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Current time:0:00Total duration:7:57

A brief history of representing of the body in Western sculpture

Video transcript

throughout history in the West there's this tension this conflict between naturalism and abstraction and it goes back and forth so what we wanted to do in this video is trace some of that tension we're going to begin by looking 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 this is a sculpture by an artist named Polly cleitus it's called the Duras 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 it's incredibly naturalistic or realistic naturalism is a word that our 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 and in this case we're looking at the proportions the understanding of the contours of the body of the muscles of the body and understanding of the bones under the flesh and how the body moves in space and how it distributes weight as it moves in 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 lifelike we almost expect it to move and talk to us now clearly this was made by somebody who cared a lot about what the human body looked like up how 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 and so those are good ways to describe the culture of ancient Greece and Rome so let's fast forward more than 1500 years to the town of shark 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 these are attached to architecture so immediately we notice a significant change from the difference.the de rivers the spear bearer was freestanding in other words we could walk around him and that's important because when the scope 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 two columns the medieval sculpture because here we are in the Middle Ages the sculpture thought about making the figures match the columns behind so the figures are tall and elongated like the columns behind them when we look at the Griffis 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 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 the human body was less important than the spiritual sense and so 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 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 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 instead there's a real focus on pattern and you see that in the drapery you also see it in the platform's directly below the figures so there's this equate incredibly with the spiritual those decorative forms we can see in that beautiful wavy lines at the bottoms of their drapery we could also say that this 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 difference he stands firmly on the ground he moves through space but these figures have feet that points slightly down there's no way they could really stand in this way and so they have a sense of weightlessness I think matches their abstract transcendent qualities will 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 than the difference they're just different the goals were different it's not that the artist is less skilled or somehow wanted to make the tourists 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 and so the difference and the figures at schardt are both spectacular but they are both responding to very different cultural needs 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 difference no the Donatello has stripped off virtually every stitch of clothing just like the reference 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 very much like the de rivers now we should say that Donatello is not specifically looking back at the sculptures of sharked and rejecting them he's rejecting the ways that the artists of the Middle Ages approached the human body and in doing so Donatello is really embodying the idea of the Renaissance Renaissance as 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 and a big part of the humanism of the Renaissance is also just an interest in the secular world and interest in the natural world and art once again becomes based on observation of the visual world 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 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 so when Giacometti renders the human body he's not seeking fidelity to nature he's not trying to solve the problems that Polly cleitus the sculptor of the Douro first 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 shard 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 Giacometti is sculpting in the period after world war ii there are many reasons why Jack and Betty chose to return to this kind of abstraction but you know what that's probably a subject for another video you