The Body Beautiful

IMG_1180 (3)

          Lately I’ve been collecting images of bodies. I’ve been thinking and reading material about bodies. Scarred bodies, aging bodies, sick and dying bodies, sexy bodies.

My body fits most of those categories at the moment, and I’ve spent the last few years caring for someone who fitted all of the above.

As an artist, and a former arts model my body, in various states of undress,  has been referenced or featured in my own and other peoples work for a number of years. These works range from drawings and paintings, to soft sculpture and installation. However when I went to find an image of my old work to post here I was shocked to discover that the most recent works were nearly 15 years old! Academia and Caring both take up a lot of time.

Sadly my old “partner in crime” a photographer friend who took lots of lovely nude pics of me back when I was in art school, has also been sucked into Academia, so she’s not available at the moment; although she has indicated that it’s a possibility for the future. I’m nowhere near as wonderful a photographer as she is, but I think for the sake of art and blogging I must give it a try. But not today – its freezing! Therefore I will just go with an image I took last week when I was looking to create a pic to post to my page on Sexual Health.

Back to the reading: There’s been a bit of hype in the papers recently about Dame Helen Mirren and her lovely lingerie choices. Apart from making me mad that this sort of ageist, sexist nonsense makes the headlines it also makes me wonder how many of the older women I know – including my academic colleagues, are wearing something empowering and lovely under their clothes. Mum, (while not an academic) certainly did!

Whenever we talked about age and aging Mum told me very directly that she didn’t feel like she was in her 90’s, and her clothing choices up until the last little while reflected that. I believed her and I also believed that she was like that because she was always so engaged socially, and because quite simply she enjoyed life. As I cared for her I often found myself thinking what a great body she had, especially her lovely hips and bum. I had to fight the urge to take nude photos of her – not because she would have objected so much to the nudity, but because I was her Carer, and she had Dementia. Therefore I believe I would have been violating my duty of care in an ethical and legal sense, even while the artist/daughter in me felt eager to make what I viewed as interesting and socially useful work…

But I do believe we need to see bodies and body parts at every stage of life, in every state, shape, size and colour. Bodies that are, as they are, not airbrushed or fiddled with (although I won’t reject a mirror and a blue filter). I recently came across the work of Canadian artist Genevieve Santerre. Santerre does (amongst other things) body casts and sculptures including some lovely vulval casts which are featured on her website. I now deeply regret I didn’t follow through on my own intention to create a cast of that most intimate area of myself back when my own arts practice was so vital, so I could see exactly how I’ve changed over the years…

When I was an art student one of my favorite, if most challenging artists, was Hannah Wilke. Wilke was an American feminist photographer, who began working back in the 1960’s. Photographs such as those she took of her face and body “starified” by tiny moulded vulva’s earned her some criticism as both feminist and artist with the images being regarded by some as narcissistic and others as a clever feminist tactic  to subvert the male gaze (see the following link by Lady Lazarus for a robust paper on this).

However the work which drew and challenged me were Wilke’s final defiant images referencing the medicalisation of her changing body as she confronted her own gradual dying process. I was not alone in this, the “rediscovery” of Wilke’s works by the arts establishment after her death provides a rare instance when artworks recording bodily difference and aging (though Wilkie was still relatively young when she died), were taken more seriously than those featuring youthful beauty…