Special Reports

The female form's artistic appeal

Emile Maurice

Among the women artists on exhibition at 20th Centuary Masters:the human figure are Valerie Jouve and Cindy Sherman.

Edgar Degas's beautiful Danseuses sur la scène (Dancers on stage), painted in 1889. (RMN Ojéda-Le Mage)

The female body has been a favourite subject for artists throughout the ages. While many of the representations of the female body on exhibition at 20th Century Masters: the human form are by world-renowned male artists, such as Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, there are also a number of such works by acclaimed female artists. With the exception of the 19th-century Impressionist painter, Berthe Morisot, all of these women artists are major figures in contemporary art.

Among the women artists on exhibition at 20th Centuary Masters:the human figure are Valérie Jouve, a French anthropologist, photographer and film-maker, and Cindy Sherman, whose photographs are among the most expensive ever sold. Jouve is generally interested in the question of the individual's place in today's urban spaces and her photographs feature isolated figures set against the architectural environments of mostly French cities. To make her work, she asks her subjects – she calls them her "personnages" – to embody a feeling, which is then performed and photographed.

As with Jouve, Sherman's work also involves performance, although here it is always the artist herself who is the performer. All of her works are staged photographs, constructed scenarios made in her studio in which she appears in various culturally stereotyped guises, such as the wife in the kitchen, the seductress, the heroine from a Hollywood movie, the abused victim, the centrefold from a magazine for men and the cowgirl. Because her work deals with stereotypes, identity, gender and the portrayal of women in the mass media, and because it challenges the traditional male view of women in society, Sherman is acclaimed by Feminists for her critique of the 'male gaze'.   

Also featured on 20th Century Masters: the human figure is Annette Messager, another renowned Feminist artist and the first woman artist to represent France at the Venice Biennale (2005). Her work on the exhibition Voluntary Tortures (1972) draws on photographs from magazine adverts for women's beauty aids and treatments and is a comment on the sometimes painful procedures and processes women undergo to attain some idealised standard of beauty.

Then there is also Orlan, the French representative at the 1992 Sydney Biennale, who says that her work is "a struggle against the innate, the inexorable, the programmed, nature, DNA – and God". Her work has sparked intense debate among Feminists, mainly because she sculpted her own body through a series of plastic surgery operations between 1990 and 1995. Through these operations, she altered her appearance by literally inscribing Western art on her own body. She changed the shape of her mouth to imitate that of Francois Boucher's Europa, altered her forehead to mimic the protruding brow of Leonardo's Mona Lisa, re-shaped her chin to look like that of Boticelli's Venus, and reconstructed her eyes so that they approximate those of Diana from a 16th-century French school of Fontainebleau painting. Each operation was treated as a sort of performance piece during which poetry was read and music played. Captured on video, these performances were broadcast live in galleries.

Tour of beauty
According to Orlan, the characters from Western art were chosen "not for the cannons of beauty they are supposed to represent, but rather for the stories associated with them. Diana [for example] was chosen because she refuses to submit to the gods or to men, she is active and even aggressive…"

In using her body as a medium for transformation, Orlan has also re-created her identity in relation to cultures other than Western, as seen in her works on 20th Century Masters: the human figure. In one photograph on the show, she is seen wearing dozens of tight neck rings, as worn by Ndebele giraffe women, who use them to make the neck look long and elegant – an identity associated with beauty in this culture. Another photo shows her wearing braids to simulate a Mangbetu woman from central Africa. These works form part of what Orlan calls "a round-the-world tour of beauty".  

Orlan desribes her work as "Carnal Art", as distinct from Body Art, which for her involves personal risk, suffering and pain. Sometimes understood as a re-enactment of violence against women, or as a reference to the Vietnam War, the Body Art movement arose in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In France, where it was known as "Art Corporel", it found a firm footing through the work of artists such as Gina Pane, one of the founders of the movement. Pane is best known for her series of performances – she calls them actions – in which she wounds herself. On 20th Century Masters: the human figure she is represented by Action Psyché 74, a work consisting of photographs showing key moments of a performance in which she injured herself by making cuts in various parts of her body, causing bleeding.   

The exhibition presents a unique opportunity to view works by some of the world's leading women artists, many of whom have not shown in South Africa before. The show is complemented by a comprehensive book, which includes contributions by both French and South African art historians and critics. The book casts a fresh light on the diversity and vitality of French art in respect of the human body.

Emile Maurice works as a curator at the University of the Western Cape. He writes in his personal capacity.

20th Century Masters: the human figure The show runs at the Standard Bank Gallery from July 13 to September 15 and is the flagship exhibition of the 'France-South Africa Seasons 2012 & 2013', a collaborative project involving the French and South African governments and numerous corporate sponsors from both countries.

The project is aimed at celebrating and strengthening ties between France and South Africa and at improving mutual understanding between the two countries.

Free public walkabouts will be conducted by art historian Marion Dixon, every Friday between 1pm and 2pm for the duration of the exhibition.

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