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the body as spectacle

There is an element in art that resists politicization. This is true, I think, even if we accept the notion that there can be no act or gesture that is not, in some way, political. Look at the two paintings below.

"Pregnant Woman" by Otto Dix (1919)
"Naked Man, Back View" by Lucian Freud (1991-92)

The female and male that comprise the subjects of these paintings are not anonymous or theoretical; that is, the models on whom the paintings are based seem real – it’s difficult to look at them and not want to imagine something about their lives. But to the degree that the paintings are meditations on the body as a form (as opposed to moments in an ongoing narrative), the tendency to ask what the paintings might ‘mean’ (if we have that tendency) is more reflective of our own preoccupations than those of the painters. I say this even as my mind attempts to create a narrative for both subjects, especially for the pregnant woman.

Edward Mullany is the author of If I Falter at the Gallows, Figures for an Apocalypse and The Three Sunrises. He is the recipient of a Barthelme Fellowship from the Inprint Foundation. He is also the creator of the comic strips Rachel and Ben and Excerpts From a Boring Man's Diary. He has a twitter and tumblr.

25 thoughts on “the body as spectacle

  1. I find myself more curious about the artists behind these paintings versus the subjects themselves. What drew the artists to capture these very real and raw bodies, glorious really in their starkness. The body as spectacle indeed.

    The personal is political.

  2. Think how much less skewed our society would be if we were surrounded by more realist images of the body such as these that redefine what it is to be (not so much beautiful as) human.

  3. Great post Edward. Do you like John Berger? When you said look at these two paintings I thought of him and his books.

  4. I don’t know if I agree with this — the question of who to represent as a subject is inherently political, and thus any representation will be. Ethel Rohan writes on this thread – “Think how much less skewed our society would be if we were surrounded by more realist images of the body such as these that redefine what it is to be (not so much beautiful as) human.” — which is a political response to this kind of representation. If we look at these, and our cultural vocabulary responds with ‘ordinariness” then that is political — because to represent the ordinary is political; it is to argue that the ordinary deserves representation.

      1. yes…but i believe you could also say these paintings are intended primarily as mediations on the human form, and that is why i think they resist politicization. the word “resist” is important. i’m not saying they are entirely free from politicization – they can’t be, as Rachel rightly points out – but they try to escape it.

        1. I think it’s important to ask, when categorizing, what benefit we’re deriving from the categorization. If we say, “everything is political,” are we able to then infer a set of actionable or otherwise useful information or instruction?

          It may be useful to look at politics as a dimension that exists contemporary to, but not exclusive of, any other (biological, physical, etc.) In this way, all objects have a political dimension, just as all objects refract light.

          I’m not sure a thing can “resist” it’s own political dimension. That’s like saying the painting “resists” being physical. The viewer, however, can certainly be unconcerned with the political dimension of a painting–whether that means he’s unwilling or unable to consider this dimension, or simply that he’s more interested, temporarily, in giving more weight or attention to other aspects of the work.

      2. I think I was saying that, actually. I’m not sure it’s a sustainable argument, but let me pretend it is for a minute.

        Edward writes that the paintings are non-political “to the degree that the paintings are meditations on the body as a form,” but I’m not clear on why that would be non-political. he contrasts this to narrative, which suggests to me that things-which-aren’t-narratives are being postulated as non-political, which again, is not an argument that I understand the support for — as stated.

        I’m probably taking too extreme a position here, though.

    1. Rachel: I agree.  But an artist’s intentions can run counter to the limitations associated with representation.  Here, despite the politics inherent to the selection of a subject, the artists de-politicize their works by removing narrative from them.  Politics belong to the sphere of human society.  The artist’s eye, in some cases, has nothing to do with human society.

  5. I don’t know that I would call these paintings explicitly political, but I don’t think I would call them realist either. Both have elements of expressionism and the grotesque. With the context in which Dix painted (post-WWI on the losing side, Weimar, and Nazism) and his overall oeuvre, it’s wouldn’t be hard to suggest that there’s an implicit ideology there. I mean, he’d just witnessed the most concentrated period of mass killings in history (to that point) and then painted a lot of pregnant women without classical idealizing of form and with distortions or exaggerations. And why is the woman looking away?

    1. good point — i took these paintings out of their larger contexts, which isn’t something one should lightly do.

      the fact that the woman is looking away is important. to me, it suggests loneliness or shame, or something like it, but only, i think, if i impart some kind of narrative to the painting. if we understand the intention behind the painting as one that prioritizes the human form, then the hiding of the woman’s face can be explained in a different way.

  6. Yes, Christian, distortion and the grotesque, these were the words and ideas my mind was circling as I looked at the images, thank you for calling that out.

    How much of that perception, though, is due to our conditioning re art and beauty and re idealization of the body. I truly can see something glorious here too?

    I mean to say how grotesque, really, are these bodies? All in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. Perhaps she is looking away so that we focus solely on the body, on the life within? Interestingly, the male’s face is also hidden.

    1. Absolutely, Ethel. I wasn’t disagreeing with any responses, just pointing out how I see it. I do think that there are elements to the Dix that are physically improbable. The breasts seem to accentuate a really corny masculine ideal (huge, with some aspects that don’t seem to be in keeping with gravity) while at the same time probably refuting it (resting atop the belly, almost melting at the point of contact). I mention them first because the shoulder and arm have a mannerist grace to them that seem somewhat incongruous, particularly as they lead into the thick, yet muscular neck. I should clarify that I’m using grotesque in the sense a writer would use it, not as a visual artist, and certainly not as a qualitative judgment.

      The facing away is more puzzling though. I think your suggestion could be convincing, but i could make a good case that she’s meant to be expressing shame (of her body? of her nudity? at the fact that she’s bringing a child into the world two years after the decimation of her own generation?). And of course, it was probably Dix who posed her. It’s possible he’s expressing disgust with any of the shame modifiers I used above, or at least ambivalence.

      The Freud is more confusing to me. I’ve always liked his work, but when I look at it, I see German Expressionism, which is weird because, of course, he came well after that movement.

  7. Something else struck me. How did these subjects, this woman and this man, receive the artists’ rendering of themselves. Were they wounded, appalled? Or were they collaborators in this challenge to viewers/perceptions? I’d like to think the latter.

  8. as other people have said, it’s true these paintings are political, in same measure as they are also biological and mathematical. that doesn’t mean the political element isn’t important, especially if that is your realm, but i quite like what edward says about how and why we ask what the paintings ‘mean.’ i’m really interested in the idea that not asking what art means–art of any kind, painting, poetry, etc–can be a practiced, and valuable, experience, and one that may sometimes get neglected (especially, say, in education).

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