Issue 79
Imagining the Body
Since the ancient times, the human body has intrigued artists,
becoming subject of countless sketches, studies and masterpieces.
Here is a look at how artists “creatively” tweak the image here and there to fit with the particular trends in art and appearance.
Walking into Galleria dell'Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence I expected the usual "Florence deal”: several Michelangelo's, and Giotto here and there, maybe a Botticelli (this was after days of being in the city and circling virtually every possible museum and piazza, so I thought I couldn't be surprised by anything). As we, a group of tired art history students, wandered into the room, we were faced with a long corridor filled with sculptures by Michelangelo. At the end of the corridor was a wide space with a large cupola over it, natural light coming in and illuminating the space where a magnificent sculpture of a male figure was majestically overlooking the entire gallery. Struck by its beauty, this was the only time I have so far experienced the Stendhal syndrome - a psychosomatic disorder that occurs when one is overwhelmed by an artwork. And looking at that sculpture - Michelangelo's David - I had all the symptoms: the dizziness, the rapid heartbeat, I almost couldn't move! The sculpture seemed perfect - such was the marble work of the great master. It stood there, majestically, looking down at all the visitors, as if realising that it radiated perfection. Michelangelo famously was in awe of Ancient Greek sculpture. And David is a prime example of this fascination, falling in line with the Ancient Greek sculptural tradition. The Ancient Greeks' cult of the Body was clearly visible in their art and a reflection of the society views on sports and body culture. The Greek (and Michelangelo) depict a body that's strong, muscular and disciplined, it is not in any way exaggerated, neither too thin nor too buffed up. It seems that it is the body most desired - fit (physically and therefore also mentally as this requires discipline and dedication), perfectly proportional and beautiful.
Since these ancient times the human body has intrigued artists. The bone and muscle structure, the different positions that a body can take as well as curiosities and anomalies were all scrutinised by artists in sketches and studies. But despite the art's curiosity towards a realistic, almost documental depiction of the body, it did, from time to time, act as a vintage version of Photoshop, “creatively” tweaking the image here and there to fit with the particular (cultural, temporal) beauty standards or painting styles. Hence the famous story of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves, his fourth wife, who, as history tells us, looked nothing like Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of her that Henry commissioned. The King, obviously, was very disappointed and the marriage annulled... Another example is a recent case of discovery of a 16th century portrait of Isabella de Cosimo I de Medici of Florence under a Victorian-era over-painting. These two works show how not only the difference in depictions, but also change in painting styles and techniques. But even cases like this seem quite innocent compared to the vast number of people affected by the idea of today's "beauty standards” and “body image". The all-pervasive internet, social media and advertising seem a perfect vehicle to distribute the idea of "beauty" among girls, boys, women and men alike. Is this a new phenomenon? Scale-wise yes, but in practice – definitely not. Trends were always around, inspiring artists and non-artists alike. What unites all these instances, though, is the idea of temporality. What we see or consider beautiful is relative: one today and different tomorrow. What artists do, though, is look at beauty, or its opposite, and eternalize it. And you know it is truly timeless when you are struck speechless by it.

Opening Image: William Blake Richmond, Venus and Anchises, 1889-1890.
Words by Sasha Gomeniuk