Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Body in Wax: Visual Excerpts from "Like Life" at the Met

Related in ProWax Journal
. Ephemeral Figures in Wax 

Duane Hanson (American, 1925–96),  Housepainter II, 1984; bronze, polychromed in oil, mixed media, with accessories. This is the work you saw when you stepped off the elevator on the fourth floor, with classical and neo-classical marble scuptures in the first gallery. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website

While the hordes were flocking to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute extravaganza, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, more discerning (and thus fewer) viewers made their way over to the Met Breuer. The Madison Avenue venue, former home to the Whitney, housed an equally celestial exhibition: Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body. 

Featuring 700 years of figurative sculpture, the exhibition, which closed earlier this year, was installed to cross time and cultures. Poignantly, for instance, the 19th-century wax bust of a young woman was made for a grieving widower so that she might remain with him for life, while the frozen head of a contemporary figure cast in blood requires refrigeration to maintain its form. There were 120 objects in the exhibition. I photographed those in wax, which I share with you here. 

Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Herbert Adams, Adele Gould, ca. 1894
Full info farther along the scroll

This article follows on the heels of Susanne Arnold’s splendid article in Issue 19 of PWJ, Ephemeral Figures in Wax. Whereas she researched her subject in depth, I had but to photograph objects and their informational wall texts. But taken together, we see wax through nearly a millennium of figuration in the West.                                                                                                                                                                                                      —J.M.

These are the marble sculptures we saw in the distance of the previous image. We will focus on the seated figure shown here in the far distance, but first a note: The wax figures you see in this show depict caucasians, but the exhibition included (a bit) more ethnic variety in other mediums.
All photos Joanne Mattera unless indicated otherwise

Thomas Southwood Smith and Jacques Talrich, Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham, 1830; wax, human bones, hair, wool, cotton, linen, accessories

The uniqueness of this figure lies beneath the wax exterior: the skeleton of the sitter. The museum text described it as a "secular reliquary and modern mummy." The museum description did not make clear if the hair and clothing belonged to Bentham.

Closer view of the head below

John Gibson, The Tinted Venus, 1851-56, carved marble and colored wax

Museum text: "Most critics were aghast when the Neoclassical sculptor John Gibson unveiled this figure of Venus at the 1862 International Exhibition in London . . . The use of flesh tones was deemed vulgar--too bodily and sensuous--by a 19th century audience accustomed to aloof, colorless marbles that adorned Rome. Some, however, defended Gibson's sincere attempt to revive the ancient practice and imbue the stark white marble with a sense of warmth and living color."

Detail below

Artist unknown, Funeral Effigy of Doge Alvise III Mocigeno, 1732, polychromed wax and fabric

Museum text: "Portraiture can be an act of substitution. For the doges of Venice . . . artificial corpses were made using wax death masks. The sensual quality of the skin and remarkable detail, such as the lines and stubble around the mouth, of this funeral effigy ensure a lifelike--or, more properly, death-like--presence. The face is articulated only to the extent that it would have been seen beneath the doge's very grand vestments."

Closer view, with stubble, below

Malvina Cornell Hoffman, Mask of Anna Pavlova, 1924, tinted wax

Vitrine, above, gives you a sense of the installation of the life-size head

Closer view, right

Museum text: "In choosing this incarnation for her subject rather than one that portrays more of the lyrical dancer's body, Hoffman reveals her worshipful attitude toward Pavlova.

We now descend to the third floor, where we are greeted by two ballerinas, one iconic, the other contemporary. 

Edgar Degas, The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, ca 1880; partially tinted bronze, wax, cotton tarlatan, silk satin, wood; and Yinka Shonibare, Girl Ballerina, 2007; mannequin, Dutch wax-printed cotton textile, antique flintlock pistol

This was an inspired pairing, not only for the pose but--from our point of view--the wax connection. Degas's sculpture is famously modeled in part of sculpture wax (which the artist's audience found uncomfortably similar to the waxwork specimens in the natural history museum), while Shonibare's headless figure is dressed in Indonesian-inspired wax-printed fabrics that became popular during West Africa's colonial period and remain popular today. Notes the museum text: "This deliberate sartorial choice creates visual and conceptual dissonance and also alludes to the arbitrariness of textiles as a marker of African authenticity." 

Degas detail above

Closer view, below, of Shonibare's Ballerina, with the surprise of a dueling pistol in her hands. Notes the museum text: "Headless and faceless she is a powerful personification of a subject that lacks sovereignty." 

August Saint-Gaudens, Louise Adele Gould
Bust on left: Marble, 1894-1895, modeled by Saint-Gaudens; on right: wax, modeled by Saint-Gaudens and painted by Herbert Adams; life size

Not quite Pygmalion: Gould's grieving husband, Charles, commissioned Saint-Gaudens to create several likenesses of his late wife. He particularly wanted one in wax, according to the museum text, "to better bring her back to life."  Displayed side by side, the figures allow us to see how cogently wax evokes the warmth of flesh (despite their placement within a reflective vitrine)

Below: Closer view from another angle

Angelo Pio, Portrait of a Monk, 18th century; wax, hair, cloth, glass, gilded plaster frame

Museum text: "Soft, organic, and translucent, like skin, wax has long been used to evoke the flesh of a human being. When the Bolognese artist Pio produced this hyperrealistic portrait of an aging monk in wax, he not only rendered every wrinkle and vein in extraordinary detail but also enhanced the figure's realism with actual hair, glass eyes, and thick brown fabric (possibly a genuine monastic robe). The incorporation of these materials brings the monk more concretely into our realm. The figure's enclosure within a deep shadow box, however, isolates him in a sphere separate from ours. The gilded frame, almost certainly designed by Pio himself, further distances and elevates the waxwork, announcing its status as high art."

Below: closer view from a slightly different angle

Installation view of a gallery with mixed-media sculpture by Yayoi Kusama, center. Along the far wall, a vitrine containing two busts, shown below

Foreground figure: Pierre Imans, Bust, ca 1910; painted wax, residual hair, silk ribbon, cotton net, and resin

Museum text: "In 1896 Imans began producing unconventional, naturalistic mannequins in wax. Unlike the generic, faceless fashion dolls that decorated shop windows across Europe, Iman's proxies donned face paint, resin eyes, eyelashes, and wigs of human hair . . . Their realism and elegant modeling render them veritable sculpture, modern portrait busts that hover fascinatingly between high art and popular, commercial appeal."

Below: closer view from a different angle

Kiki Smith, Untitled, a.k.a. The Sitter, 1992; wax, cheesecloth, wood, and dye

Smith's figures are never idealized or eroticized, making them poignant or painful, sometimes both. This figure is placed abjectly on the floor, evoking her discomfort and ours. Viewing it from behind we see deep gouges. We are accustomed to seeing religious iconography with this kind of physical rending, but on a contemporary figure they suggest political torture or domestic abuse.

Alternate views below

Jean-Leon Gerome, Seated Woman, 1898-1902; marble, pigment, wax

Museum text: "Here the artist examines how realistically rendered sculpture both conceals and reveals its production: the nude's casual, anti-classical pose, softly folding flesh, and wax-tinted skin enhance her lifelike presence, while her diminutive scale detracts from it in equal measure."

Below: installation view for scale 
(Louise Bourgeois stuffed fabric sculptures in the left background; Robert Gober wax torso in the right background)

Robert Gober, Untitled, 1990; beeswax, human hair, pigment

Museum text: "The human torso is defined through a pair of male and female breasts grafted onto an organic mass that took its form from a bag of plaster found in the artist's studio. Incorporating the fleshiness of wax, real hair, and pigmented nipples, this sack attains uncanny resemblance to human flesh. It pays ironic homage to the notion of a pound of flesh, while at the height of the AIDS epidemic, it more darkly alluded to the object-like condition of the body and the frailty of its parts."

Below: Installation view with Gober's torso and an Italian ex voto

Italian, Ex-Voto Breasts, late 19th-early 20th century, pigmented wax

Ex votos, popular in Latin countries, from Spain and Southern Italy to Mexico and throughout South America, where they are known as milagros, are still made today. Offerings of gratitude or supplication for divine intercession, these small sculptures are made not only in wax but in chased or cast metals like tin, copper, or silver. These wax breasts, the museum text tells us, are from a church in Bari.

(Related: Graces Received, my blog report on an exhibition of Italian ex votos)

Berlinde De Bruyckere, Pieta, 2008; wax, epoxy, metal, wood

Normally a Pieta refers to the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of her son, but the two male figures here suggest the tremendous loss of life to the AIDS epidemic, when men lost their partners and sometimes their own lives as well. Notes the museum text: "Modeled in pale tinted wax, the grisly process of decay and decomposition appear to unfold before one's eyes. Headless and seemingly mutilated, both bodies are reduced to biological matter--a depiction that verges on abstraction."

Detail below

De Bruyckere's Pieta (along with several conventional crucifiction sculptures and a powerful upended figure by Alison Saar, shown left) lead us into the last gallery, a salon the museum describes as Between Art and Life.

Left, not wax: Alison Saar, Strange Fruit, 1995; tin, wood, dirt, found objects

Museum text on Between Art and Life: "Artistic strategies of life casting, modeling, clothing, polychromy . . . are again deployed in these horizontal sculptures to approximate real bodies. The apparent passivity of these figures blurs the distinction between sleep and death, and also between bodily object and human subject. . .  As the pedestal transforms into the autopsy table, the coffin, or the bed (for birth, sleep, or death), the figures traverse the spaces between art and life."

Below: panoramic view of the gallery. We look more closely at three of the works here

Fontana Workshop, Anatomical Venus, 1780-85; wood skeleton, transparent and pigmented wax, hair, silk cushion. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website

Museum text: "An interest in human anatomy during the 18th century led to the production of female wax cadavers, known as 'anatomical Venuses." These hyperreal sculptures--with glistening skin, languid poses, and flowing hair--were designed for disassembly and exploration of the feminine interior and sex organs. Critics dismissed anatomical sculptures as peepshow science, though one Florentine practitioner, Clemente Susini, earned a sterling reputation for his superior wax modeling. This figure was produced in the workshop where Susini practiced, and it bears resemblance to his works that sit halfway between life and death, artwork and artifact, and science and erotica."

Closer views, left and below

Maurizio Cattelan, Now, 2004; polyester, resin, wax, pigment, human hair, clothing, coffin

Though the Italian-born Cattelan is a provocateur, the museum text here is overstated: "Paradoxically but self-knowingly, by enshrining JFK's death in art, and in Now's presentation in exhibitions across the world, Cattelan creates new cycles of visibility and debate, underscoring the perennial uncertainties that lie within the narratives of the death of an icon."  Pshaw. The figure is startling.

Closer view below

Sleeping Beauty, 1989, after 1765 Philippe Curtius original; gold leaf, wood, velvet upholstery, beeswax, human hair, fiberglass, steel, silk, lace

The irony of this sumptuous final work, from the Madame Tussaud collection in London, is laid out against the two powerful figures in the background: post-crucifixion Christ and the lynched body. Sleeping Beauty versus the brutality of death.

Closer view below

More about the exhibition
. Catalog
. Selected exhibition objects
. Images and texts by gallery
To continue with the issue, 
click on "Older Posts" below

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