Exhibition Review: Flesh @ York Art Gallery

Wrestlers - Etty.jpg

“The Wrestlers” (1840) by William Etty. York Museums Trust.

Last month I was in York for a mini-break and had an opportunity to visit the city’s beautiful art gallery, including its phenomenal new exhibition “Flesh: Skin and Surface”.

With a weekend in the city ahead of me, I’d decided to shell out on a York Museums Trust annual pass and wanted to make the most of it. Having already explored the Victorian street at the Castle Museum (an absolute must for any Victorianist), I made a beeline for the Gallery. Since I’d been several times before, I figured it would simply be a good way to kill the forty minutes I had before catching my train home. I regret not scheduling in some more serious viewing time because “Flesh” is a wonderfully rich and provocative exhibition, with plenty to pique the interest of medical humanities scholars as well as art historians.

The exhibition features an incredibly diverse range of artwork – spanning centuries and cultures – brought together by their shared interest in representing flesh. The curators have interpreted the theme in its broadest sense – the exhibition includes depictions of human and animal bodies (both dead and alive) and interrogates questions around the materiality of the body, human identity (sexual, ethnic, and generational), our conceptions of beauty and ugliness, and the meanings attached to death.

I was particularly fascinated by the way in which “Flesh” engages with health and sickness, from the perspective of artists, medical practitioners, and patients. In my own research I’ve been thinking about doctors’ engagement with literature, so I was excited to see the exhibition draw out some of the intersections between artistic and medical practice. It also explores patient experience, showing how artists have negotiated their own illnesses and diseases, as I’ll discuss in this post.

The exhibition opens with a room on “Figuring Flesh”, which looks at the range of ways in which human skin and bodies have been represented throughout the history of art. While bringing together common themes and approaches (such as the depiction of mortal and mutilated frames in Christian imagery from the Renaissance period), the display also juxtaposes images which seem strikingly different. Edgar Degas’s gentle, soft-focus A Study of a Girl’s Head (late 1870s) appears alongside stark photographs of the female nude, such as Jen Davis’s Untitled No. 26 (2007), which foregrounds rolls of flesh. The text panels encourage the visitor to make connections between artistic practices, from use of colour to experimental methods. Well-known depictions of the human form – from Lucien Freud’s fleshly portraits to Francis Bacon’s meat-like abstractions – are positioned near lesser-known or contemporary artworks.

For me, this section of the exhibition included two standout pieces. Any visitor is likely to be struck (even overwhelmed) by Adriana Varejao’s immense Green Tilework in Life Flesh (2000), in which manmade viscera seems to explode out of the canvas (and indeed the wall). Its tactility and intense use of colour render it both grotesque and beautiful, sickening and mesmerising. Another striking piece for me was William Etty’s oil painting “The Wrestlers” (1840). One of the city’s most prominent artists, Etty depicts a wrestling match between a white man and black man, bringing out not only their contrasting skin tones, but also their sweat and musculature. In a nearby room, Steve McQueen’s short film Bear (1993) is screened. A recording infused with energy and homoeroticism, it similarly shows two men sparring. The text panel explicitly ties the two pieces together, bringing more classic and contemporary images into conversation.

The next section of the exhibition is devoted to “Anatomy” and it engages directly with the interrelationships between art and medicine. It displays an edition of William Hunter’s medical textbook on The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus (1774) – which features wonderful illustrations of the pregnant body – and wax models of anatomical and pathological specimens prepared by Joseph Towne (1806-79) which continue to be used in medical teaching at the Gordon Museum, King’s College London. The exhibition highlights how the study of the human frame infiltrates both artistic and medical practice. I was particularly struck by John Stezaker’s 1990s collages, which splice together images from Arthur Thomson’s A Handbook of Anatomy for Art Students (1896). By mingling images of male and female body parts, and the front and back of the human frame, his work invites us to look at the human form in new and unexpected ways.

This room also explores how art has been used to navigate experiences of sickness. For example, it shows how Jo Spence used photography as a response to her diagnosis of, and treatment for, breast cancer during the 1980s. In particular, Spence interrogated how her interactions with the medical profession caused her to lose her sense of ownership of her body. Alongside her works are images of plastic surgery patients, which demonstrate how medical interventions have been used to treat or augment the human form for both medical and aesthetic reasons. More unexpectedly, this section of the exhibition also features some fascinating images of tattoos preserved on skin samples taken from the bodies of deceased prisoners in Krakow at the turn of the twentieth century. Often etched with rudimentary tools and dangerous chemicals, these self-made tattoos speak to wider themes of identity and ownership which dominate the room.

While the first two rooms contain visceral and even violent imagery, the third was one of the most difficult for me. “Still Life” features pieces that depict carcasses and decomposing animal flesh – a little grisly for a vegetarian visiting so soon after breakfast! Once again, the display juxtaposes the familiar and unfamiliar: there are archetypal still-life paintings from the Dutch and Flemish schools – such as Francs Snyders’s stunning A Game Stall (1618) – but the room is simultaneously dominated (somewhat unnervingly) by Berlinde De Bruyckere’s sculpture of a disembowelled deer (2001). While approaching depictions of animal bodies as a distinct theme or sub-genre, this section brings out themes inherent in the wider exhibition, such as the vulnerability and mortality of flesh.

The final room is dedicated to abstract representations of flesh and the human form, focusing on art produced from the 1960s onwards. It showcases a variety of media, including photography, sculpture and film, demonstrating how new techniques and technologies have enabled artists to represent or connect with the theme of flesh in new ways. For me, it raised questions about how we might experience our bodies as disconnected from ourselves and from others. It displays fragmented and decontextualised bodily forms – such as John Coplans’s magnified photographs of his own body (1994).

While the final room gestures towards more recent artistic practices, the exhibition is resolutely transhistorical, identifying continuities and changes across several centuries, and purposefully juxtaposing old and new. It has become commonplace for exhibitions in galleries and museums to eschew a chronological framework and adopt a thematic approach instead. How successfully this tactic works usually depends on the quality of the display and exhibition narrative and I was not disappointed here. Having had some experience of devising texts panels for the exhibition I co-curated on the history of vaccination I know how difficult it can be to write in a way which is accessible, informative, and engaging. In “Flesh” the text panels manage to be all of these, and they are pitched at a variety of readers. Art historians will be delighted to find that the text looks at artists and their methods, while those with a more fledgling interest will no doubt be pleased that it also guides our interpretation, making connections across the pieces, and posing broader socio-cultural questions about subjects such as beauty and death. With its frank themes and depictions of nudity, violence and self-harm, it may be worth bearing in mind that it isn’t addressed at children or family-friendly audiences, however.

The narrative also deftly draws out intersections between different time periods, cultures, and media. It gives equal weight to more prominent artists (names such as Degas and Rubens, which inevitably dominate the exhibition’s promotional material) and those who may be less familiar.

My experience of the exhibition was also aided by the wonderful layout and display. The rooms are spacious, enabling the visitor to gaze upon the artwork from different angles and distances. At the same time, the dim lighting renders it an intimate space. I was fortunate that at the time I visited (10am on a Monday morning) it was relatively empty, as this gave me a great opportunity to really engage with the artworks, despite the limited timeframe before my train! It was easy to meander between the pieces and move between different rooms, as well as revisit those of especial interest.

For anyone with time to spare in York, I’d strongly recommend a visit to “Flesh”, which runs until March 2017. It’s ambitious in scope and bold in its approach, showcasing a wide range of art works and using them to interrogate compelling questions about the human condition and experience. An exhibition that tries to tackle so many themes – health and sickness, human and animal, inside and out – could have floundered, but “Flesh” manages to deliver a coherent, unifying narrative while pushing the viewer to make their own inferences and interpretations. I enjoyed engaging with new art while forming connections with my own research interests.

Image reproduced with kind permission of York Art Gallery. Courtesy of York Museums Trust:  http://yorkmuseumstrust.org.uk/.  CC BY-SA 4.0.

Visiting the exhibition

Flesh: Skin and Surface runs until 19 March 2017 at York Art Gallery.

The exhibition is included in the price of admission (£7.50 for adults with Gift Aid donation). Free entry for York Museums Trust Card holders and National Art Pass holders.

Opening hours: Monday-Sunday, 10am-5pm. (Christmas opening hours vary.)

See here for details on the exhibition.

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