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A brief history of representing of the body in Western sculpture

Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Video transcript

- [Steven] Throughout history in the West, there's this tension, this conflict between naturalism and abstraction. And it goes back and forth. - [Beth] So what we wanted to do in this video is trace some of that tension. We're going to begin by looking at an ancient Roman copy of a Greek sculpture. So we're going back to the period of classical antiquity. The period when ancient Greece and then ancient Rome dominated the Mediterranean, and dominated European culture. - [Steven] This is a sculpture by an artist named Polykleitos. It's called the Doryphoros, which just means the spear bearer. He would have originally held a spear. But the reason we're looking at it, is it's just this amazing representation of the human body, in a position that we call contrapposto. - [Beth] It's incredibly naturalistic or realistic. Naturalism is word that art historians use all the time to talk about the way that something looks close to nature. Similar to what we see in the world around us. - [Steven] And in this case, we're looking at the proportions. The understanding of the contours of the body, of the muscles of the body. An understanding of the bones under the flesh. - [Beth] And how the body moves in space and how it distributes weight as it moves. And how that weight shifts as the body moves. This is a complicated understanding of the body, that gets translated into this marble sculpture. That looks so life like, we almost expect it to move and talk to us. - [Steven] Now clearly this was made by somebody who cared a lot about what the human body looked like, about the mechanics of the human body. This is based on careful direct observation. And so here we have not only an artist but a culture that cared about science, that cared about human potential. - [Beth] And so those are good ways to describe the culture of ancient Greece and Rome. - [Steven] So let's fast forward more than 1500 years and to the town of Chartres, just south of Paris, to a huge cathedral. And on the front of that cathedral are some very highly stylized figures that we call jamb figures. - [Beth] These are attached to architecture. So immediately we notice a significant change from the Doryphoros. The Doryphoros, the spear bearer, was free-standing. In other words, we could walk around him. And that's important because when the sculptor thought about rendering him, he thought about what it would look like from all points of view. But when you're sculpting something that's attached to the architecture, in this case to columns, the medieval sculpture, because here we are in the Middle Ages. The sculptor thought about making the figures match the columns behind. So the figures are tall and elongated, like the columns behind them. - [Steven] When look at the Doryphoros, we get a sense of a man who's really walking. Here we look at figures that are not really in our world. They are high above us, they are otherworldly. And they're not looking at us, they're not noticing things around them. They are symbols of the human body. - [Beth] We can say that they're transcendent. That they transcend earthly existence. After the fall of the Roman Empire, what happens in Western Europe is the ascendance of Christianity. - [Steven] The human body was less important than the spiritual sense. And so, the Christian art often in the medieval period focused on ways of abstracting the body to create a symbol of the spirit, which of course by definition has no form. And so, it's not a surprise that Christian artists then turned to this kind of abstracted rendering. - [Beth] So what do we mean by abstracted. Well first of all the figures are tall and elongated like columns. They don't resemble a body, so much as a columnar shape. You could also notice that when we look at the drapery, the clothing that covers the figures, we don't have much of a sense of the body underneath the drapery. - [Steven] Instead there's a real focus on pattern. And you see that in the drapery, you also see it in the platforms directly below the figures. So there's this equating perhaps of decorative beauty with the spiritual. - [Beth] Those decorative forms we can see in the beautiful wavy lines at the bottoms of their drapery. We could also say that these figures lack a sense of weight. One of the things about being a human being is that we have bodies. We move through space and we have weight to us. And we sense that when we look at the Doryphoros. He stands firmly on the ground, he moves through space. But these figures have feet that point slightly down. There's no way they could really stand in this way. And so they have a sense of weightlessness, that I think matches their abstract transcendent qualities. - [Steven] Well also just look at the proportions of the bodies. Look at the length of their legs compared to the length of their torsos or their heads. There's nothing naturalistic about this. They are so elongated. But are these less beautiful, are they less well done then the Doryphoros? They're just different, the goals were different. - [Beth] It's not that the artist is less skilled or somehow wanted to make the Doryphoros but ended up making these figures on the outside of Chartres Cathedral. These were an expression of the deep faith of the people of the Middle Ages. - [Steven] And so the Doryphoros and the figures at Chartres are both spectacular but they are both responding to very different cultural needs. - [Beth] We can see that again when we move to the Renaissance. Now we're looking about 200 years or so later, at a sculpture by the great Italian Renaissance sculptor, Donatello. And here we are in the early Renaissance in Florence and boy do we see how the artists of the Renaissance are looking back, not to the figures on the cathedral from the MIddle Ages, but rather to ancient Greek and Roman art, like the Doryphoros. - [Steven] Note that Donatello has stripped off virtually every stitch of clothing, just like the Doryphoros. This is not a rendering that is concerned with the patterning of drapery. This is about the mechanics and the beauty of the human body. - [Beth] Very much like the Doryphoros. Now we should say that Donatello's not specifically looking back at the sculptures of Chartres and rejecting them. He's rejecting the ways that the artists of the Middle Ages approached the human body. - [Steven] And in doing so, Donatello is really embodying the idea of the Renaissance. Renaissance is a French word which means rebirth. And it refers to a renewed interest in classical humanism. In this case, the rendering of the human body. - [Beth] And a big part of the humanism of the Renaissance is also just an interest in the secular world. An interest in the natural world. And art once again, becomes based on observation of the visual world. - [Steven] So the story is complicated. In the Renaissance, we have a return to an earlier kind of naturalism. And it gets even more complicated when you move into the modern world, where artists can choose between naturalism and abstraction or any variant in between. And a great example of that is the 20th century artist, Giacometti. - [Beth] Giacometti had at his disposal a world of reproductions. In the 20th century, we have images around us. We have a perspective on history that wasn't available to many generations and centuries of artists before. - [Steven] So when Giacometti renders the human body, he's not seeking fidelity to nature. He's not trying to solve the problems that Polykleitos, the sculptor of the Doryphoros was trying to solve. He can do that, he knows this is something that we're capable of. Instead, he's looking for something more emotive, something perhaps more philosophical. He's looking to make that body symbolize something. And in some ways, he is closer to Chartres as a result. But he also knows what the Renaissance did, he knows what the classical world has done and he's making very conscious decisions. - [Beth] Giacometti's sculpting in the period after World War II. There are many reasons why Giacometti choose to return to this kind of abstraction. But, you know what, that's probably a subject for another video.