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Figuratively Speaking

The intriguing new exhibition “Like Life” is what The Met Breuer does best

Ambitious and provocative, crossing centuries and curatorial departments, and showcasing some 120 artworks, Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and The Body (1300–Now) at The Met Breuer presents centuries of figurative sculptures drawn from The Met collection and dozens of lending institutions and private collections. But don’t call this exhibition a survey.

 

Co-curators Luke Syson, Iris and B. Gerold Cantor Chairman of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, and Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A. Lauder Chairman of Modern and Contemporary Art, have organized the exhibition around themes rather than a timeline, creating conversations between sculptures from different eras, in different media, and of varying degrees of verisimilitude. What unites the works on display is a commitment to naturalism over abstraction—and the uncanny sensation that most viewers feel when looking at an object meant to resemble a human body.

Left: Marc Quinn, Self, 1991. Blood, Perspex, stainless steel, and refridgeration equipment. Private collection. Right: Circle of Giovanni di Bartolo (Italian, active 1364–1404), Reliquary Bust of Saint Juliana, 1376. Copper, gilding, gesso, and tempera paint. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1961 (61.266)

 

Most of the show’s artworks—with some crucial, fascinating exceptions—also portray the human body in color, throwing into question the perceived prestige of smooth marble statuary in the Western art-historical canon. As Syson writes in the show’s scholarly catalogue, this emphasis on sculptures in color confronts “a series of paradoxes that have long confused the making and viewing of naturalistically colored figurative sculpture in the Western tradition…alive/dead, artificial/natural, religious/profane, material/magic, statue/doll, object/viewer, elevated/accessible (or more simply, high/low), serious/entertaining, loved/loathed, and…colored/white” (p. 14).

 

The range of works also showcases the many materials creators have used to represent the human form over the centuries. Sculptors have deployed wax, polychrome, and even fabric to reproduce the quality of human skin, while human hair and other supplements add an almost too-lifelike feel to certain depictions. Perhaps most unsettling is Marc Quinn’s self-portrait sculpted from his own frozen blood, a portrayal as grotesque as it is compelling. A show that provides such juxtapositions and raises such questions is the kind you’ll find only at The Met.

Left: Willem Danielsz van Tetrode, Hercules, ca. 1545–60. Painted terracotta. The Quentin Foundation, London. Photo: Maggie Nimkin, New York. Right: Greer Lankton, Rachel, 1986. Papier-mâché, metal plates, wire, acrylic paint, and matte medium. Collection of Eric Ceputis and David W. Williams, promised gift to the Art Institute of Chicago. Greer Lankton Archives Museum. Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY.

 

Anyone who loves thought-provoking art will find much to admire and reflect on in this show. And for anyone who wants to start their own collection of figurative sculptures, The Met Store offers its own presentation of reproduction sculptures that beautifully highlight the human form.

Body language: Augustus Saint-Gaudens: Diana Sculpture (left), $485; Rodin: Adam Sculpture, $495

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