Category Archives: Research point: historic and contemporary artists whose work involves the underlying structure of the body.

Research point: historic and contemporary artists whose work involves the underlying structure of the body.

Before answering this question I need to define what I understand by ‘work’… I take work to be the finished artifact that was put up for sale at the time of painting.

So, I’m not going to include Leonardo Da Vinci. I think he (quite literally) took the human to pieces in order to build it up again. He wanted to understand the underlying structures in order to perfect his portrayal of the outer structure.

As a great artists his anatomical studies are always more than anatomical diagrams but if we compare one of his studies:

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… annotated in a very scientific and precise way…. to one of his finished paintings:

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… we can see a great difference.

One is part of his finished body of works the other part of his process of learning.

I couldn’t find any of his finished works that used the underlying structure as part of the painting.

E.H.Gombrich ‘ART & ILLUSION’ supports this in part 2. He writes about the different functions of art (story [the ‘How’ of imaginative interpretation and fiction] telling) in Greek art versus the ‘Reality’ of conceptually based Egyptian art. And then goes on to discuss schemata. The Platonic art that sought the Godly geometric patterns of harmonious perfection – aesthetics [so art had no business portraying the particular, the flawed copies made of base materials] and the neo-platonic where artists were allowed as they were the gifted, who sort the true patterns of the Gods by improving the base examples in the real world… by constantly searching for the universal and perfect.

He then expands saying that art is looking and noticing. And that you can’t notice without schemata. So, for example, once you have a schemata for a head (the egg split by lines) you can draw a head in any position without the need for a real head to copy. The ‘head’ is now a geometric pattern or relationship. And that all artists learn schemata.

In this context Leonardo was dissecting bodies to reveal the underlying structures not to draw the underlying structures per se. But to better improve his schemata of the human body. In the same way he studied trees or Constable copied the cloud patterns of Cozens.

Just as an aside Gombrich then notes that great artists (like Leonardo) have always used the schemata as a starting point – a template to notice then adapt to the particular. Whereas the hack imposes the schemata on the particular making the minimum alterations to indicate king or general.

He says the schemata as slavishly followed templates broke down in the late 18th and 19th centuries. So, it is from 1850 that I will look for artists whose work involves the underlying structure… rather than artists who studied it as part of their mastery of human schemata.

In my internet searches I couldn’t find any historic artists who used underlying structure.

However… there are several contemporary artists that do.

There were some who paint a normal body and show its inner structure… like an anatomical painting but with a fully painted body. But these seemed hybrids of poor figure painting and weak anatomical painting uncomfortably stuck together. More a gimmick than art.

One example is Fernando Vicentes born in Spain in 1963:

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For me the face is poorly painted, more poster than fine art, and the anatomical illustration – though it looks accurate to a non trained eye… is for the general public and doesn’t have to stand the test of medical scrutiny.

So,  I had to look again – and found two examples.

(1) Laura Ferguson (I couldn’t find any biographical details in terms of age, nationality, training… just that she worked with medical institutions and taught anatomical drawing – ‘How to Draw a Human Heart’… which would take us back to schemata!!!)

So, I’ve found one of her paintings and will say why I think this is a work involving the bodies underlying structure.

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To me, this is a beautiful drawing in its own right… organic and whole. Where the underlying structure is incorporated into  the meaning and ‘used’ in the work.

The sandy broken down background and naked body make me think of prehistoric man… of evolution. And the beauty of the human body. The backbone pulling out of the body not only gives movement to the whole but makes me think of it as a separate structure within us… like a living thing.

Of how we’d be a sack of flesh without it. Of its materiality and purpose.

For me this drawing is both poetic and philosophical.

I also found Adfa Dobrzelka who painted a series of paintings called ‘On the Shape and Likeness’. (Again I struggled to find any biographical information… this is where having a good library and a tutor wandering round your university would be useful!).

Here’s an image:

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This is superficially very attractive and for some strange reason reminded me of pop art?!!!

Whatever, it certainly uses the underlying structure as part of the whole work… and is impactful and shocking.

The eyes humanize it and hold the viewer… this is a person… the nose and skin round the eyes is also ‘external’. In this painting it’s almost like a person has put on a skull mask. Yet we can also block out the person and see the skull. A bit like one of those trick paintings where it switches between duck and rabbit but you can’t see both together.

However, the skull is not dead bleached bone but bathed in colour. Alive. Like a different being.

For me it almost, but not quite, works. In that I see the living bone… but am then pulled away to the fleshy person. The two never meld. It’s beginning to do some very interesting things and is definitely using the underlying structure. But ultimately is more shocking than effective.

Finally, as a postscript, while doing this it made me think of Francis Bacon. I don’t think he uses the underlying structure as such in terms of backbone and skull. But he paints the underlying psychological structure that degrades and debases the outer image. And also reminds me of the underlying bones.

Perhaps his art (even without anatomical accuracy) is the most potent in using the underlying structure. For it makes me think… what is really a man. And what this fleshy mask???

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