Artist Luc Tuymans
Amedeo Modigliani, Nude, c.1916, oil on canvas, 92.4 x 59.8 cm (36 1/2 x 23 1/2 in), Courtauld Gallery, London. akg-images/André Held.
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‘There are several artists I admire for their depiction of the body,’ says Luc Tuymans during a break in the hanging of The Gap: Selected Abstract Art from Belgium, the show he has curated at Parasol Unit in London. ‘One artist I really love is Modigliani because I think Modigliani when it comes to depicting the body has the sexiest line and the most elegant forms — I always liked his nudes.
‘He painted them in a way so that on one hand they have this element of abstraction but on the other, they are still extremely sensual. It’s the way he puts them in the frame, the way he blocks out the eyes and the gaze but still the gaze is there. For me, it’s also about how he could nearly look behind it all but still the corporeality, the warmth of the colour, the element of skin is clearly understood. [It’s a] shame he died pretty young.’
Artist Zhang Huan
Zhang Huan, To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain, 1995. Performance. Mentougou District, Beijing. © Zhang Huan.
When contemporary art lovers talk about the use of the body in art, the name Zhang Huan is usually one of the first to crop up in the conversation. In his work from the Nineties in particular, the Chinese artist pushed the boundaries of what was possible, acceptable and, indeed desirable, in performances highlighting the human body and its limits.
Famously, he covered himself in honey and sat naked in a fly-infested public toilet, and challenged the art world with works that saw him suspended on hooks and dunked in rivers, tied naked to horses, lying naked, face down, on blocks of ice, or dangled from trees in public parks, or off the roofs of buildings across China. He invited calligraphers to cover his body in fables, phrases and proverbs until there wasn’t an inch of skin left visible, and even incorporated sheep, donkeys, dogs and hens into his practice.
The 1995 work shown above was inspired by an old saying, ‘Beyond the mountain, there are more mountains’ Huan explained at the time. ‘It is about humility. Climb this mountain and you will find an even bigger mountain in front of you. It’s about changing the natural state of things, about the idea of possibilities.’
Huan treats his body as a separate country in itself, a superpower stronger than China. ‘It makes me feel dependable to use the body as a medium of art creation,’ he says. ‘I realized that the body was the most direct way to contact with society as well as a proof of one’s personal identity. In this regard, the physical body is the carrier of my inner heart.
Tate curator Flavia Frigeri
Henri Matisse, Blue Nude III, 1952. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on white paper, mounted on canvas. 112 × 73.5 cm. (44 × 29 in.). Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. © 2014. Photo Scala, Florence © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2015.
‘It was really exciting when they arrived,’ says Flavia Frigeri of the moment that The Blue Nudes by Henri Matisse, a series of four nudes the artist made in the spring of 1952, arrived at the Tate show she was curating in 2014.
‘I had seen the four of them at an exhibition a year or two before our show in Paris. But they were on one wall; they were quite tight together at that point. The emphasis wasn’t so much on them as protagonists. They were part of a larger show with many other things.’ Matisse The Cut-Outs went on to become the biggest show in the Tate’s history.
‘The interesting thing about The Blue Nudes, is that [Matisse] was making them at what was a very physically challenging time for him,’ continues Frigeri. ‘So they became, in many ways, the limits he was facing with his own body and they became his strength in tying together all of the things he’d believed in and had done before.
‘The Blue Nudes are the absolute summation of everything he had done. The body, the female figure, the line, the colour and the sculpture — but by that point so stripped down that it’s kind of the ultimate or peak of what he could have ever done in that form. That’s why I think they’ve also become very iconic. With his work before that the body was still voluptuous — it was still very feminine — whereas in The Blue Nudes they’re almost these genderless figures.’
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