be fleeting (such as poet Charles Baudelaire’s stopover at the Cape in 1841) or they can be nation-shaping: consider how the arrival of a small group of French Huguenots over three hundred years ago was co-opted “into the cultural narrative of apartheid”.

“That France is other to South Africa is self-evident,” admits O’Toole; yet, invoking the careers of writers and artists from Sinclair Beiles to Ernest Mancoba and Breyten Breytenbach, he is also able to assert a long-standing reciprocity: “As much as French society and culture have endlessly fascinated South Africans, the reverse is also true.” Another author who has been well-received in France, Andre Brink, is among those who have contributed further essays to the catalogue.

So much for text. What about the other works in the exhibition? Ramond, assisted by her Swiss colleague Camille Levêque-Claudet, has grouped them into provocative categories. Paintings in “The Machine Body”, responding to both utopian and dystopian visions of the relationship between people and technology (Fernand Léger’s Les Deux Femmes au Bouquet is a usefully ambiguous example), represent the human form as an “object, automaton, mechanism”, an “engine set in motion”.

In the section titled “The Impossible Image”, we see post-World War Two disillusionment manifesting in what Ramond calls “style without tradition, without future, a tragic world without hope”. Most prominent here is Francis Bacon’s Study for a Bullfight, in which the distinction between human and animal is collapsed and the echoes of fascism are evident.

“The Body Exhibited” begins with works contemporaneous to Bacon (from the 1960s and 70s) but signals another change in method and medium: the influence of the photographic image is evident in the hyper-realism of Jacques Monory and the pop art style of Alain Jacquet, and photographs as social commentary become more prominent, as with Annette Messager’s Les Tortures Voluntaires – documenting the surgeries and procedures to which women were increasingly subjecting themselves for the sake of a “perfect” body.

The notion of the artist as performing subject is explored in Gina Payne’s record of self-harm in Action Psyché ’74 and in Orlan’s mock-anthropological self-portraits. Orlan enacts what she calls “African self-hybridisation”, presenting herself in a Nigerian headdress or Ndebele neck rings. Insofar as these photographs resonate with wider debates about French-African identity, or recall the “African aesthetic” borrowed by Picasso, they are particularly apposite to a “France-South Africa season”. Like the other works on display, however, they can also be viewed without national lenses; look, the artists demand, just look – here is the beautiful, ugly, simple, complex, strong, vulnerable human body.


* "20th Century Masters: The Human Figure" is at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg until 15 September 2012



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