The human body has been a very popular subject in the arts since antiquity. Nude male bodies were the symbol of efficiency and beauty, and they were depicted as sturdy, athletic and toned.
How was the human body seen in the 20th century?
The exhibition “Body & Soul” showed the subject of the human body in art from 1945 until the present day. The human body can show emotions in so many different ways and doesn’t have to be idealized, as we can see in the works of the Austrian artist Maria Lassnig. She saw the human body as a canvas for emotions. In her “Körpergefühlsbilder” (bodyfeelingpaintings) she worked with the subject of the human body and left behind all the stylistic constraints of earlier works on the same subject. The exhibition included two portraits of the collection. These had surrealistic elements and illustrations, and used colors to show feelings and the combination of body and soul.
The exhibition was also about identity and the question “What is beauty?” and “What is mortality?”
While nudity has stopped being a great taboo for us today, it was subject to widespread disapproval from the 1930s until the 1970s. The sexual revolution changed how people saw their own body and sexuality, and it became a very important subject in art, especially to the post-war generation. On one side people were too uptight to talk about the human body and sex and on the other side there was Viennese Actionism (1962-1970). Artists from this group like Günther Brus or Hermann Nitsch wanted to provoke and confront a society that was only interested in passively consuming art. Artists wanted to break taboos while visitors reacted irritated, repulsed and insecure.
“Body & Soul” was structured on several subthemes like “the pained soul”, “passion and pain”, “female identities” and “the picturesque nude.” The exhibition was on 2 floors with white walls on which the paintings had their own space to operate. The rooms had different sizes and dynamic curves that kept visitors engaged and curious to explore. They could walk around as they pleased and didn’t need to follow a specific order. The big windows made the exhibition bright and the white walls made the colors jump out from the canvas.
Herbert Böckl painted his female nude in the academic tradition, meaning standing up with her arms close to her body and a restrained posture. Valie Export shows women both in a traditional female role and as objects. Elke Krystuf creates a figure showing her body and her sexuality which crosses the border between private and public.
The post-war generation reacted to the uptight sexual morality from the 1950s and 1960s in this way as there was no desire to see only beauty in art. Marc Quimes worked with the word beauty in his sculpture “Allison Lapper” where he showed a body in white, like an antique marble sculpture, but with crooked limbs.
It was definitely worth it to visit and see the development of the subject of the human body in this exhibition. “Body & Soul” showed the development of a mature subject through the 20th century from different perspectives. This structure made it easier for visitors to see different artist viewpoints and how the subject human body changed in the 20th century.
“Body & Soul”, Essl Museum, Klosterneuburg, Austria
06.04.2016 – 30.06.2016
Curator: Andreas Hoffer