Adapted from "How Art Made the World" by BBC.
Images dominate our lives, they mold and define us, but there’s one type of image that captures us beyond any other. It inspires, manipulates, affects what we think of others and of ourselves; it is the form of the human body.
The human form has obsessed some of histories greatest artists. The range of differing bodies is breathtaking, yet there’s something that all great images of the human body have in common. Whatever their use, and wherever their location, the world’s most popular forms of the human body share this one thing.
Have you noticed that none of these images resembles an actual human being? I mean do you know anyone who actually looks like these forms? People don’t create images of people that are realistic. Why are people obsessed about making images of the body that are not realistic? This is actually a deeper question about who we are as people.
:et's go back in time, to what most archaeologists believe is the oldest art piece which represents a human form.
This is the Venus of Willendorf. This four inch high, limestone carving is now kept in the Natural History Museum, Vienna and is the museum's most prized possession, valued at 60 million dollars. This relic of the past is more than that, this lady is our first clue into why our world is obsessed with unrealistic images. With clearly unrealistic, extremely pronounced breasts, stomach, thighs and sexual organs; she may have been a symbol of futility or motherhood but that doesn’t explain why her arms or face is almost non-existent. She doesn’t look like this by accident, these forms were seen all through the ancient world.
What’s going on in our brain when we look at art? What's was going on in the brains of our ancestors? The beginning of our answer is found in research on seagulls, yes, that's right, seagulls! In 1947, Dutch Researcher Nikolaas Tinbergen found that herring-gull chicks would tap onto their mother's beaks at feeding time. The research showed that the chicks were stimulated not because of their mother but by the red stripe on her beak and they proved it with a simple experiment — a stick with a red stripe on it. Further research showed that a stick with three stripes stimulated the chicks even further... but wait, a stick with three red strips doesn’t look like a beak! If seagulls had an art gallery, they would take the three stripes on a stick, worship it and pay millions of dollars for it. The analogy here, is that we, like our ancestors, like exaggerating features for own brain, the equivalent of the seagulls mesmerisation with the red stripes.
But can this instinct explain for all forms of humans in all history? To answer that, we need to go to Ancient Egypt.
Ancient Egyptians had an organised system of government and strict hierarchy. They used images of the body extensively in their art. Compared to the Venus of Willendorf, these images don’t seem to have exaggerated features, everything looks proportionate, at just about the right size. Is the prime instinct to exaggerate gone? Not really, Ancient Egyptians were practical people (as seen in their buildings and government) and wanted the body to be seen from it’s clearest angle. If you look closely, it's still unrealistic; eyes in the side of the head, fingers at all the same length, palms of hands always in the same direction. This is unrealistic, but is this just a style or something deeper? Well actually, this "style" of the human body was the only form of the human body ever seen in Ancient Egypt for over 3000 years! This was found intentional when a grid system was discovered in an unfinished tomb. The grid; 19 squares tall, indicate the feet to be 2.5 squares long, the pupil half a square off the centre line and so on. Egyptian society didn’t want it to change, it came from the cultural values the society was founded on. These images were built to last forever. These images are driven by culture.
Do the images we make represent a part of our culture? Is culture king? Let's fast forward into history. Ancient Greece was fixated on the body and in their eyes, the perfect body was an athletic body. They believed their gods had impressive bodies, so the more impressive you could make your body, the more like a god you were seen to be — and really, if you looked good, you were good (a little bit like today's culture). At the time, the culture demanded realistic statues. Greek worshippers wanted to meet their gods in person, in the temples, for that to happen, they needed life size, realistic statues. With the increased knowledge of statuary the "Kritios boy" was created, a truly realistic depiction of the human body.
This is the final clue, not because it’s realistic but because of the effect this realism had on the Greeks. For the very first time, man makes a true image of himself, they had reached the pinnacle — they could continue making statues just like this forever... but they didn't! It died out within a generation, why? The answer reveals something fundamental about us as human beings; when it comes to images of the body, we’re driven just not by culture by our primal instinct to exaggerate. We don’t like reality, it's hardwired, even though in some cultures it’s suppressed.
If art is about realism, what’s the point of art, just go look at things. In the principle of exaggeration, you have to do interesting things with the image; lawfully distort the image in order to simulate the brains aesthetic response to that image of the body. We are preprogrammed to want more — something more human than human.
The question then posed at the time; how would they create and adapt real bodies worthy of their temples? Merely exaggerating muscles wasn’t enough, they had to discover their equivalent of the red stripped stick.
In 450BC, Policlitius made the breakthough, he showed the physical potential of an athletic. He wanted a body that was both relaxed and ready to move.
These are the Riace Bronzes. No where on Earth can you see sculpture as astounding as this. In terms of skill and execution, these are argued to be the best statues ever made and are the result of Policlitius' formula in exaggerating the human form. This quality is impossible to achieve today. These were made 2000 years before the Italian renaissance! You may see this and think, "maybe if I hit the gym and my diet was right, I could look like that", but in fact, it’s not anatomically possible for a man, however athletic, to look like this. The crest of muscles around the waste are exaggerated, the legs are lengthened to match the same length of the upper body. An implausibly deep groove runs up the centre through the chest. And while the chest muscles are totally relaxed, the muscles on the back are tense and impossibly well defined. The central channel through the spine is deeper than you’d see on any real human and to improve the line of their back, these men have no coccyx bone at the end of their spine. These are unrealistic bodies, reality has been exaggerated and that’s why their so overwhelming.
The instinct to exaggerate is still dominate today. We humans don’t like reality. What we choose to exaggerate is where the science ends; that’s where the magic comes in. As cultural values change, what artists decide to change on the forms of human beings changed too. Impressionists exaggerated light and colour, rather than shape. As cultures became more diverse, what we exaggerate changed further. And the instinct is still alive today, in characterchure and television; catwalk models' proportions captures qualities that we regard as impossible. With digital manipulation, we feed this and in the cults of the body beautiful, we even do it to ourselves; spending billions on features on our own bodies that we consider beautiful. Our obsession with the human form continues, something seen since the dawn of art.