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New exhibition explores human and animal flesh in 600 years of art

Posted on 14 September 2016

A new exhibition at York Art Gallery, curated by a University of York Art Historian, depicts how artists over the past six centuries have portrayed human and animal flesh.

Peter Paul Rubens' Ceres and Two Nymphs with a Cornucopia, courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

The exhibition includes more than 60 works of art displayed over three galleries and examines the ways artists, such as Peter Paul Rubens, Circle of Rembrandt, Auguste Rodin and William Etty, respond to issues of the flesh. 

Dr Jo Applin, from the University’s Department of History of Art, said: “My research into questions of the body, materiality and abstraction, and the various ways in which sculpture in particular has engaged with the idea of ‘flesh’ since the mid-twentieth century has proven critical to the way in which I conceived this exhibition with my co-curators at York Art Gallery. 

“In particular we wanted to think about how even the most abstract object can in some way encourage a bodily encounter. We also wanted to draw across a broad chronological range in order to think about the different ways in which ‘flesh’ has figured in the work of art. 

“Our hope was to produce a show that both challenged and encouraged visitors to think about how flesh is figured in the work of art in expansive, and not always literal or ‘obvious’ ways.” 


Art works, including modern and contemporary pieces, are grouped into three themes – Figuring Flesh, Still Life, and Materiality and SurfaceFiguring Flesh will look at how ‘flesh’ is understood and questions if it always has to be related to the human body. Still Life looks atthe way this genre is often loaded with meaning about life, decay, and the nature of worldly goods. 

Materiality focusses on the abstract ways flesh is portrayed. On show are eight of Katarzyna Mirczak’s ‘The Special Signs’, in which she documented the tattoos from pieces of skin posthumously removed in the 19th Century from prisoners in Krakow, and kept preserved in formaldehyde. 

The final room will be dedicated to Steve McQueen’s film entitled ‘Bear’ (1993), his first major film, which shows two men wrestling together, with close ups focussing on their interlocking bodies. 

Ageing and gender

Laura Turner, senior curator of art and science at the gallery, said: “Flesh is a word that immediately provokes a reaction – it is no surprise that artists have always drawn on this tactile, organic and changeable material for inspiration. 

“From still life paintings and anatomical studies to abstract sculpture and contemporary film, Flesh presents a series of visual encounters which surprise and challenge, raising questions about the body and ageing, race and gender, touch and texture and surface and skin.” 

The exhibition is supported by the Henry Moore Foundation and Thomas Dane Gallery, London. 

Flesh will run from Friday, 23 September 2016 to Sunday, 19 March 2017.


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