Saturday, July 4, 2009


Andrew Wyeth

There may be no better test of what's inside an artist than their response to what's on our surface.

The drama of human flesh has inspired a variety of artistic reactions. As John Updike noted, "the menace of and the sadness of naked flesh have impressed artists as much as its grandeur and allure."

At the same time that skin inspires such reactions, it also provides artists with a broad and complex language for expressing feelings, thoughts and desires. Here are just a few samples:

Toulouse Lautrec brilliantly captures the weight of flesh

In this detail from his watercolor of a weary stripper backstage, Burt Silverman distinguishes between the color of flesh that has been exposed to the sun and flesh that has never seen the light of day.

The ultra-cool Bob Peak lowers the temperature of skin to the level of liquid nitrogen

Gustav Klimt excelled at finding mythical eroticism in flesh

Andrew Wyeth puts flesh under his microscope and finds it radiant

Contrast these rich portrayals of our mortal envelope with the abject poverty of popular technicians such as Vargas or Olivia:

The disparity between these artistic treatments shows that for artists with searching eyes, skin offers clues, promises and temptations about inner life and personality. These are the fuel for true eroticism. On the other hand, lesser artists find that skin blocks any inquiry beneath the surface and ultimately leaves them with a shallow and boring caricature of sexuality.

Artists such as Vargas and Olivia excel at painting flesh firm like sausage casing, but they seem oblivious to the cosmic significance of the freckles that they thoughtlessly airbrush from a bare shoulder.

I was reminded of the artistic importance of skin last week when artist
Kim Smith sent me an mpeg about the Omo river people in Africa who paint their skin in wondrously beautiful ways using natural pigments from the world around them.

If you can overlook its annoying quotes from Picasso, you may find this slide show about the Omo people as inspiring as I did: