In pop culture — in movies, on TV, in the pages of fashion magazines — the nude bodies we see are airbrushed, powdered, polished to perfection.
On the walls of the Phillips Collection, in an exhibition called Paint Made Flesh, you'll see a different story: scars, bumps, blots, bulges of fat. Unkempt people, intense people, people sliced into cubes. (Easy, now: It's a Picasso.) It's not the kind of flesh you necessarily want to see, but there's something compelling about it nonetheless.
Take Lucian Freud's "Naked Man, Back View." The British artist really lets you look at his subject — look so hard that after a while it's hard to look away. The man is grotesque: massive, fleshy, in all his naked un-glory. Freud paints the total person, says show curator Mark Scala.
"He was truly interested in humanity, in things that show the subject had actually lived a life," says Scala, who runs the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville. "And he thought that was much more beautiful, more interesting, and more honest than portraying something that was an ideal."
The Social Body, Broken
All the works in this show were created after World War II, and pretty much all of them are about post-war tensions: vulnerability, anxiety, fear. So the voluptuousness of a nude by Goya, the delicious pinkness of a breast by Renoir — all that sublime perfection is missing from these works.
"That sort of idea was considered impossible after the Holocaust — after World War II, when the whole society seemed to be broken," Scala says. "And how does the artist use the body to represent society in any other way than to represent the body as something that is dissolving, fragmented — something that may not be reparable?"
And so Freud's "Naked Man, Back View" — painted in 1991 — shows what's going on behind the skin. What our times have done, to him and to us.
That's one theme of this show: "the topography of time," as Phillips Collection curator Renee Mauer puts it.
"It's really how we change and how life changes us," Mauer says. "We become this map of all our experiences."
A kind of map-in-progress, in the case of "The Hobo," a 1999 canvas by American painter John Currin. Now, as Mauer points out, the usual hobo in our mind's eye is downtrodden, unhappy, wearing patched clothing. Bearded, maybe. Dirty. And, of course, male.
Not Currin's hobo. She's young and gorgeous — tangles of blond curls, see-through blouse, see-through thong. If she were hitchhiking, there'd be a pileup. The only hobo-ish thing about this cutie is the forked walking stick she leans on — the kind of stick humbler hobos once hung their sacks on.
Mauer says that when Currin painted his hobo, the funny, ironic artist was pondering television.
"Currin thought about creating a miniseries ... that would incorporate beautiful people who were down and out," she explains.
Call it Desperate Hobos, maybe.
Sculpting Perfection, And Leaving Scars
The women in British painter Jenny Saville's works wear the scars of social expectations. "Hyphen" shows two sisters, one resting her head on the other's shoulder, in extreme close-up. They're like chubby, nuzzling cherubs, except there's an unsettling quality to them.
"Yeah, these are cherubs gone wrong, I guess," Scala says.
Saville puts deep, blood-red dabs around the girls' pillowy lips. They look battered. The two heads fill the huge canvas — it's 12 feet by 9 feet — so you can see just how Saville painted them.
"The brush strokes seem to be applied ... almost with a violence," Scala says, "With a vigor and sharpness that contradicts any sense of sweetness."
Saville is painting the marks made on women by society's cruel demands. The artist puts plastic surgery in that category.
"Doing research in the 1990s, she spent some time in a plastic surgeon's office and was very surprised to hear that the plastic surgeons thought of themselves as Michelangelos of the flesh," Scala says.
The surgeons were sculpting notions of perfection directly onto their clients. The sometimes brutal, often stunning canvases at the Phillips offer different notions about aesthetics.
"There's nothing that says these paintings aren't beautiful," Scala says. "It's just a question of how we define beautiful."
The exhibition Paint Made Flesh — featuring work by 33 artists including Picasso, Alice Neel, Eric Fischl and Francis Bacon — is on view June 20 to Sept. 13, 2009, at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.