Art up close: 600 years of pressing the flesh

The word 'flesh' can conjure a variety of images. Whether human, animal or vegetable, alive or dead, beautiful, ugly, shocking or sensual, flesh provokes a reaction, so it is not surprising that artists over the centuries have drawn inspiration from it and the latest exhibition at York Art Gallery explores this response in a fascinating, thoughtful way.

Lara Turner, Senior Curator of Art, cleaning the Youth figure by Ron Mueck.
Lara Turner, Senior Curator of Art, cleaning the Youth figure by Ron Mueck.

Bringing together the output of artists from different centuries working in different materials, the show – starkly entitled Flesh – features work by historic artists such as Rubens, Rembrandt, Rodin and Degas displayed alongside modern and contemporary works by Bruce Nauman, Ron Mueck, Sarah Lucas, Jenny Saville and Jo Spence, all relating to the notion of “flesh”.

“We are covering 600 years of art so it’s very broad,” says senior curator Laura Turner who co-curated the show with Dr Jo Applin, of the University of York.

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“There are more than 60 artworks taken both from our own collection and from 19 different lenders across the country and Europe. We have taken a thematic approach, with rooms and displays that look at how artists have investigated that particular theme.

Part of the exhibition

“We’ve paired historic and contemporary art so that you have some interesting juxtapositions. For example, you will get a Rubens painting paired with a Jenny Saville painting. It’s interesting to see artists of different ages who are painting similar kinds of subjects in totally different ways.”

Representations of flesh in the exhibition include still life paintings, anatomical studies, contemporary film, sculpture and photography and the displays are deliberately designed to be thought-provoking and, at times, challenging. Inevitably, questions are raised about physicality, ageing, gender and race, touch, texture, decay and mortality.

“We also wanted to investigate different materials that artists use to depict flesh,” says Turner. “One of the most striking is Adriana Varejao’s sculpture Green Tilework in Live Flesh (2000), which is made of foam and looks like flesh and guts bursting through a tiled wall.”

The exhibition consists of five rooms in the three galleries on the ground floor, with the themes Figuring Flesh, Still Life, Materiality and Surface, and the range of work is extraordinary. There are figurative portraits, such as Degas’s beautiful picture of innocence in Study of a Girl’s Head, as well as abstract works like Francis Bacon’s large-scale painting Portrait of Henrietta Moraes on a Blue Couch, in which the artist’s friend is depicted in a slightly unsettling anatomized way. “Bacon was interested in meat and he paints people almost as if they were carcasses,” says Turner. “There has been a lot of speculation about why that is, but he was working between the wars so there was a lot of instability and bloodshed.”

Part of the exhibition

The juxtapositions created by the carefully thought through curation create some powerful moments. One of the rooms is hung with some early religious paintings in the York collection from the 15th century, depicting the Crucifixion, while nearby on a plinth is contemporary artist Ron Mueck’s exquisite miniature sculpture Youth of a young black teenage boy, barefoot, in jeans and a white T-shirt which he is lifting to reveal a bleeding wound on his right side. Quite apart from the forcefully resonant associations with modern-day news stories, its connection with the paintings of Christ on the cross is subtle yet resonant. “Mueck’s sculpture is such an affecting piece and it is so incredibly realistic and detailed,” says Turner. “Lots of people who have been into the gallery have said that it has moved them to tears.”

One of the themes in the show focuses on the variety of materials used by artists in response to the subject. “We have rooms that cover abstract materiality, particularly from the 1960s when artists were using material in new and radical ways,” says Turner. “There is a wonderful piece by Barry Flanagan which is two sacks of sand on the floor that makes you think of folds of flesh and there is a Bruce Nauman piece that could be legs leaning up against the wall. They are all very subjective – we are all bringing our life stories with us when we look at them.”

Also on display is Sarah Lucas’ sculpture NUD 4, a new acquisition by the gallery especially for the exhibition and one of a series of pieces made out of pairs of nylon tights filled with wadding. “It is a really tender piece, it reminds me of a mother cradling a child,” says Turner. “It’s amazing that you can see that in a pair of tights. It is a testament to the artist that she’s been able to transform everyday material and make us think about what the form could be.”

The exhibition is not afraid to confront some challenging subjects either. It includes work by photographer Jo Spence whose uncompromising images document her experience of breast cancer and other works consider how we manipulate our bodies through surgery, while Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere’s corporeal wax sculpture Romeu My Deer 2011 depicts the carcass of a deer laying on a rustic table.

“We have been really brave with the show – there are some works that are uncomfortable,” says Turner. “It is entirely subjective of course and what might shock or challenge somebody might not have that effect on someone else, but I don’t think we have shied away from things that are difficult. Art reflects life and sometimes we do experience difficult things in our lives.”

• Flesh will run at York Art Gallery until March 19, 2017.