The human body is more than flesh and blood — it bears cultural values and tales of morality. Swirling around today’s bodies are important discussions about transgender rights, ableism, genetic engineering and body positivity. We can trace how “ideal” and “atypical” bodies are shown in advertising, movies and art, helping us understand shifting norms and persistent biases.
A bounteous art exhibition on display through Jan. 26 at the Seattle Art Museum offers powerful visions of how the body was represented — and what it conveyed — centuries ago in Italy. “Flesh and Blood: Italian Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum” really does boast “masterpieces” — 39 beautifully crafted Renaissance and Baroque paintings (and one sculpture) by artists who were acknowledged masters in their time: Titian, Raphael, El Greco and many others. Not all of the artists were Italian but they all created work for Italian patrons. SAM curator Chiyo Ishikawa and her collaborators selected these works from the Capodimonte in Naples, the second-largest museum in Italy.
There is one female artist in the show: the incomparable Artemisia Gentileschi, who defied the customs of her day to become a professional artist. She painted several versions of Judith, a Jewish widow, in the act of killing Holofernes, an Assyrian general who besieged Judith’s town. This early version is gorgeous and gruesome. Judith’s strong arms cut across the canvas much like the sword she works against the general’s throat. Someone long ago trimmed the canvas, leaving us with a tightly cropped revelation of female fortitude and righteousness. Gentileschi’s approach may have been shaped by her own experience — the young artist painted this work just a few years after she was raped, in her home, by her art teacher.
Another painting hints at the relationship between gender and power, but with more mystery. Parmigianino’s intriguing painting of an unknown woman includes the hallmarks of a marriageable young woman: She is elegantly dressed, revealing a tasteful amount of unblemished skin. This kind of portrait often signaled the acceptance of a suitor’s gifts (see: the jewelry and textiles shown in the painting), thereby entering a betrothal. But Ishikawa states that this was likely not a specific portrait and, instead, more of a symbolic representation of an ideal woman. I wonder how more typical signs of femininity would have been reconciled with the controlled forcefulness of her look, the bulk of her garments and the fierce teeth of the weasel-like marten, whose fur she wears.
Most of the other female-focused paintings in the exhibition are more conventional for their time, providing visions of maternal or spiritual devotion, sexual availability, chaste beauty or some odd combination thereof.
In Titian’s “Danaë,” the title figure — a mythological Greek princess — lies naked on a bed, fully displayed for the viewer’s pleasure, while the god Zeus visits (in order to impregnate her), disguised as a shower of gold coins. The man who commissioned the work, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, kept the large painting hidden behind a curtain, underscoring the work’s erotic intentions.
Male bodies, both dressed and naked, are exhibited as well, carrying connotations that range from divinity to gluttony. An altarpiece entitled “Pietà” by Annibale Carracci shows the corpse of Jesus on his mother’s lap. The thin, contorted torso, which has clearly suffered, and the lifeless hand, rendered in greenish grays, expose the mortal humanity of this divine figure.
Two stunning works by Jusepe de Ribera also use the male physique strategically. In a huge altarpiece, dramatic lighting calls attention to the sagging, wrinkled skin of St. Jerome, an early Christian ascetic who practiced penitential acts of self-deprivation and self-harm. The artist used feathery brush strokes on top of thicker layers of paint, hinting at how paint covers a canvas like skin, and reminding the faithful of the impermanence of an earthly body.
Ribera’s “Drunken Silenus,” on the other hand, is all about excess. Silenus, a companion of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, sprawls across the canvas with a brightly lit, barrel-like belly and a cup raised for a refill. His corpulent body is painted with ruddy and dingy highlights, linking unethical (or at least undisciplined) behavior with an unkempt body. His pose deliberately refers to the reclining-female-nude motif, suggesting his state of unmasculinity or impotence.
A standout painting by Agostino Carracci underscores old biases against bodies that would have been considered atypical. This commissioned portrait depicts members of a sort of entertainment troupe employed by Cardinal Odoardo Farnese. A dwarf named Tiny Amon looks toward Hairy Harry, a man with a condition that causes excessive hair growth. It’s an almost unthinkable outlook today, but these men were seen as curiosities, collected for the amusement of the court. Their role is accentuated by the loyal dogs, exotic bird and monkeys that surround them.
After gorging on all this bodily symbolism, it’s a relief to enter the last gallery of the exhibition, with its wonderful still-life paintings. Ishikawa posits that, unlike the still lifes of Northern Europe, which often used food and flowers to hint at the transience of earthly pleasures, these are simply about the abundance of the region. It is true that the bouquets are not wilting and that there aren’t human skulls or hourglasses inserted into the compositions. And yet, the slashing blood on a goat’s head and the sharp knife balanced precariously on the edge of a table seem to warn of the vulnerability of the flesh.
Throughout the exhibition, we are reminded of how art — much like a pitcher of wine or a human body within the paintings — is a vessel for meaning and message. Gender, race, class, age, ability and size play roles in communicating these meanings, in ways that feel historically remote, intimately resonant or disappointingly familiar.
Old tropes continue today. The 2016 Report on the Status of Women and Girls in California stated that women appear nude (or partially nude) in films three times more frequently than men do. Standards of female beauty and sizing are still mostly based on young, tall and thinner-than-average bodies.
But there is an increasing spectrum of body types and messages in various images these days, mirroring slow shifts in attitudes toward gender, sex and beauty. Change will persevere as the producers of culture — artists, actors, directors, writers — increasingly emerge from within the diversity of the population. In fits and spurts, in art, entertainment and social media, we may see new forms of how the body is represented, and what it conveys.
“Flesh and Blood: Italian Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum,” through Jan. 26, 2020; Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave; $29.99 adult, $27.99 senior, $19.99 student, free for SAM members and children 14 and under; first Thursday reduced-ticket prices; seattleartmuseum.org