The other day, I decided to make good use of the Museum of Fine Arts membership card I borrowed from my mother, spending most of the morning ambling through the high ceilinged, echoing marble corridors of various exhibition halls and ancient art wings. A friend of mine told me that there was a small exhibit about the body represented in sculpture going up in the Modern Art gallery, and that I should evaluate it from a model’s perspective. There was also a fashion exhibit that looked intriguing, and a collection of Picassos that was only in town for a limited time. Upon arriving at the museum, I discovered that all three of these exhibits were set up not only on the same floor, but also in neighboring galleries.
I attended to the sculptural bodies first (despite the fact that this exhibit was stuck in between the other two on my list) with a somewhat businesslike attitude, approaching them as I would a gathering of colleagues. I could tell right away why there had been no mention of the exhibit on the MFA website: It consisted of only four pieces, arranged in a staggered line in the center of the room almost like an afterthought. Nevertheless, it was awesome in its simplicity, its sparseness. The sculptures were each from a different era and civilization; one of them (the most modern) was abstract in its sex, while the other three were clearly meant to be female. A wooden miniature statue from the Ivory Coast supported her fool’s cap breasts with long, looping arms; a blue-green, cubist humanoid column made by Bourgeois gazed out at its surroundings through a long slit in its otherwise characterless face; Two of the sculptures, a Hellenistic woman from Egypt and a modern bronze torso and legs, were both headless and armless, one intentionally, the other due to decay and destruction.
The blurb on the wall basically reiterated one of the things I have always found interesting about the body’s representation in art: Mainly, what it says about the society that produced it. The purpose of the more modern, abstract or whimsical statues was plainly different from that of the ancient ones. It has often appeared to me that at some point in our history, we started making art out of the body not for the purpose of representing values or the ideal but for its possible oddness, and for the myriad ways in which it can be interpreted. This may well have been motivated by the shift of the purpose of art from commodity to self-expression on the part of the artist. At some point, possibly around the time the photograph was popularized, patrons stopped commissioning hand-made works as realistic representations of their possessions, their families, or whatever else they held dear. Thus, the reason for the artist representing the body went from an attempt at true realism to one not bound by any resemblance to what can be seen. The body was no longer the domain of a temple or wealthy nobleman when carved out of marble or laid out in pigments. It was entirely at the mercy of the artist’s vision, and as a result certain elements were often disposed of, just as others were glorified.
Walking the few feet from the sculpted bodies that drew me to this conclusion to a cluster of Picasso’s paintings seemed a quite intuitive transition. While masterfully skilled at depicting the body in a purely Classical, anatomical fashion, Picasso is known best today for his disjointed, interpretive, gestural style. His faces and bodies refuse to adhere to anatomical guidelines, their lines contributing contrariwise to a sense of boundaries lost. In this particular small exhibit featured in the MFA, among colorful and somewhat disturbing representations to humans and animals carved out of dense oils, one rather unfinished-looking canvas featuring a sleeping woman in graphite stands out in its blankness and simplicity. She is curled on her stomach, her limbs folded so that her hands are invisible beneath her pillow. She looks as though she has been drawn using a compass; her body parts a series of circles crisscrossing over one another. Her figure is boundless, cast wide like a net, as though her dreams are actually what the painter wanted to capture as they winged their way around the room. The way this body is fragmented falls short of the way we tend to think of the ideal human body, but the far-reaching quality of its outline also expands past our definitive perception of our own flesh.
On the far end of the figurative sculptures, there was a door to a darkened space that seemed to attract the attention of everyone who passed it: A black hole, a portal to some other time, to some futuristic landscape that so emphatically clashed with the sculpture gallery that preceded it. The door opened to an exhibit entitled #techstyle, a series of rooms painted black, sparsely illuminated by LED lamps and the occasional neon text, and full of wearable art designed to highlight technology’s influence on couture. For a dress fetishist such as myself, this was a most indulgent array of eye candy. However, there was one element of the exhibit that truly stayed with me through the rest of the day, and it happened to be the introductory image to the whole series. In the little vestibule that leads to the wider exhibit, sits a solitary screen, upon which a relayed portion of film plays over and over again. Its colors are harsh, consisting of whites, blacks and reds. The only sound coming from the hidden speakers is that of a nail on a pane of glass, sporadic and oddly melodic. On the screen, at first glance, we see a pair of legs walk past. Then, pausing taking a second look, we see one leg, bare up to its high heel, accompanied by a shard of metal, a cone sharpened into one pen nib of a toe: A prosthetic. The woman wearing this specially designed limb drags its tip on the glass floor beneath her, occasionally striking it so that it cracks and splinters. The screen goes red then, and the woman is suspended from the ceiling on ropes like a marionette in a tutu and a mask, the metallic limb dragged along with increased vigor as she leans most of her weight on the object. She seems to possess immense power; she is perhaps more confident in her suspension than anyone with two legs has ever been. Her name is Viktoria Modesta, and she is a Latvian-British pop star and model, who has been experimenting with the visual representation of limblessness in her work using custom-made statement prosthetics. The cast iron limb she wears in this selection from one of her music videos was made by Sophie de Oliveira Barata, and sits in the museum in a glass case next to the monitor that shows it in action. This modern artistic representation of the fragmented body is aptly placed alongside her predecessors, confronting what we might assume about an “incomplete” human figure with movement as well as image.
When first learning to paint or draw, art students are (quite rightly) often made to divorce art from concept, relying only on what can be seen. Like Picasso, they have to learn the rules before they can break them. Usually, in the case of figure drawing, this process is one that focuses on the whole body, which is represented with two arms and two legs, and a head with features in all the right places. Those of us who aren’t artists are taught this way as well: That there is an ideal human form and anything that deviates from it is somehow deformed, abnormal or lacking. However, once an artist graduates from the process of instruction, other avenues of interpretation can be explored. We now live in an age of art in which bodies can be more than the ideal. The supposed boundaries of what makes a figure worth representing and how that representation might be approached are constantly being questioned. If you are an artist, or simply an amateur observer of societal norms, you should take a look at some of the wholly inconsistent manifestations of the human body that are currently residing at the MFA. Upon exiting the museum, I would suggest that you then apply some of what you have observed to the world around you, and look for what potential beauty can be gleaned from the seemingly incomplete.