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A wide-ranging exhibition of painting, sculpture, photography and film explores artistic representations of flesh.

Flesh has always fascinated artists. Dead and alive, human and animal, familiar and strange: the fragile boundary that exists between flesh and the world has been endlessly probed and explored. The very word ‘flesh’ is loaded with moral, religious and erotic undertones, signifying varying things to different audiences, depending on its historical and cultural context.
You need look no further than the treatments of the body of Christ in the earliest paintings in the show: The Dead Christ with the Virgin and St John by the Master of the San Lucchese Altarpiece and Fiorenzo di Lorenzo’s Virgin and Child.

In Slaughtered Ox, attributed to the circle of Rembrandt, dead animal flesh takes centre stage. Despite the modest size of the painting, the scale of the animal is enormous, filling the canvas with its reddish, fleshy insides. The image of the fatted calf is from the Biblical account of the festivities marking the return of the prodigal son, but the splayed carcass is there to remind viewers of Christ’s crucifixion. Look closely and a woman is seen in the background, mopping the bloody floor underneath the fleshy mass, her vitality providing a stark contrast with the dead meat. Her bent-double posture cruelly mirrors the bundle of dead animal’s hide and its severed head that are heaped in the painting’s foreground: a gruesome reminder to viewers of their own impending deaths.

For the artist Francis Bacon, whose Portrait of Henrietta Moraes on a Blue Couch suggests a carcass, animal and human flesh were inextricably linked. ‘Flesh and meat are life!’ he said. ‘If I paint red meat as I paint bodies it is just because I find it very beautiful.’

Flesh, of course, is also capable of evoking notions of softness, and artists have explored the sensual, lively aspect of flesh in both figurative as well as abstract ways. William Etty, perhaps the most famous artist to have come from York, was shunned for his ‘perverse’ passion for the voluptuousness of the female nude, and his depictions of what was described as ‘pulpy flesh’ – for example, in Venus and Cupid – were derided by critics. Yet Etty, a perpetual student at the Royal Academy’s life classes, won critical admiration for his ability to render flesh tints and realistically capture the naked human form.

By the time John Stezaker entered the Slade School of Art in the late 1960s life classes may have played less of a role in an artist’s training, but he was nevertheless required to buy Arthur Thomson’s A Handbook of Anatomy for Art Students, first published in 1896 and featuring models in a variety of classical poses, their genitalia obliterated. He went on to acquire numerous copies of the book, which he used in his ‘Fall’ and ‘Expulsion’ series. In Fall XIII, two bodies are spliced together emphasising the different flesh tones as represented in Etty’s The Wrestlers, while in Fall XII, we see the front and back of a woman, so carefully constructed that at first glance it is difficult for the eye to comprehend that this is not in fact a straightforward representation of the female nude.

The exhibition also charts the uneasy relationship that has developed between science, medicine and art. As intellectual and scientific curiosity developed, so too did the available technologies and methods for charting its interior spaces. Take Joseph Towne’s 19th-century wax models of diseased body parts. Indeed, art has been shown to have therapeutic qualities. When Jo Spence was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1982 she began a series of photographs, Crisis Project/Picture of Health? (Property of Jo Spence?), that documented her experience from diagnosis to treatment, questioning the ownership of her body as she was treated. The photographs were a way of taking back control of it, capturing the fear, anger and defiance she felt and an investigation into the therapeutic nature of self-image and its ability to heal.

York Art Gallery

Exhibition Square, York, North Yorkshire, YO1 7EW

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