The body has been used as a sign or symbol in art for centuries. The body was used to symbolize perfection in ancient Greece, and in Egypt, to give a precise image for the God of the After-life. Not to mention their colossal monuments which promote power and glory, and are used to intimidate. However contemporary artists use the body as a symbol which conveys a whole range of different kinds of layered meaning, although the simple symbol of power has not been lost over the centuries. Ancient Greek sculptures of the body are a medium between man and the gods, they are an ideal of physical perfection. The female figure of c.650-625 B.C. (fig. 123) and a nude male youth of c.600 B.C. (fig. 124) are perfect examples of the use of symbols to convey meaning. These statues, Kore (maiden) and Kouros (youth) were produced in large numbers, all being virtually the same in outline. Their general names emphasised the need for the statues to remain unidentified and the lack of personal character. Some were placed on graves only to be viewed as representations of the deceased in the broadest sense (completely impersonal). And some were used as offerings, for example: for a favoured person like the victor in an athletic competition.The strange lack of differentiation seems to be part of the character of these figures. They are neither gods nor men, but rather somewhere in between, a symbol of physical perfection, an ideal shared by not only humans but also immortals, the gods. Moreover, statues of the body in Ancient Greek art were also used to capture the image of the gods themselves. Nine of Samothrace (fig. 181)has a dramatic impact on the viewer. It is the image of the goddess descending upon the prow of a ship. The beauty of the shapes that the body creates, glorifies and beautifies the goddess. It is a symbol of the power and immortality of the gods and the sole purpose of the artist is to convey this beauty and power to the people of Ancient Greece. Ancient Egypt is also another place in which the body was used as a symbol or sign. Colossal monuments such as The Great Temple of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel was a symbol of great power and wealth, as only pharaohs were able to create these monuments. Size was everything to the Egyptian pharaohs, it was the primary key to emphasise and increase their power and worshipers. The wonderful inscriptions and hieroglyphs found on temple walls were of great importance. The use of the body in the relief work on the temple walls were used to convey a perfect image of the deceased to the God of the After life. The detail and intricacy of the body was to insure that they could be recreated to perfection in their life after death. Contemporary works that use the body as a sign or symbol, are found in abundance. Works as simple as a portrait can have a great impact on people. Portraits such as that of Hitler, during World War, I had enormous effects on the people of the Jewish religion. To have these huge portraits of Hitler's face all over the country insured his control and power over the turn of events and the Jews. Victims by Jose Clemente Orozco is of the Symbolist art movement. The name of this movement is indicative of the precise purpose of the artists of that time. Orozco had a deep humanitarian sympathy with silent suffering masses and in Victims he illustrates his powerful trait. The bony bodies of the unidentified people in Victims is a symbol of the problems that were afoot in the world in 1936. Vast numbers of people were starving, suffering and dying. Orozco used the bodies in his artworks as a symbol of this suffering and successfully draws the focus and the emotions of the viewer. Thus, the artwork has fulfilled its primary purpose. The use of the body in Les Demoiselles d' Avignon by Pablo Picasso symbolizes the change of the way we view art and the body in art. Picasso introduced Cubism to the world. His brave abandonment of the Blue Period for a different and more robust style is seen and conveyed through his art. When Picasso started this picture, it was supposed to be a temptation scene in a brothel. However, he ended up with five nudes and a still life. This artwork was Picasso's own counterpart to Matisse's The Joy of Life , and the nudes in his work have a savage aggressiveness compared with Matisse's generalized figures. This distinct difference could be considered as a sign of Picasso's growing distance from the style of art in that particular time. His urge to breakaway from convention and conformity can be seen through the signs he posts through his artworks and also through the use of the body in art. Consequently, throughout the history of art, the body has frequently been used as a sign or symbol as a metaphor or to convey meaning. In the times long before Christ the body was used in art to show power and wealth, like the Egyptians, and also to create a perfect image, as it was for the Greeks. In the 20th century, the body as a sign or symbol may be interpreted differently by each viewer. However, there is always an underlying purpose and meaning to the works of contemporary artists, how ever layered it may be. Overall, we can never escape the fact that the body as a symbol will be used in art to come, as it has before, and that it has a concrete prestige in the world of art.
Bibliography A History of Art By H.W. Janson
Published in 1970 by Thames and Hudson