You can dump it on a plinth, sculpt it, chop it up and hang it on the wall, or stick it in a vitrine. These days, you can even cast your head in your own frozen blood and people will just think it's a new way to sell blackcurrant sorbet. The lubricated, complicated, ultimately unknowable thing that we call 'the body' has become a cliché. Yet the most enduring and compelling image in Western art remains that of ourselves; the question is, how did we get into this dreadful state?
The sober, dignified resort of San Sebastián is an unexpected venue for an exhibition dealing almost exclusively with images of the human body under extreme physical, emotional and psychic duress. 'Abyssal Forms' takes those artists who gravitated around Georges Bataille and his short-lived journal, Documents (1929-30), as its core. It includes key works by Antonin Artaud, Hans Bellmer, Jacques-André Boiffard, Jean Fautrier, Alberto Giacometti, Eli Lotar, André Masson, Henri Michaux, Germaine Richier and Wols. Both the exhibition and its excellent catalogue focus on what the show's curator, Juan Vicente Aliaga, describes as 'disturbing ...sinister visions of the organic'. The lengthy, discursive introductory essay by Aliaga, the biographical notes and texts by the artists (some in English for the first time), ensure the catalogue is likely to remain an important reference work for some time to come.
Much of the work is indeed disturbing, although Hans Bellmer's photographs of a woman revealing her sex as she bends over a bicycle, and of the same woman touching herself up as she hoists one leg onto the rim of a lavatory bowl, caused one young visitor to exclaim 'Look, Papa, a vagina! I've been longing to see one!'. I didn't find out what he made of Bellmer's series of photographs of his lover - the writer Unica Zürn - bound tightly with fine cord, or of Masson's drawing of a penis-headed man strangling a woman whose hands are tied behind her back (the image used on the official souvenir t-shirt). Eli Lotar's gory abattoir photographs - taken in order to illustrate an entry in Bataille's Dictionnaire critique - may appear, at first sight, to be a detached documentary of the sanguine business of animal slaughter. But the photographer homed in on the glistening viscera of discarded entrails, the swipes, squalls and skids of spilled blood, and the smeared and caked animal pelts, with something approaching delectation -- and occasionally with a dark humour. Perhaps the best known image from this series shows a row of hooves standing against a wall, like a queue of workers waiting at the factory gates.
'Death', writes Aliaga, 'seems to be the unnamed guest'. Named or unnamed, death is everywhere. Artaud's coruscating portraits are founded on the belief that 'The human face is an empty force, a field of death...and it is the painter's job to save it by restoring its proper features'. In the deformations of his haunting, sculpted heads, Fautrier (much affected, like many of these artists, by World War Two) presents human beings caught in a state between wakefulness and a return to pure matter. Entire portions of the human face have been dragged away, are left unformed, or are buried in cinder-like lumps of bronze. Throughout the exhibition there is a preoccupation with the human form hollowed out, split open and anatomised; represented as though it were a thing, an object, or - in Germaine Richier's work - an insect or a turd, rather than a person. Aliaga surmises, paradoxically, that 'the extreme, in this sense, may serve to affirm the human being's capacity for individuality rather than being lumped together with his fellows, and also his insecurity and fear of being swallowed up by a unifying machine'.
'Another way of poking into the abysses of the self', writes Aliaga, pungently, is via a study of eroticism. Here, inevitably, death is inextricably twinned with pleasure, and eroticism reveals itself in preoccupations with disembowelments and the accoutrements of the S&M dungeon; in dirt, subjugation and pain. Following Lacan and Bataille, Aliaga takes the view that if there is any 'enjoyment' or jouissance, it is 'a traumatic enjoyment, riddled with guilt and complexes'. This was certainly true for Giacometti, who talks of '...memories of shit and masturbation...and all my forays...in search of a prostitute, obsessed by prostitutes'. Equally so for Bellmer, who, in The Anatomy of Love (1947), wrote of 'the white conundrum of the hundred small bones in your foot contrasted marvellously with the velvet of your intestines' as though in a necrophiliac reverie. Boiffard, known primarily for his stark photographs of the body's extremities (the human foot in particular), also took shots of a chained-up woman kitted out in fetishistic gloves and a restrictive mask, and of a seated skeleton peering at his own erect penis.
The desire to delve into the symptomatology of their repression, both in their work and in the things they said and wrote, is primarily what distinguishes the artists in the exhibition. Aliaga declines from the kinds of readings which insist on placing them within the legitimising frameworks of Surrealism and Existentialism. Sartre and Breton may 'cast long shadows' over these artists, but it is Aliaga's contention that what they share is a state of artistic bastardy, and that they somehow escape the 'isms' within which historians attempt to place them. 'The world they present to us resembles nothing, fits into no academic formulations, but, on the contrary, adopts a language that is slippery and heterodox', he writes; realigning the artists in terms of Bataille's notion of the informe and a shared sense of overwhelming anxiety and crisis of identity.
This exhibition is a telling reminder of the origin of recent art concerning the human body. It is a show in which the art of the past tests and mocks - with fierceness, candour and lack of ideological constraint - many of the late 20th century's more circumspect efforts to provide a fitting iconography of the corporeal.