Divine creation and fragmentary figures
"Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance”
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818
Adam is expelled from Eden, head in hands, and enters the mortal world of pain and suffering. Under the embarrassing burden of their newly gained knowledge, he and Eve clothe their naked bodies, no longer existing in the image of God.
At the left-hand edge of Édouard Dubois’s seventeenth-century Sheet of Figure Studies with Legs and Arms, such a figure appears to emerge. Strongly muscled, he steps into a sea of similarly strong limbs, floating across the sheet. This figure – standing at the far reaches of the paper – seems destined to embark on a journey through this mortal world, represented by an ocean of dismembered (yet idealised and bloodless) limbs. The figure in question is likely to take inspiration from a Florentine fresco depicting the expulsion from Eden, painted in the Brancacci Chapel by Masaccio in the 1420s.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the eponymous protagonist is disgusted by the creature he fashions from dismembered limbs. “I ought to be thy Adam,” declares the Monster, “but I am rather the fallen angel” . Victor Frankenstein cannot compete with God in his quest to manufacture life, reminding us of the selfish desire for divine knowledge cautioned against in the Genesis story. Dubois’s drawing both celebrates and recoils from this corporeal knowledge, glorifying the physical power of the human body while simultaneously casting it as grotesque and powerless.
Like the ambitious Frankenstein, the artist here casts himself in the role of a divine creator. Consciously recalling Masaccio’s Renaissance mastery and Michelangelo’s accomplished treatment of the male body, Dubois presents himself as inheritor to their artistic prowess.
“An artist should appear in his work no more than God in nature. The man is nothing; the work is everything.” Standing in the long line of ‘great male artists’ stretching back to Michelangelo, this statement by Lucian Freud is illuminating . The artist again casts himself as a deity with the power – unattainable by ordinary people – to create new life. It was in Freud’s studio that such generative processes occurred, a closed space afforded visibility by Bruce Bernard’s 1993 photograph, Leigh Bowery and Nicola Bateman Posing for ‘And For The Bridegroom’ (1) – part of a series depicting Freud’s models in his studio.
Like Dubois’s drawing, we are presented with something complete and something fragmentary. To the right, Freud’s finished painting stands proudly. To the left, the models remain fixed in their agreed positions atop the bed. This dichotomy between art and life recalls the disjuncture experienced by Adam upon exiting Eden. As viewers of Bernard’s photograph, we eat an apple from the tree of knowledge and the illusion of Freud’s studio is shattered. Although Freud himself is not pictured, his artifice is laid bare. The expansive painting – apparently celebrating the sexual and bodily liberation of a married couple – is revealed as nothing more than a constructed scene. While we may have suspected this, Bernard offers no place for alternatives under the scrutiny of his lens.
Reduced to a pile of androgynous, amorphous limbs, the bodies on the bed are mined for their fleshy parts alone, dissociated from their human entities. Like Dubois’s anonymised arms and legs, these limbs become a resource for the artist to pick apart and reassemble at will. Is Bernard’s work a simple fetishisation of Freud, enhancing the cult of the ‘great artist’ by allowing us mere mortals a precious glimpse of him at work? Or does the artwork seek, in some way, to disrupt the illusion perpetuated by the painting?
Envisaged for centuries as a powerful god-like figure, the white male artist of the art historical canon and the epitome of his creation, the idealised male body, is challenged by the artworks exhibited in CORPUS: The Body Unbound. While many of the works in the exhibition are the product of this tradition (there’s no escaping Rubens) we have sought to reflect different perspectives on the idealised male body. In the spirit of Shelley’s critique of the great male creator, less than half of the artworks on show were created by white, heterosexual, cis-gendered men. CORPUS thus seeks to advocate the power and beauty of everyone’s bodies through similarly powerful works of art.
This post was originally written to accompany the exhibition CORPUS: The Body Unbound, on view at the Courtauld Gallery from 16 June 2017 to 16 July 2017.
 Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (Penguin Classics, 2012)
 Vanity Fair, February 2012