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Edouard Manet, The Café-Concert (Wikimedia Commons, PD)

The primary role of art is to hold a mirror to our humanity. It is the externalization of our internal reflection. And visually, there is no more direct symbol of being human than the body itself. For some, the body and self-identity are inseparable. We see a photo of ourselves and say, “Yeah, that’s me.” That’s how intrinsically our psyche is entwined with visual representations.

Art has represented humans more than any other subject, but the ways in which they are represented provide a window into our self-perception. It is useful to take a look into some of these windows to uncover the underlying artistic language revealed in different stylizations of the human body.

One of the most fundamental dichotomies in artistic representations is between the ideal or heroic portrayals of people and the common, everyday representations of ordinary men and women. Obviously, there are an infinite number of alternate classifications of stylizations, but in the interest of not attempting some encyclopedic analysis of world art, we will stay focused on the main subject.

Historically, from cave art until the European Renaissance of the 16th century, most of the surviving art is either supernatural or religious, and emphasizes, as we would expect, the ideal. The other world — spirits, gods, and goddesses — take place in the thought world, and so they are, by nature, ideal. Myth is built on archetypes. Representation of myths and the people in myths are constructed on generalizations to be broadly applied to many human situations. To that extent, individual characteristics and uniquenesses are minimized in favor of streamlining human representations to the common mean.

However, the common mean does not refer to the way that the average person appears, but it refers to the average proportions with the least deviation from normal. In other words, ideal physical qualities.

When the Renaissance arrived, there was a movement away from the strictly religious, and toward the secular world. Art turned its attention toward real life experience. The Renaissance relied on first-hand observation and much greater value was given to mundane things. Artists like Bruegel in northern Germany led the way, painting images of common folk in common pursuits — hunting, working, celebrating. And he did not gloss over the reality of life. He presents his subjects wrinkled or fat or gaunt or toothless, because that is what he saw.

But the mundane world represented in art did not long hold center stage. Yet, it would make inroads again and again in various historical periods and cultures. Chinese art concerned itself much more with daily life compared to India, for example. The mid to late 19th century was much more likely to depict normal bodies in ordinary living, especially with the “on location” observational style of the Impressionists.

But the desire for the beauty of idealism continued to push through — from the neoclassicism of the 17th and 18th centuries to the Art Nouveau movement preceding the 20th century.

And here we are now, in a new millennium, with a more complex dialogue. It cannot be argued that idealism is still our preferred form of seeing the human body, particularly in America where the human figure in popular media has become nearly estranged from normal appearance. In our movies and advertising there is greater and greater reliance on computer generated exaggerations of our human form. This is nothing new, except that former centuries used idealization as a metaphor to represent underlying principles or archetypes that were embodied in art as human qualities to aspire to.


Tim Sunderman is a graphic designer in the San Francisco bay area who does most of his art without a computer, using traditional techniques in drawing, painting, photography, calligraphy, and even sculpture. He is a graduate of the Academy of Art in San Francisco. He eschews speaking of himself in the third person, as he is here, but doesn't mind too much for shameless self-promotion.

Read this article in Vhcle Issue 18

Read other articles by Tim Sunderman

Visit Tim’s website: www.timsunderman.com

The Ideal and the Ordinary

The Human Body in Art


Tim Sunderman


Vhcle Magazine Issue 18, Art

Now we are simply presented with the idealization of a cardboard stand up — the image of a person without personality — the light-reflecting surface without the depth of character that idealism has historically inferred.

Because of the lack of connection between our living experience of the human bodies around us and these flattened idealizations, we see a movement toward the acceptance of more ordinary figures to fill this humanistic desire. Normal weight, normal blemishes, and normal facial features are incredibly beautiful. Real life experience provides our visual “main course” that feeds our psyche. Over indulgence in mainstream imagery results in a kind of diabetic reaction to sugar-glossed bodies without substantive value.

But What of Nudity in Art?

Again, a broader world-wide perception may provide a clearer perspective, particularly for Americans who are pressed between the distorting lenses of our puritanical heritage and our anchorless Hollywood image makers. In older more established cultures, there is a more matter-of-fact acceptance of the naked body. It does not drag along quite as much luggage of social taboos as in America. In many places, a breast can just be a breast without triggering the sophomoric over-reactions of overt sexuality or moral indignation seen in the United States.

Now, let us set aside the idea of nudity in the context of medical or scientific reference and hold the focus on the artistic reflection of the human form. Artistic nudity is certainly not limited to beauty. There are many more stories to tell, from the introspective plainness of Andrew Wyeth’s “Helga” paintings to the profane and grotesque (albeit strangely beautiful) human aberrations portrayed in Peter Joel Witkin’s photographs, to the unflinching gaze at aging in Leonard Nimoy’s art.

Statue of the Aphrodite of Knidos, 2nd century A.D. (Wikimedia Commons, PD)

The contemporary art

world has been so open

to the spectrum of body images for such a long time that it would be difficult

to create something shocking. Besides, shock is a fleeting reaction.

A more effective measure of artistic quality is its honesty and the depth of perception provided by the artist’s insight. By this metre, we need not choose between the ideal and the ordinary. The human body, bereft of all interceding entrapments — the tailored cloth that immediately reduces it to a social role — the body in its pure form, elicits a flood of responses, not least of which engages our sense of sexuality and those other hard-wired primal reactions. This confronts us immediately with our own humanism.

The act of portraying a body in a composition compels us to confer meaning into the image, and in this way, the mirror to self-understanding is illuminated. Do we respond with empathy, revulsion, desire, or unease? Does it affirm our experience, arouse curiosity, threaten, or inspire?

It matters not. For it is the mere exercise of being engaged in the process of navigating through the presented landscapes of inferred meaning that connects to self-awareness.

But do not mistake idealization for superficiality. Most people would agree that the highest form of beauty is to be found in the human body. And its portrayal reaching the heights of human aspiration is the crowning apex of art. For some, it is found in the triumphant heroism of Greek marble. Others may find it in the glorification of enlightenment found in Tibetan tonka paintings. Some may see it in the sensitivity of West African ebony portrait sculptures. And some find it in the supernal grace of underwater photographs of ballet dancers.

Do not allow the jaded cynicism of our postmodern weariness to turn your attention away from idealism. There is much to recommend it.