Flesh is an exercise in corporeal violence. From Ron Mueck’s Youth (2009) to Lucien Freud’s Girl Holding Foot (1987), the viewer experiences a visceral kind of aggression. Like all good exhibitions, one leaves the space having felt an emotional and perceptive shift – intensified, perhaps, by the breadth and richness of the works on display. Jointly curated with Dr Jo Applin, with a grant from the Art Fund’s RENEW scheme, Flesh explores not only the human form, but abstractions, animals, decomposition and death – in artworks spanning over six centuries.

On entering the main gallery, its walls painted a deep maroon, the viewer first encounters a series of early Renaissance works – the Art Fund has provided a number of works including Fiorenzo di Lorenzo’s Virgin and Child (c. 1473), that sit alongside a selection of York Art Gallery’s own collection (including some new acquisitions). Illuminated in the darkened space of the gallery, the first paintings show pallid, almost translucent forms. A caption explains that ‘artists of the time were concerned with painting flesh rather than skin’, helping the viewer recognise his or her own barriers to viewing the work. In Francesco Francia’s, Lucretia, the viewer’s gaze is pulled toward the subject’s luminescent face as she pierces her skin with a dagger. Painted in 1508, the painting blends the violence of the scene with religious undertones; Lucretia’s impending suicide is softened by her longing upward gaze.

From historic to contemporary, the exhibition is an attempt to break through the skin, and show how bodies and flesh can reflect beauty, lust, spirituality, death and defeat. With Mueck’s Youth we see a reference to Christ’s wound while in Freud and Bacon’s work we encounter forms which are visceral and repulsive, but nevertheless human. As Venus turns away from the viewer in William Etty’s Venus and Cupid (c. 1830), we see how the Victorians struggled to hide their sexual shame. Sarah Lucas’ NUD 4 (2010) offers us a body of sorts, and one that again suggests a violent treatment of the human form: reductive, desexualised and dehumanised.

While these and other works explore what lies under human skin and the anxieties it provokes, in the section devoted to still life we are shown different relationships with flesh. Decomposition and replenishment are brought together and laid side by side. Berlinde de Bruyckere’s surreal Romeu (my deer) (2011) is an altogether disturbing take on the gutted and butchered carcass of a deer. What unsettles about this sculpture is that, on some aesthetic level, it is beautiful. It is placed in close proximity to the imposing Flemish masterwork, A Game Stall, painted by Frans Synders between 1625 and 1630. Similarly combining beauty with the violence of the abattoir, the market seller reminds us where the deer’s flesh will be consigned.

Although the artworks on display in Flesh vary greatly in style, medium and message, and were produced at different points in history, all seem to share a simultaneous fascination and fear of organic form. However, they all underline a contradiction between our historic aversion to the vulnerability and temptations of the flesh, demonstrated by our attempts to neuter and purify it, and the desire (always simmering under the surface) to consume or tear into it. In nearly all of the works on display – and this is where the exhibition really succeeds – viewers are made to almost feel the piercing of skin, repeatedly reminded of their own organic vulnerability.

Jack Shirlaw is a writer based in Halifax.

Image: Berlinde de Bruyckere, Romeu (my deer), 2011. Photo credit: Anthony Chappel-Ross.

Flesh is on at York Art Gallery until 19 March 2017.

Published 22.11.2016 by Lara Eggleton in Reviews

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