Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300 - Now)

By Yang Shuming, translated by Ke Lingxiang, Image Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art New York

Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300 - Now)

The Met Breuer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York 

21 March - 22 July 2018

For Catholics, the Holy Communion is generally celebrated in the month of May, using bread and wine as symbols of the body and blood of Jesus. The strange impression of the spectator who in May have visited several large exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York may be similar to the one left after watching the Holy Communion, as the themes of three exhibit halls are all about human body. The Met Fifth Avenue and the Met Cloisters display the Costume Institute’s spring 2018 exhibition, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, from May 10 to October 8, 2018, while human corpses, human blood, and reliquaries can be seen in the large-scale super-real sculpture exhibition at the Met Breuer, Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300-Now), shown from March 21 to July 22, 2018, which includes about 120 works created in several hundreds of years, from the 14th century after the victory of Christianity until now, such as those sculptures by Donatello, El Greco, Auguste Rodin, Edgar Degas, Rene Magritte, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Marc Quinn, Charles Ray, Jeff Koons, and Robert Gober.

The exhibition overview shows that such an exhibition attempts to examine the age-old problem of realism and how the artists use different strategies to blur the distinctions between the original and the copy, between life and art, and between the real and the false through these key sculptures from different eras in conversation with each other. Color is used to mimic skin and flesh, different parts of human body are produced with casts taken from real bodies, dressing sculpted figures in clothing, constructing moveable limbs and automated bodies, or even applying human blood, hair, teeth, and bones – all these tactics demonstrate that the western sculpture has a tradition of realism either in terms of art history or theory, preferring to sculpt ideal, classic images with the white pure marble.

The approximation of life may be unable to render such works pleasing but will unsettle the spectators. The exceptionally bold curators of the exhibition have selected a large number of super-real works that can both surprise and startle the spectators. The particular space of sculpture is set free and what the spectators feel whilst facing such artificial human bodies close to the natural and real ones are uneasiness and horror. To walk among these sculptures of lifelike bodies created in more than 600 years is like visiting a historical wax museum of real human bodies or in the scene of some religious ceremony as all these bodies possess the incarnations of our own reality, the prophets that we believe in, and the illusory bodies that make us confuse the real with the false.

The Met Breuer uses two exhibit floors to display these works of about 120 and divides them into six sections. The sections of “Proxy Figures”, “Layered Realities”, “Figuring Flesh”, and “Between Life and Art” on one floor show the commercial roles of sculptures, dolls, and fashion mannequins, the religiously performing function of sculptures as the embodiment of sanctity and immortality, and the changes of human attitudes towards sex, race, class, sexual orientation, and religion in the course of history.

The exhibition begins with Degas’s bronze sculpture, Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer (1881): the eyes of the little girl tinged with lightness and vice are looking at the spectator out of the elevator. On the left side of Degas’s sculpture is the British-Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare MBE’s headless sculpture, Girl Ballerina, created in 2007, whose posture is similar to that of Degas’s little dancer. Shonibare’s ballet dancer is a life-size mannequin wearing colorful ballet skirts and pointe shoes made of Dutch wax-printed fabrics influenced by Indonesian batiks and popularized in West Africa during the colonial period. The spectator may immediately be attracted to the extreme disharmony of these two statues. If they take a turn around Shonibare’s sculpture, they can see that the hands of the little headless, anonymous, innocent girl hidden behind her back hold an antique flintlock pistol, which will render her aggressive all of a sudden. The Western African-British Shonibare uses this work of art to examine the history of colonialism and our contemporary issues of immigration and multicultural identities. Such a work, together with the sculpture of Degas who is famous for his hatred of social revolution and anti-Semitism, indeed play the role of introduction to our perception of lifelike bodies through a purposeful irony of human history and reality.

What first startles the spectator is the wooden statue of Jesus lying in a long glass cabinet created in Ticino, Switzerland around 1500-1510: Jesus is skinny, featuring a twisted posture, a slightly lifted head, and painful expression; though the color of his trunk is like that of a dried corpse, the bleeding wounds on the right chest, hands, and feet are still fresh. A large number of wooden sculptures of Jesus equipped with moveable limbs were created in Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, which could be used to perform the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. The moveable wooden limbs of such a Jesus sculpture could be dismantled for devoted disciples to cleanse, embrace, kiss, and worship, after which they would be buried with the trunk of the body. The participation of the disciples could render the ceremony more moving and convincing. Another sculpture of Jesus is full of wounds from head to toe and the vessels, entrails, and the muscular system can be seen through the broken and rotten skin, aiming to literally convey the verbal signification of “eating my body and drinking my blood”. Religious tales and rituals that can well respond to the conversion logic between the true and the false, together with the conventionalized performing way of immersion, have a great power to make reality and miracles “reappear”.

The realistic sense of artistic creation also benefits from new scientific techniques. Apart from the super-real works, the hyperreal exhibit works in this show are more impressive. The Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham (1832), one of the most attracting works, is displayed in another exhibit hall and the skeleton of the pioneering Utilitarian philosopher is made of wax. The anatomical techniques have enabled us to preserve the body of Bentham until now. The work is loaned by the University College London to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including the entire dress, wooden walking stick, and chair, but the head is left in London due to some visual concerns, which leads to the separation of the head and the body. Nevertheless, it seems that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is too cautious as Bentham’s head, compared to the degree of shock that other exhibit works produce on the spectator’s mental state, may scarcely win the “most horrible” work. For example, the bloody head in a special freezer shown alongside Bentham’s head is Marc Quinn’s mold of his own head, Self, created in 1991, which is the first work of his Self series. Quinn uses a kind of nearly transparent silica aerogels to replicate his own head, then injects into his mold his own blood of 5.6 liters, which is taken every six weeks, and finally displays the self-portrait head in a freezer. “If you unplugged it the head would turn into a pool of blood,” Quinn once said about his idea for the Self series and described his most intense interest in real life, stating that, compared to metal or steel materials, nothing was more real than his own blood in the creation of his self-portrait head.

The posture of the sculpture as a substitute for the real body or the immortal one will increase complexity and confuse the border between life and death. In particular, when a statue is lying flat on its back, is the body resting, sleeping, sick, or dead? The states of temporary rest and permanent rest are like mysteries provoking our consideration. One eccentric exhibit hall displays two parallel rows of eight lying statues, among which three represent the biblical scenes while one is the hyperreal sculpture of Kennedy in an unblemished business suit with bare feet resting in a coffin. Next to the wax sculpture of Kennedy is Paul McCarthy’s self-portrait figure cast from his standing body, which the artist partially clothes and reclines on a padded folding lawn chair, stimulating the spectator to imagine in their mind’s eyes a backyard scene and an ambiguous state of sleep or coma. Shown alongside McCarthy’s sculpture is the female wax cadaver incorporated human hair named Anatomical Venus (1780-85). The colorful and lifelike entails, blood vessels, and muscular tissues are displayed on the chest of such an elegant and moving statue that the spectator are almost unable to look at it directly. The uneasy feeling stirred in such an illusion can only slightly be disarmed when they stand in front of the sculpture of sleeping beauty on the other side of the hall. The sculpture loaned by the Madame Tussauds of London is a waxwork equipped with a breathing machine and its original is Louis XV’s mistress, Madame du Barry, wearing a gorgeous dress decorated with jewels. We can hear her breath as if she were alive, and we seem able to smell the charming and sweet scent if we approach her a bit more.


Exhibition view of "Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body" at The Met Breuer, Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Thomas Southwood Smith, 'Auto-Icon' of Jeremy Bentham, 1832-42


Tip Toland, The Whistlers, sculpture, 2005


Philippe Curtius, Sleeping Beauty, 1989