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189 Years Of The Body In American Art

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There are few sights more captivating to the human species than our own bodies, though it would be difficult to know this by looking at American art in the decades after World War II. The National Academy is presenting 160 works of art depicting the human body, mostly from its own collection, for its exhibition opening July 8th entitled “Reconfiguring the Body in American Art, 1820-2009.” Offering art over such a long range of American history makes for some interesting contrasts: The stilted figures primly dressed in the 1824 oil painting by Frederick Stiles Agate’s “Dead Child (Mother Lamenting Over Her Child)” versus, say, Ion Birch’s 2006 “Georgian Theme”; the artist is described by the museum as being best known for sketches “which incorporate phallic symbols and other erotic imagery.”
nationalacademy3eakins_selfportraitThere is a section entitled “The Figure Undressed” but this exhibition by the National Academy — founded in 1825 as “an honorary association of professional artists” — does not use the term “body” as synonymous with “naked body” or even “torso.” It basically means just depictions of human beings rather than, say, sunsets or triangles. Indeed, Thomas Eakins, best known in retrospect for photographing and painting naked men in motion, is represented in the exhibition by his 1902 self-portrait in suit and tie.
Divided chronologically into three main parts, the exhibition includes “Next: The Figure Now” which looks at some dozen works from the past couple of years, including Vapor by Alyssa Monks (2008), above right.
The National Academy Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday. “Reconfiguring the Body in American Art, 1820-2009” is on view from July 9th to November 15, 2009.

Jacob Lawrence, Self Portrait, 1977
Jacob Lawrence, Self Portrait, 1977

Natalie Frank, Painting, 2008
Natalie Frank, Painting, 2008