Post-War Artists Depict the Body

Posted July 2, 2009 at 6:19pm

In the wake of World War II, artists found themselves seeking a medium that would allow them to reconstruct a world shattered by violence. This search inspired a return to a universally shared piece of subject matter: the human body.

A new exhibition at the Phillips Collection, “Paint Made Flesh,— explores this movement with 43 paintings from 34 artists who take a variety of approaches to portraying the human form.

As the horrific events of World War II — including the Holocaust and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs — came to light, “the painted body became the essential vehicle to explore life after that time,— said Renée Maurer, assistant curator of the exhibit.

“Many of these artists are basically working at a time when figure painting is out of date, but they’re committed to working with the figure and its expressive potential,— Maurer said.

The exhibition proceeds chronologically, from the work of Willem de Kooning and Pablo Picasso to recent pieces by Susan Rothenberg and Wangechi Mutu. There are shifts in technique throughout, notably a later emphasis on mixed-medium pieces that draw on magazines, films and advertising for inspiration.

But running throughout is a theme of internal struggle etched on the skin. Several pieces, including Tony Bevan’s “Self Portrait— and Jenny Saville’s “Hyphen,— portray bodies that are blotchy and disfigured, breaking apart under the strain of modern existence.

“The content is the human condition and life experience and the physical impression it makes on your skin,— Maurer said.

Similarly, many of the works powerfully convey human vulnerability. Lucian Freud’s “Naked Man, Back View— depicts the transvestite artist Leigh Bowery stripped of the provocative clothing for which he was famous and reduced to a mound of flesh; Ivan Albright’s “Self-Portrait in Georgia— is an image of frail mortality, an old man’s face fissured with wrinkles and layered deeply with shadows.

Also on display is a range of techniques for reproducing the human figure on canvass. For example, Leon Kossoff’s “Cathy No. 1— employs layers of caked-on paint that resemble the wrinkles and ridges of human flesh.

Pieces run the gamut when it comes to abstraction versus realism. Michaël Borremans’ “Portrait— evokes a faded snapshot, a clearly defined face gazing out from the canvass, while de Kooning’s “Woman in Garden— dissolves into layers of flesh tones that hint at various fragments of the body.

Ultimately, the common thread is a type of fluidity, an awareness that even something so firmly anchored to the physical world as the human body is constantly in flux. There is no single schema out of which the portraits grow; each one is an act of interpretation, the body conforming to the fears and beliefs of the artist.

“We are part of the larger society, and when this changes … it’s going to directly affect how we see ourselves and how we define ourselves,— Maurer said.