‘Body of Art’ reviewed by Marilena Parlati

‘Body of Art’ conceived and edited by Phaidon Editors (Phaidon, 2015).

9780714869667-2A naked arm entices readers into it. The partial illustration chosen as a cover to Body of Art is a detail from one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits (dated 1975), in which an intriguing, probably naked young man unfailingly captures the attention of his viewers (see p. 61). His smile baffles, the artist being both a Mona Lisa and a Leonardo, a master made vulnerable and subjected to the gaze of others. In the caption to this photograph, this is ‘a generous invitation to wait and see what else is to come’ (p. 61). Not a bad choice for a cover illustration, indeed. No doubt, in fact, this ponderous book is a beautiful, risky, demanding invitation to a journey which closely ties together archaeological and anthropological relics, canonical paintings and statuary from numerous geographical and cultural backgrounds, more or less contemporary photographs, frozen, necessarily partial, stills from art installations and actions, the past, the present and the future of ‘global’ art.

Body of Art is a paradox, a radically impossible exhibition made true, a printed hypertext, whose convoluted leaps and bounds ask innumerable questions and draw connections between and among represented objects, written texts, discourses, bodies which are often all but obvious and banal. Readers are led through untrodden, or differently trodden, ground into reconsidering their conceptual maps via ten ‘curated’ sections: from the initial ‘Cycle of Life’ introduction authored by Jennifer Blessing (Senior Curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York) in which she picks her own favourite artistic figurations of embodiment (two works by contemporary artists Joan Jonas and Adrien Piper), the complex narrative that the volume displays clusters around ‘Beauty,’ ‘Identity,’ ‘Power,’ ‘Religion and Belief,’ ‘Bodies and Space,’ ‘Sex and Gender’, ‘Emotion Embodied’, ‘The Body’s Limits’, ‘The Abject Body,’ and ‘The Absent Body.’ Each cluster is clearly marked in different colours and introduced by a short essay, but it is true that the materials included in each section seem to rebel against their ‘seclusion’ and pore out of their alleged boundaries.

The criteria for exhibiting images which underlie the book structure vary: its semantics may agglomerate around well established visual lexemes, as in the case of the three graces (pp. 26-27). This literary and artistic trope takes contextual form in the two adjoining pages on which Raphael’s (dated 1504-05), Fernand Léger’s (dated 1921-22) and Picasso’s (dated 1921) paintings are printed; it is later split into tinier details which focus on buttocks, first, and again zooms out on more distant reclining nude bodies from classical Athens to Henri Rousseau. On other occasions, instead, the grammar of embodiment which is reconstructed here may turn unexpectedly from a terracotta figurine, the so-called Sleeping Lady of Malta (dated 3300-3000 BCE, see p. 48) to Lucian Freud’s disproportioned different Venus (artwork dated 1995, see p. 49), a body figuration which could have also been located elsewhere in the volume and which resonates, as many other works included also do, and reverberates in the other sections as well. This last Venus must be looked at from the perspective of its most immediate ‘pre-text’, Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (p. 216). I think that the capacity of reading through complexity that the book postulates in its readers is well exemplified by this single example.

Very adeptly, the editors-curators often intervene to accompany viewers to journey back and forth in Body of Art, their compact explanations often including straightforward ‘intertextual’ links, as in the example above; yet, they also leave it up to their readers to reconcile and reconfigure the materials they are confronted with. In many ways, each caption-essay, related title and artwork coalesce and inaugurate various constellations with the other close and distant emblems the volume is founded upon. Take another case, that of El Greco’s twisted, painful Laocoon (p. 253), associated to the muscular Thinker Auguste Rodin cast in bronze in 1925, but also, declaredly, to the dramatical Laocoon at the Capitoline Museum in Rome (p. 261). In the pattern thus drawn, the human body, here visibly male and patriarchal, is reinscribed by the many (too invisible) curators and transformed into theoretical philaments which interpellate theories of embodiment and ask to be perceived and read otherwise.

The great scope of this volume makes it extremely valuable for cultural and art historians, but scholars and practitioners in the medical humanities will also find the clusters ‘At the Body’s Limits’ and ‘The Abject Body’ particularly interesting. If the human body is indeed, as the accompanying leaflet argues, “a prism,” a “canvas,” a text which must be produced and continuously decoded, these two sections offer images and histories of hybridity, disease, monstrosity and disfiguration which are indeed remarkable. In ‘The Abject Body’ they range from the very compelling, if not frankly nauseating, wax compound I Can’t Help the Way I Feel by John Isaacs (artwork dated 2003, see p.360) to L. S. Lowry’s The Cripples (artwork dated 1949, see p. 365). These two artworks are just a sample of a serious, continued reflection on the topics of norm and disability, of beauty and ugliness, and of the ways in which age, gender, race, and health do matter and have always tragically mattered in human history.

In ‘The Body’s Limits,’ we see a visual translation of Donna Haraway’s contention that ‘even the most reliable […] individuated bodies […] neither stop nor start at the skin’ (1989: 18). Indeed, the selection for this section sings the body dysmorphic, fragmented, discomposed, anatomized; its skin, its borders are markedly scanned, invaded, undermined. A very powerful example of such interrogation of boundaries is a still from Mona Hatoum’s video installation Corps étranger (artwork dated 1994, see p. 285), in which the Palestinian artist living in Britain visually, medically, invades her own orifices with microcameras to provide ‘literal’ views tapping into questions of intimacy, privacy, and voyeurism. In another sense, Artur Zmijewski’s photo An Eye for an Eye complicates with nude clarity any assumed, preconceived idea related to body integrity: a naked one-legged man stands on borrowed legs, two anonymous arms holding (but also, maybe, hindering) him from the back in an ambiguous embrace which says much about modern conceptions and treatment of disability, as well as on vulnerability and care.

To conclude, its superb combination of visual, textual, ideological dimensions makes Body of Art a sound, stunning and thought-provoking book which deserves high praise for its very ambitious scope and rigour.


Reviewed by Marilena Parlati, an Associate Professor of Literatures in English at the University of Padua (Italy). She has been working on corporeality and complex embodiment for some years, and has published on trauma studies, disability, and post-human interrogations of bodily integrity. She is currently co-editing a volume on The Body Metaphor and organizing a Conference on Vulnerability. Memories, Bodies, Sites at the University of Padua in May 2016. See Parlati’s personal webpage for more information.

Correspondence to Professor Marilena Parlati.

Works cited:

Haraway, Donna. 1989. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science, Routledge, New York.

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