« The painter has two things to represent: the character and the state of his mind ».

- Leonardo de Vinci, Treatise on painting, 1651


Art is constantly questioning the human through figures and bodies.

The human body is at the center of the concerns of Western art. It was not the same during the Middle Ages, when the iconoclasts refused the veneration of the sensible form. This is still the case in regions of the world that do not inherit the Greek or Latin tradition.

But the body does not only designate the material part of animate beings. It can also identify the main part (of a city for example), a material object (the celestial body), a group (the medical cops) or a consistency (to give body to something). The figure, for its part, can appeal to a form (from a plastic point of view), but also to the means to understand an allegory (in rhetoric) or to designate a model, an example.

If it is by the body that the human affirms its presence, it is by its figure, by its gestures, that it is recognized (“to have the figure, the air of his father”).

Thus, the body (and its figure) is not an artistic subject like any other, and to paint the body often comes back to reveal its soul.

It is through the diversity of human approaches that art questions him. The paths covered here will be diverse. They will go from Hans Bellmer’s exaltation of life (and sex) to the buried sexuality of Louise Bourgeois. From the physical presence of the body in Francis Bacon to his counterpart, the effacement, in Arnulf Rainer. To finish with the call to the memory of the dead at Christian Boltanski.

Sans titre (Unica ficelée), de Hans Bellmer (1959)
Sans titre (Unica ficelée), de Hans Bellmer (1959)

The figuration of the object-body: Hans Bellmer

On a reddish background, a fine and assured line, a subtle white line, an outline, prefigures what could be two arms and two legs. Without trunk and without depth, the line is organic. In place of the trunk, we can identify the reference to the photograph of the strung body of the artist’s wife, Unica Zürn. What looks like his belly appears tied up, forming a shapeless mass and yet the only volume represented. In the drawing, the hands touch the heels of the character, in an improbable position.

The French artist of German origin, close to the surrealist movement, focused here on the feature, on the figure of a disembodied body-object. His drawing evokes the shape of the doll, dear to Bellmer (and to other artists, such as Niki de Sant Phalle, the Chapman brothers or Cindy Sherman). Purpose of perversion, she embodies the docile substitute of an eternally consenting female body. His disturbing strangeness identified by Freud as what should have remained in the unconscious comes from the endless mutilation inflicted by the artist, in search of a nonexistent phallus?

Mutilation supported by footwear fetishism, present despite the nakedness of the organs and the air flesh, as in a surrealist dream. The body is naked, the flesh tied and nevertheless the character has heels. The left hand touches one of them, in an allegory of the touch of the female breast, symbol of pleasure. Fetishism and sadism, abuse he inflicts on the mass of ligature flesh of his wife.

What is the difference between the figures of Bellmer and those of Matisse? In Bellmer, they are airy, dreamlike, symbols of drive and sadistic desire. At Matisse, orchestrated, distanced, buried in an arabesque revealing a desire sublimated and a voluptuousness of the signs. The gestures are subtle, light. But Bellmer objected to the sexual drive, while Matisse distanced the woman in a simplified voyeurism, forcing the viewer to a second reading of the work.

Is there a link between the binding of Bellmer and that of Araki, contemporary Japanese artist? The two artists photograph their women tied up, their flesh bound, their meat going to the oven (allegory of the sexual act)? The women of Araki, close to the report, are floating, dolls in flesh submitted to the will of their master. They look at the viewer, show him with their bodies a documentary. Their floating universes recall that of the Castle in the sky (Hayao Miyazaki’s 2003 film). Is not submission already present in the tradition of lacing the kimono?

Mutilated bodies are not exclusive to Bellmer. At Louise Bourgeois, they will take a contrasting turn. Bellmer’s sexual expression, sadistic, perverse, will be in the artist intimately, suggestively or evocatively.

Evocative sexuality: Louise Bourgeois

Femme-couteau, de Louise Bourgeois (2002)
Femme-couteau, de Louise Bourgeois (2002)

Louise Bourgeois was born in Paris, but moved to the United States. According to her texts, singularly titled “Destruction of the Father, Reconstruction of the Father”, she is the third daughter of a man who wanted a boy. So his art is constantly trying to fight emotional dependence.

Woman-Knife is a hybrid sculpture of a woman’s body mutilated in canvas, without head or arm and with one leg less. On his neck, a metal knife threatens to slice it. The work is impressive by the contrast of its materials. The textile seems soft, a nod to the craft of the artist’s mother, who was restorer of tapestries. The cold metal knife is the symbol of aggression par excellence. The model appears to us as a piece patched. A mutilated body whose feminine attributes are clearly visible, with a slightly inflated belly, such is the function of the woman, to give birth? Is it the vision of the woman’s body by the artist? And what does the knife mean, ready to slice the body in two? His action would give a sharp, incisive blow to sex, such is the function of man?

Similarities appear between Woman-Knife and Single III (1996). The latter represents a man and a woman, with two sexes and two heads, sharing a single (female) bust. Their legs and their arms are also mutilated. Image of a sad coitus. The sculpture could be interpreted as the reification of the blindness that the artist had to impose during his childhood. She must have been blind to her father’s mistress, to her mother’s grief, to her sister’s sexual relationship with a neighbor, to the sadism she practiced with her brother … Her repulsion towards everyone was certainly not foreign to reasons of eroticism and sexuality.

All that remains of the artist is not violence. The one who has lived with four men (her husband and three sons) plus the dog, also speaks of the male vulnerability. Mom (1999) is an ode to the artist’s mother. Huge spider, weaver like her, protective and at the same time predatory. Like most of his plastic work, his materials are diverse (bronze, marble and stainless steel).

Over time, Louise Bourgeois’s sculptures will be transformed into complex installations. His Cells and Red Rooms will suggest confinement, violence or intimacy. It’s not basically the same thing? The Cells of the artist are not without evoking the cages in which Bacon encloses his characters, a structure inherited from Giacometti.

Trois études pour une crucifixion, de Francis Bacon (1962)
Trois études pour une crucifixion, de Francis Bacon (1962)

The carnal presence of the body: Francis Bacon

In this painting, the omnipresence of the red, the circular base, the windows, allow to imagine characters just in cages. The work is an allegory on the theme of the Christian Passion. The triptych also refers to the traditional form of altar paintings of the late Middle Ages.

In the panel on the left, two characters whose flesh is crushed, visceral, flayed, wear contemporary costumes. Beside them, two carcasses of meat are like the double morbid of their silhouettes. Do they represent their future? In the center panel, Bacon painted a man writhing in a bed, perhaps in a hospital. His belly open, he smears the white sheets with his blood. On the right panel, a carcass hangs from the ceiling. It takes the place of the body of Christ on the cross and evokes slaughterhouses, “places of election of the sin of the flesh”, as Georges Bataille had written (“Abattoir”, Documents n ° 6, 1929).

The painting of the violence of reality appears “as close to a logic of sensation” according to Deleuze (Francis Bacon, logic of sensation, 1981). His meat is not a dead flesh, it has kept all the sufferings and taken all the colors of the living flesh. It is the flesh of Christ, of a suffering body whose Catholicism has emphasized. If he has expiated our sins by his physical suffering, the Virgin by his moral suffering. Although the body of Christ is not just any body, because it is endowed with a dual nature, human and divine (it is the hypostasis), the meat is the common area of the man and the stupid.

We find the flesh of Bacon in his portraits and self-portraits (Autoportrait, 1971), or in his series from a painting (Portrait of Pope Innocent X Velasquez, 1953 or Self-Portrait on the road to Tarascon Van Gogh, series that it begins in 1956).

In the line of Picasso, who exerted on Bacon a considerable influence, the artist remained faithful to the figuration. The figure of Bacon is somehow disfigured, to the extent of the disorder of the contemporary world? But the dislocation of his bodies differs from that of Picasso. Bacon flays them, shows their entrails, in an animal relation inherent in human nature. While the dislocation of Picasso can be translated as a physical relationship in the literal, sexual, drive. For Picasso, there is no difference between sex and work, between life and work and therefore between sex and life. Picasso cripples bodies as he cripples a language (his French language of adoption?). Bacon, he returns bodies to make them exhibit what has more animal in them. It is an archaic crisis where enjoyment and pain are still undifferentiated. His paintings show a magma more animal than human. Their flesh is sad and vulnerable.

Three studies for a crucifixion may represent the metaphor of society’s relationship to industrial death, in the context of post-war and Nazi crimes. Death will not be foreign to Arnulf Rainer, but instead of showing off the inside of the body, he will not cease to erase it, so to accompany him to “the big ocean”.

The erased body: Arnulf Rainer

Sans titre, série Totenmaske, d'Arnulf Rainer (1978)
Sans titre, série Totenmaske, d'Arnulf Rainer (1978)

The work exhibits a pale, livid portrait with obvious signs (and other images) of death. His position is almost horizontal, drooping, as if the absent neck could no longer hold his head inert. The neck is replaced by a wired base that looks like a defeated cotton belotte. Cotton that wraps lightly and bluish the head of the deceased. More intense traces of blue, such as ink stains inadvertently appear on the forehead, mouth, mandibles. The half-open mouth reveals the gastric orifice. The eyes seem sewn, the lines close them, the same as those of the beard or the mustache. The hairs are white, almost transparent, they announce their absent life.

The artist based on a mortuary photograph, to cover it with a halo of ink, of paint, transgressing the taboo of the image of the dead person “that one does not touch”. The pictorial act is thus experienced as a burial of an image. The process is passive, slow. The ritual accompanies the artist and his image, to bring him to eternal peace. The immersion of the painting makes him return little by little in peace and invisibility. Experience can be compared to mysticism and religious life. It is as if the artist lifted the carapace, breathed the last breaths of the body that confides in him, and caught the last moments of his life. To give body (or life) to what it is no longer.

The body is almost the only subject of Arnulf Rainer. His dislocation is not carnal (Bacon), or drive (Picasso), but passionate and suffering. Perhaps because the artist was born in Vienna in 1929, and is contemporary with his fellow Viennese actionists. Like them, Rainer was marked by Surrealism and the Second World War. Although he remained on the drawings and paintings, while the shareholders preferred performance, brutal and radical exhibitionism and their cathartic impact.

The context of death, of the Beyond present, is also grasped by Christian Boltanski, in his work of call to the memory.

Réserve du musée des enfants II, de Christian Boltanski (1989)
Réserve du musée des enfants II, de Christian Boltanski (1989)

The art of memory: Christian Boltanski

Five rows of eleven photographs of children in black and white run along the wall. These are enlarged and blurred photographic portraits of deported children. Yellowish, aged by the time they did not have. Lamps are aimed at their faces, as if it were a police interrogation. An interrogation whose poverty means reminds of the dark hours of the Second World War.

The work disturbs, and that it is children makes it even more intolerable.

The arrangement in rows of the installation corroborates the idea of ​​cemetery. The portraits are similar to those we can see in front of the graves, in black and white, witnesses of bodies disappeared from another era. Or in burning chapels. We see the difference with the mortuary portraits of Fayum, and their posture facing death, in front of life suddenly interrupted portraits of Boltanski, against the natural course of things.

Some references animate the work.

Looking closer, the viewer can see himself, as in a mirror, and remember the mourning necessary for the loss of his childhood. This is the case in Boltanski’s autobiographical and fictional reconstruction of his past in The Family Album D. (1971). The artist recovers frames scrapped by the SNCF and recreates the childhood of CB (himself?) Until his death in an accident.

Another reconstruction, this time real, is made by Nan Goldin in the Chapel of the hospital of Salpêtrière, in 2004. She realizes Sister, saint & sibylle, slide show and diary of Barbara, sister of the artist. The slideshow shows a lively and talented girl victim of her father, puritan and authoritarian, who places her in a psychiatric facility, before her suicide.

By recalling the fleetingness of life, the installation of Boltanski is also a kind of vanity, a genre very popular in the seventeenth century.

The memorial question animates the creations of Boltanski. His installations are anthropological and present themselves as inventories of dead individuals. The artist knocks on the door of collective and technological memory, through the evocation of pixels. This mural is the culmination of an emblematic approach to the question of memory. Even if the notion of palimpsest is not directly related to Boltanski’s work, it is by its symbolic meaning.

It is because there is a body that there is representation. It is because there is a body that there is life and there is death. This story wanted to question the human by the body but also by its most symbolic expression, the figure. Of course, who says life, says sex: obvious, perverse, at Hans Bellmer’s; buried, subtle, with Louise Bourgeois. In the same way, which says body, says flesh and says matter. She will be visible and abused at Francis Bacon’s; dead, buried and erased, with Arnulf Rainer. In the infinite journey, beyond the bruised bodies will remember, the archaic memory and immortal Christian Boltanski remembers us.


  • Michel Makarius, History course of contemporary art. Bachelor of Fine Arts L3, CNED 2017-2018.
  • Hélène Sirven, Addendum to the History Course of Contemporary Art. Bachelor of Fine Arts L3, CNED 2017-2018.
  • Nadeije Laneyrie-Dagen, History of art for all, Ed Hazan, 2014.
  • Elisabeth Couturier, Contemporary art how to use, Ed. Flammarion, 2009.