Inspired by Civilisations: How Do We Look?

In episode two of Civilisations, Mary Beard took us through a history of representation of the human body in art across the world, from the monumental statues of Egypt, the depictions of the Olmec culture in Mexico and the soldiers of the Terracotta army. She also took the opportunity to turn the frame around, exploring the perception and interpretation of the figure by the viewer - posing the question "How Do We Look?".

As you enter the main floor of the Scottish National Gallery, you come across a small marble relief showing the Roman noble Mucius Scaevola. He has just plunged his right hand into the flames of an altar beside him, to show how cheaply he values his life. Yet, despite the physical pain he must be suffering, this face is almost serene, looking quietly outwards past the viewer. His body is gently twisted in a contrapposto stance, giving a sense of movement to this athletic, toned youth.

Giovanni-Maria Mosca Relief of Mucius Scaevola About 1523

Although carved in the 1500's this sculpture instantly references many of the principles explored and established in the Greek Revolution, the period between the sixth and fifth century BCE where sculpture and painting were transformed. There is the notion of movement, the respect for the individual and the moral and political virtues, which would have been immediately understandable to the learned men who commissioned such carvings. This small work exemplifies the persistent legacy of the Greek Revolution in western European Sculpture, and the consequently enduring perception in the west between the worthy and the beautiful.

Beard also discusses another pivotal moment in the story of European Art that came out of the Greek Revolution – the establishment of the female nude:

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) Venus Rising from the Sea ('Venus Anadyomene') About 1520

Persisting through Ancient Rome, the nude was fully embraced in the European Renaissance, with its unwavering reverence for and deferment to the classical style. In the work of Titian, such as his depiction of the goddess Venus Rising from the Sea, we can see that the precedent set by the Greeks was very much alive in Renaissance Venice.

The associated symbolism such the scallop shell is minimised to allow the viewer to instead focus their gaze on the naked woman wringing out her hair – Titian’s depiction of this subject proved he could rival the art of antiquity that inspired him and even with the limitations of canvas, could bring the ideal to life.

As Mary Beard went on to argue, this ideal view of the human figure has resulted in the creation of a distorting and sometimes divisive lens for European audiences. This perception, in turn, has led to a narrow view through which the art of different civilisations was judged and even utilised by artistic movements in the twentieth century; their incorporation of non-European styles described as the influence of “primitive” and “naive” art.

In the last century, we have also seen examples of artists challenging the notion of the nude and the gaze of the viewer. The photographic series Self-Deceit by the photographer Francesca Woodman sees her taking control of the possibilities of representation. The use of the mirror in this work alludes to the process of viewing and being viewed. Rather than reflect herself, she employed it to indicate the empty, desolate space which she inhabits, blocking her figure through an ‘aggressive reflection of emptiness’ – protecting herself from her gaze and the gaze of the viewer.

Francesca Woodman Self-Deceit #6 (Roma) 1977 - 1978 © Woodman Family Foundation. Artist’s Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2023
Francesca Woodman Self-Deceit #5 (Roma) 1977 - 1978 © Woodman Family Foundation. Artist’s Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2023

By looking at these images, and the many other depictions of the human figure to be found in the history of art, we can get a sense of the cultural norms and perceptions of the past. The way in which these works are presented today can also tell the viewer about the culture they live in and how it perceives the body, a fact that closed this episode of Civilisations:

Civilisations continues on BBC Two 9 PM Thursdays.

The carving of Muscius Scavola and the Venus Anadyomene are presently on display in the Scottish National Gallery.

7 March 2018