The body or the artist, part 1 – The painting body

Artists have always liked to represent human bodies. From the time of the caves until today, there’s an infinity of representations of the human body. This motif, declined under all possible variations, is an interesting subject. However, today, we will rather look at what the artist does (or does not) with his own body.

Here again, the variations seem extraordinarily numerous, especially since the 20th century has given birth to facets of art that use the artist’s body in an unexpected or original way. For such a vast subject, it’s not reasonable to pretend to exhaustiveness. We will nevertheless try to focus our attention on several facets of the artist’s body in art today. The first, for a sober introduction of the subject, will be the body that paints.

Beware, during the whole series “The body of the artist”, it’s recommended to sensitive minds to refrain from such a reading. Note that the images will remain visible all the same.

From the middle of the twentieth century, Art is no longer only interested in the painted canvas, in the result. Critics, thinkers and artists redirected their attention to the act of painting itself. The action, the act of painting, had become the main subject, or at least a significant part of art itself. This is how action painting is born.

© Mike Petrucci

This current, at first mainly led by male artists, first focused on the action of the painter, then the body became a tool that allows to paint, to spread the paint, to act in the painting activity. The artist’s body becomes in turn a brush or even a canvas. Female artists then took over this trend as well, and the whole world of Art was modified without any possible return.

Of course, everyone knows the brilliant Jackson Pollock, who represented almost the entire action painting movement, as evidenced by the numerous videos of his painting “performances”. But we must also mention the brilliant Georges Mathieu, who combined his painting with a very particular gesture. His monumental paintings, often done while wearing period costumes, were executed in spectacular scenes photographed or filmed, which were sometimes more like theater than painting in the traditional sense.

It was then up to the Japanese to take hold of this movement where the artist’s body was solicited as a tool for artistic creation. Shozo Shimamoto making his paintings by throwing his paint pots directly on the canvas, or Kazuo Shiraga rolling in the mud, the act of making art becomes closer and closer to the artist’s body, organic. From there it’s only a step towards Yves Klein’s anthropometries. The latter proposes indeed representations where women, naked, the body coated with paint, became the tool used to apply the paint on the canvas, that the painter now, hardly approaches. What the brilliant Niki de Saint-Phalle understood well with her painted works which are in reality only canvases with bags of paint, which she bursts by shooting a gun directly on them, thus letting the paint flow, in explosions of dripping and cathartic colors.

© Amauri Mejia

But others choose this pretext to get closer to their work than ever. The artist Marcel Duchamp, well known for his subversive mind, went so far as to use elements of his own body (hair, hair, …) or his bodily secretions (his semen in this case), to constitute paintings where he mixed manifestations of his own body and paint, Plexiglas etc.. Original materials that are understandable when you know that these paintings were intended for his lover, the Brazilian artist Maria Martens. There are also those who continue, obstinately, to hold the brush, but who have made it slip from their hands… This is the case of Shigeko Kubota, who, as a sign of protest against the action painting mostly practiced by men and therefore almost “ejaculatory”, will use her vagina to hold the brush in her works.

And then, of course, there is a moment when the paint disappears altogether. Claes Oldenburg or Carolee Schneemann have chosen in some of their works to paint with unidentified organic matter, or even waste or garbage. Ana Mendieta chose to paint with blood. Andy Warhol explored the question with a process of action painting that involved his own urine.

Thus, the body of the artist becomes not only an element of “doing”, it’s what must be looked at, the center of the work. There is certainly no shortage of examples, and these are just some, taken from thousands, of artists who have chosen to see their bodies, as artists, differently.

Thank you for hanging in there until the end and see you soon!

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