Without life there is no death, I think it is important for me to look at what life and the bodies that we inhabit. Our whole lives are spent inside our bodies, we inhabit these strange machines mostly made out of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, phosphorus, nitrogen and calcium. We are really a marvel of nature, and for the able-bodied we more or less perfectly built to move and interact with the world. Something we often forget is that humans are naturally vulnerable beings, after all our ancestors were most definitely prey until we evolved and were able to use our ideas to survive and later thrive. The human body works to help us live as best as it can, but our life can be taken easy either by killing or disease. We are mortal beings after all, navigating the world that we have made our own.
LEONARDO DA VINCI
The first step to life is being birth. While there are a few way this can happen with the help of science, the natural and most common way this happens is in the woman’s womb. Below is an image from the Studies of the Fetus in the Womb by Leonardo Da Vinci.
The diagrams by Da Vinci are very accurate, correctly showing the well-developed fetus in the uterus. These images were made in 1511, at the same time when the Renaissance period was starting to take shape in Florence, Italy. Da Vinci’s inventions were ground-breaking and his studies and artworks were ahead of their time. He was the model ‘Renaissance man’, rethinking century-old ideas and pushing art and science to exciting new levels. He is probably most famous for the Mona Lisa, but my favourite work by him are his studies of the human body. His most renowned anatomical piece of work is without a doubt the Vitruvian Man.
The Vitruvian Man shows the perfect human dimensions, drawn with ink on paper. The image is of a man, showing two different positionings of his limbs in one drawing. The idea behind this piece is to show the relative proportions of the human body, for example the outstretched arms are as long as the body is tall, shown clearly by the square where his hands, head, and feet are all touching the edge.
Like many of Da Vinci’s studies this drawing is anatomically correct. However the ink drawing is far different than the diagrams we see today in textbooks and at the doctors. The key difference of Da Vinci’s drawings is that they have a real heart and soul about them, they look like real people who have lived, often aged and imperfect. In comparison, modern anatomy diagrams look fake and robotic, they are a little too perfect.
The image above is a study of an man facing the viewer. As you can see the drawing is definitely drawn from a scientific angle, but there is noticeable body language and facial expression. I get a sense of embarrassment and vulnerability expressed by the man, mainly seen in his face. He looks as if he is worried or concerned, and Da Vinci chose to add wrinkles and bags under the eyes. Now, compare this to a modern diagram of the human body below.
The difference is immediately noticeable, obviously the modern diagram is highly accurate and labelled with great detail, but it is also rather robotic and boring. Da Vinci’s piece was probably done by observation, whereas I don’t think the same thing can be said about the latter. While the modern version is what the human body is, it is not what people actually LOOK like, and it is painfully soulless. Da Vinci’s drawing is far more realistic as a human being, while being imperfect and seemingly alive and animated. The time when Da Vinci was alive was shrouded in unawareness and ignorance, so he would have been making constant discoveries about the body while making these diagrams. I think that this is noticeable in the passion of the enquiry into the insides of our body and how we work. It is this difference that makes Da Vinci’s studies beautiful works of art in mine and many other’s eyes.
I think my approach to looking at human life would be by looking at how humans are naturally. The society in which we live in, the jobs we work, and even the activities we indulge in can be weirdly unnatural and seem to me as a waste of time. The truth is we are works of nature, we may have brilliant brains but ultimately we are evolved animals that have primal tendencies that lead how we live our lives in more ways than we can ever know. This is the reason I love Da Vinci’s studies of humans because he draws humans like they are in real life, fleshy meaty beasts. With that being said, I want to look at some works by others artists that fit somewhere in the natural, primal bodies that I am interested in.
Zhang is a chinese artist who works with people set in natural environments and unsettling situations. He is the man behind Lady Gaga’s dress made of meat, but this is just one of the fascinating works of art he has done in his career. In an interview he said ‘I prefer natural objects. Rather, primitive extreme and destructive tendencies.’
I started by looking at birth with Da Vinci, so here is another take on birth by someone from China, who has seen the ‘one child policy’ take effect in his country.
In 1993, Zhang Huan took part in a group show outside the National Art Gallery in Beijing for his first piece of performance art. He placed white canvas on the floor, then smashed a jar filled with food colouring and parts of a baby doll. He then covered himself in the contents, and reassembled the doll while stood on the canvas. This powerful performance piece brought a strong reaction to the chinese crowd who bad seen the effect of the one child policy and the abortion and neglect of female babies. The performance must have really hit home for the crowd, but what hit home most for me was that after he had finished he strung the baby up form the ceiling which reminded me of suicide by hanging.
I think there are several reasons why this piece is so strong and uncomfortable, even if it didn’t relate to the one child policy. Firstly, there is a lot of red. Red signifies danger and blood. When blood is inside us, we get complimented for looking ‘healthy’ or having ‘good colour in your face’ but when blood is outside of the body, it tells a different tail of violence and massacre. The red in this piece is meant to resemble blood, and when this is combined with parts of a baby doll, I think the message is fairly clear. The baby has been killed, and by the looks of things in a brutal way involving dismemberment and beheading. Then after all of this, the body is stuffed into a jar with the blood it has lost, only to be smashed open and put back together like some sort of Frankenstein experiment. Finally, the doll is hung from the ceiling, as a grand finale to a gruesome metaphorical story which to me involves killing, reconstruction and then suicide. There are a wide array of messages to be read into with this piece, but none of which are positive. Maybe if Huan put the doll back together and that was the end then it would’ve been a story of undoing past mistakes maybe, but then he hangs the baby doll in an unapologetic statement of what the government has done and how it is irreversible. The overriding statement to me on a personal level is the fragility of human life, how we are so breakable and how easily a life can be taken. But at its core is is a cold reminder of the one child policy, and how so many people killed or abandoned their child often solely based on wanting a boy instead.
When Zhang Huan started to pick up a lot of momentum in the art world, he moved to New York in Hope’s of making it big. ‘My New York’ was another ambitious and visually powerful performance piece. For the work, he made a suit out of beef steaks, giving him the appearance of a muscular body builder. At one point in the peformance he walked through a crowd and released white doves. Doves are symbols of liberation and peace, and I’m sure this has a hidden meaning to the artist about how he feels about being in New York. The meat suit would also be relevant to this, possibly pointing out the plentiful american diet of eating lots of meat along with the self-obsession and egotistical lives that we live in the west.
Like many of Zhang Huan’s performance pieces there will be a personal meaning behind the work, but he leaves it ambiguous enough for open interpretation. To me this serves as a reminder of human greed and power, playing with the idea of an ‘alpha male’ and how no matter how big or intimidating someone might be, they are just living organisms like the rest of us. The raw beef shows our animalistic side, with connotations of primal instincts and the overriding red colour serves as an instant reminder to our mortality. Using pieces of animal meat to look like a humans body is a direct comparison to our natural state of being a mammal. I think it is too often forgotten that we are just animals with advanced brains.
In this photograph, we can see Zhang Huan staring straight at the camera, with part of a rib cage around his neck covering his torso. To me, this serves as a reminder of our fleshy inners that are covered by our skin. Our skin acts as a shell that covers our complicated insides that are works of nature. Weirdly, I think the artist looks more alive here in a way, despite holding part of a carcass around this neck. I think the white and the red bring out some subconscious primitive response and that is what makes this image so interesting.
I have used Francis Bacon’s work throughout a couple of projects. I think this is because his work covers such a wide variety of different subjects, particularly that involving people. He has a long phase of painting just portraits of people’s faces, distorting each one to exaggerate certain features and shapes.
In the photograph of Henrietta Moraes, she looks like a healthy, ordinary person and is actually quite a beautiful lady. In Bacon’s study of her laughing, it is clear that there are several added elements. In many of Bacon’s paintings there is a sense of movement, achieved with cubist idea of painting several angles together and also also by using a dry brush to create kinetic lines. As suggested by the title, Bacon wants to create a sense of laughter in the painting and laughter means quite a lot of movement. There are teeth showing with white and brownish lines over them, as if she had whipped her head back with laughter.
Something that really excited me about this painting is the bone structure that Bacon creates either with white marks or with the use of heavy line with like in the top right of the face. It is almost like he is considering the layers below the skin when painting this portrait. For example, the eyes appear to have dark lines around them where the eye sockets of the skull are. The jaw is painted with heavy white brush stroke, and the top left of the face as we look at it is painted in colours that suggest bone. There appears to be gums showing in the mouth along with the teeth, while th left side of the jaw has tendon-like marks that connect the two part of the jaw. It is almost as though the face has been ripped up to unveil what underneath, but not in a gruesome way. It is a portrait that tells us more than just what a person looks like, it shows the facial structure as naturaly imperfect, and it is as though he paints a bit of the persons soul in every painting.
This painting was made straight after WW2 in 1946. With the war fresh in everyone’s minds, it’s no wonder that this piece show gore in a metaphorical and surreal way ignited a powerful reaction. The figure is the centre point of this level painting, and is most likely the prime minister at the time Neville Chamberlain who often carried a black umbrella. He seems to have been a victim of a poorly executed beheading, while we can still see his bottom row of teeth. The large carcass in the background adds to the feeling of death, while the overriding pink and red colours reinforce this. Of course WW2 has just been, a war where millions were slaughtered on the battlefield, so it is unsurprising that such a terrible series of events would be recreated in challenging pieces of artworks. I just say, Bacon had really created a sense of loss, death and the evil politics of war.
Bacon often used carcasses of other animals in his paintings, sometimes combining parts of other animals and mixed them with human forms. I have included two examples below, one with
In one piece Francis Bacon combines an animal head with a human head, while in the latter piece there is the carcass of a cow split in two hanging behind Pope. Bacon is known to include horror-like elements in his work and I think that the way he includes it is highly effective in projecting a certain post-war feeling.
This painting stands out as an incredibly seductive impression of Henrietta Moraes because of the body language, the warm and soft appearance of her nude skin, and the colours that the artist chose to use. The pink walls behind the bed are a pink/purple colour, a shade that has meaning of femininity and sex, and of course there is plenty of red which can mean passion and blood. Moraes is in a relaxed reclined position, and Bacon has exaggerated certain shapes and forms to distort her body in a way that reiterates the sense of sex and power in the painting. The body doesn’t look ‘real’ but what Bacon captures is a fleshy natural organism that resembles a human, yet it is something that tells us more than that
‘Two Studies from the Human Body’ – 1974-5
This piece features two studies of the human body that look like mutated monkey-men. The face of the figure closest to the front has a face like a baboon, and a body that looks muscular yet deformed and squished. The body in the back has been more mutilated by Bacon’s brush than the figure in the foreground. The body is almost unrecognizable as that of a human, with barely distinguishable limbs, one muscular arms folded into the torso and a leg that is represented by a thin white line and an enlarged foot. If it wasn’t for the title I would assume that the pieces are half human half animal hybrids, one of the figures is ape-like while the other reminds me of a bird perching. As I have mentioned, animals have been something that have been included and combined with Bacon’s portraits before, so perhaps this is an extension of that idea. Either way, I love the figures in this painting. The forms feel organic yet strangely disfigured, like some sort of victim to an experiment. The human form is too often portrayed as something that is sleek and beautiful, the truth is our body’s are breathing and bleeding meat-sacks that carry us around in the time we inhabit this world. I can see this in Bacon’s work, where he paints beyond the skin and includes the whole structure of the body in a deformed yet soothingly human way.
Rebecca Warren is a British artist who works primarily with sculpture and visual art. Her sculpture work is made using clay, bronze, and steel, and is mainly based on the human figure, although a lot of her work is abstracted in a way that creates a strong visual language.
The work above is one of 6 pieces for a body of work entitled ‘SHE’. In the works, the artist is exploring her own sexuality with powerful and outstanding sculptures. The works are made with unified clay stood on top of a piece of wood with wheels on the bottom. The body is morphed in such a way that the feet, hips and breasts are enlarged and thus demand more attention from the viewer. The reason behind this decision is unclear, but if I were to guess it would be a celebration of womanhood, hence the title. On the other hand,it could be a message about objectifying women’s bodys. The sculpture is on a wooden base with wheels, with her breasts exposed while the figure covers its face. These could all be decisions made to portray a message of treating women like they’re just a body, while the figure is covering her face with embarrassment. Whatever the message, I think her use of unfired clay moulded together in an expressive and purposely unrefined manner has a certain language that is highly effective in translating her message.
While many of her works are based heavily on the human figure, other works look at the body in a more ambiguous way, using her talent of abstraction in a more dominating way. These works have an natural quality to them, looking like wild biological forms or even cave pillars. In both pictures, the works are like towers, which is something I’ve noticed with a lot of her work, she constructs human-like forms like they’re buildings. They often have thick legs as a base, and generally get narrower as she builds up. I suppose the human body is like a building- the feet are foundation, the legs hold the most weight, and we stand upright to stay stable. I really like Warren’s recreation of the human body, and I will apply this technique of sculpture in my own work.