The Plasticity of Beauty
The body is the universal symbol of humanity, transgressing historical, temporal and geographical boundaries. Since the Ancient Greeks’ establishment of the criteria for ‘beauty’, the West has witnessed a ceaseless pursuit of bodily perfection. Contemporary society’s obsessive gym culture testifies to the endurance of this all-consuming striving for the ideal body. The ideal has certainly changed over time and this diversity of interpretations is greatly attributable to cultural nuances; today’s models would no doubt brand Rubens’ fleshy nudes as ‘fat’, just as the strong physicality of Socialist Realism’s working women are in antithesis to the sinuous representations of the goddess Venus in Antiquity. Yet an understanding that the body is man’s most powerful asset, a persisting weapon which unites all members of society, has never been called into question.
Matisse’s Nue Allongée (Lot 22) locates itself in the traditional Western canon of female nudes. The figure accepts her role as the object of our vision, laying herself bare, quite literally, to the presupposed male gaze. Her body unfurls to reveal itself to the viewer, making no attempt to protect her modesty. This confident projection of her sexuality is somewhat undermined by her closed eyes; her unawareness of our presence imposes upon us the role of stealthy voyeur. This sharply contrasts with Botero’s Reclining Nude with Book (Lot 21), in which the protagonist establishes a dialogue with us on two levels; primarily she entices us in with the turning of her body, voluntarily opening herself up to our scrutiny. Yet, where she distinguishes herself from Matisse’s subject is her unwavering eye contact. Unlike in Matisse’s work, in Botero’s we ourselves become the object of the subject’s vision, just as much as she is of ours. Therefore the traditional viewing practices of man lusting over the female nude is overturned here in the simple act of looking out to us, defiantly returning our gaze. However, what is most noticeable throughout Botero’s creations is the celebration of the female form in its most organic state. Botero’s works are not merely a visual experience; evoking the sumptuous fleshiness of fertility goddess sculptures, Botero heightens our sensual exploration of the bodies by exaggerating the hips in Reclining Nude with Book (Lot 21), the undulating back and bottom of Femme Nue Allongée (Lot 20) and the soft dimpled thighs in Ballerina (Lot 15). Whilst Matisse’s woman might bear a closer resemblance to what we today might perceive as a ‘good body’, Botero’s women appeal to man’s atavistic, carnal desires -the driving force behind humanity.
These works are confined to the 20th century and male objectification of the female body. Cast our eye towards Asian art of the same century and an entirely novel discourse ensues, demoting the predominance of the body and instead elevating external ideas provoked by it. Whilst the Lots by Botero and Matisse are consumed by their focus on the female nude, works by Yin Kun and Yin Jun refer to ideas beyond the form; they are not self-contained. In Yin Jun’s Crying (Lot 17) the face hierarchically overwhelms the slender frame of the girl. We are inspired to grapple with the image on an emotional rather than a physical level. We have caught the girl in a moment of turmoil, her face turned upwards towards the heavens, her mouth soundlessly emitting a wail. Her tears, with a thickness implying greater solidity than liquid, appear almost in relief on her face, adding a sculptural dimension to the canvas. This is not a mere study of the human form, this is about human pain and raw emotion. Likewise, Yin Kun’s Chinese Hero 07-06-6 (Lot 16) does not prioritise the body; it rather serves as a support for the soldier’s faces. The faces are uniform, lacking individual characteristics. Is this, in fact, a social commentary? In a nation with over 1 billion people the role of the individual in China is uncertain, each person at risk of being subsumed into a wash of faces in the wider population. Only one of the figures has his eyes open, observing those around him. He looks over the tops of their heads at a point beyond the confines of the canvas; is he looking to a place away from the featureless masses surrounding him? In Zhu Wei’s China China (Lot 18) this concept is more fully elaborated. Its mere title seems a collective cry of patriotism. With only minimal marks for their noses and ears, the two figures sway forward together; they are a united force with no signs of individuality or potential for greater movement, their arms locked firmly to their sides. What we can see here then, is the human form being put in the service of greater ideas, extending its importance beyond a formalist reading and implying a reference to wider issues.
Sometimes, as in Jun Ming’s Taichi Series (Lot 13 and 19), the human form is abstracted. Here is the human form being dissected in an attempt to visually verbalise the central concepts underlying Taichi - controlling and harnessing one’s energy to achieve mental calm and clarity. Jun Ming has stripped the figure to it’s most elemental forms. The harsh lines of the wood surface or the powerful texture of bronze run parallel with the physical control and restrained actions necessitated by Taichi. Just as the figure engaging in Taichi is concentrating solely on his movements, Jun Ming occupies himself with capturing the spirituality of the martial art through the earthyelements, untainted by paint or varnish; nature in its purest form.
Historically the human form has undergone great transformation in art. Its survival, however, lies in its potential to be assimilated for different aims yet maintain its core integrity. While the perception and reverence of the subject may vary, the recurrence of the theme throughout the generations and through different cultures, whether applied for political ends or solely for aesthetic pleasure, is testament to the undefeatable and enduring power of the human body and mankind’s fascination with its beauty.