From the Renaissance to the nineteenth century, artists working in the Western classical tradition favored idealized statuary. Typically, marble sculptures of the flawless human form were set high on pedestals and made otherworldly by their lack of color. By contrast, within the same period we also encounter highly realistic sculptures intended to persuade us that some kind of life is present. The contexts for such works were wildly divergent—for worship, to record anatomical discovery, and for popular entertainment. Challenging widely accepted notions of great sculpture, these lifelike figures were relegated to art's aesthetic margins. With the advent of modernism in the twentieth century, the relevance of figuration and realism was further questioned. Artists have nonetheless continued to engage with the intellectual and psychological potency, the uncanniness and visceral power, of the sculpted body’s ability to resemble life.
Arranged thematically, works from fourteenth-century Europe to the global present are juxtaposed to explore how and why artists blur distinctions between original and replica, between life and art. Contending with the traditions of Western aesthetics, yet often going beyond that canon, artists have taken approaches that are surprisingly similar. Foremost among them is the use of color to mimic skin. Others include the use of pliable, fleshy materials such as wax or the integration of clothing, human hair, and textiles. Despite these material similarities, the sculptures on view embody dramatically shifting attitudes, some profoundly disturbing, toward gender, race, class, sexuality, and religion over seven hundred years.
Like Life thus provides a point of departure for examining historical and contemporary preconceptions of what constitutes a work of art, as well as emotional, physical, and aesthetic responses to the human body across time. Below are just a selection of works presented within the exhibition.
The history of Western art has favored a narrative of sculpture in monochrome, an elimination of the myriad hues of real, living bodies. Sculpture halls across Europe and the United States contain parades of monumental marble figures, perpetuating the false presumption that classical sculpture was always white.
This sculptural ideal dates back to the Renaissance, when antique marble statuary was discovered without color or was cleaned and polished until it appeared so. This preference was reinforced in the late eighteenth century when Neoclassical artists—so-called for their renewed interest in the art of antiquity—identified color as the opponent of pure art, connecting whiteness with aesthetic and moral clarity. This association came to express attitudes about race and human beauty that predominated during the long period of Western imperialism. More recently, sculptors have challenged these ideological and cultural assumptions, critiquing white sculpture as a questionable trope of European beauty and introducing aspects of realism into this tradition.
Classically trained sculptors from the 1500s onward occasionally experimented with polychromy, using paint to emulate the coloring practices of ancient artists, to increase the naturalism of their figures, and to enhance their sculptures' sensual allure. The combination of color and classicism continues to allow artists to reevaluate and subvert historical approaches to statuary and to revisit and reinvent notions of the human, the heroic, and the divine.
A portrait is often thought to convey not just the physical features but also the essential spirit of its sitter. In sculpture, this can be achieved in a number of ways—from making idealized or generic figures recognizable through an individual's specific attributes, to incorporating actual bodily matter, as seen in reliquaries containing the physical remains of Christian saints. Some artists even took casts of human faces, a process believed to transfer an element of life into the inanimate image.
Sculptural likeness is often associated with the portrait bust, a form that emerged during the Renaissance, when artists and patrons increasingly favored highly realistic representations of the sitter. Although such portrayals were popular, the Western artistic canon, founded on classicizing principles, largely eschewed the use of color. Despite this, techniques for enhanced realism remained in use for votive portraits in churches and religious ceremonies, and for displays in waxwork museums and anthropological collections.
In the wake of twentieth-century modernism, as artists challenged the art-historical tradition, they found renewed possibilities in color, life-casting, and the use of malleable, softer materials, such as wax, clay, and plaster, to make their subjects seem nearly lifelike. The portrait thus continues to be a vital form for documenting the dynamic relationship between subject, artist, and viewer.
For centuries, critics have condemned extreme feats of naturalism in sculpture as artless facsimile, humdrum entertainment, or even suggestive titillation. But the impulse to animate the sculpted body is seemingly innate. From the Roman poet Ovid's myth of Pygmalion—in which a sculptor's erotic desire for his own female statue brings her to life—to the many nineteenth-century tales of beloved automata, the artificial but animate body has figured in art as an allegory of the creative act and an expression of the power of art to inspire love.
The potential for confusion and erotic delight that resulted from this blurring of the boundaries between the natural and the made body was of particular concern to the Christian Church. The use of sculpted holy figures—both recognizably human and ideally beautiful—to elicit empathy and faith ran the risk of provoking idolatry. The worship of the sculpture rather than the idea it represents was condemned, but stories of miraculously weeping or smiling statues testify to the widespread belief that, if faith is strong enough, a statue can come to life.
Specters of desire and danger, the sculpted body's power to seduce the viewer has prompted its continual remaking. From fin-de-siècle femme fatales to contemporary retellings of the Pygmalion myth, artists have tested our responses to figurative sculpture, and our ability to distinguish between aesthetic appreciation and bodily lust.
Figurative sculpture is historically understood in the form of statuary raised on pedestals—unmoving and unchanging in its physical presence. By contrast, artificial figures with movable limbs that simulate the body's flexibility and dynamism—dolls, marionettes, lay figures, or mannequins—are usually seen in functional terms, as objects for juvenile, erotic, or narrative play, or as accessories in the artist's studio or a department store. Culturally, the utility of such proxy figures has overshadowed their aesthetic appreciation, and they are rarely considered alongside the sculpture seen in galleries and museums.
Nevertheless, artists have drawn on the literal and conceptual potential of such figures as stand-ins for real bodies—from the manipulability of Medieval crucifixes with articulated arms to the engagement with the mannequin as a readymade in the twentieth century. The symbolic and material pliability of these bodies renders them as powerful, if uncanny, surrogates, capable of reflecting and externalizing our most intrinsic human conditions and desires.
Clothing can be key to significantly enhancing the bodily presence of the sculpted figure. As the layer that mediates a human being's encounter with its physical, social, and cultural environment, it can conceal and reveal the body in deliberate ways. Indeed, it is often through clothing that identity is signaled and read (and sometimes misread). Since the Renaissance, however, the mythological nude body has broadly defined the Western sculptural tradition. When draperies are present, they often emphasize the contours of the figure's idealized form, with no chromatic differentiation between the body and its coverings.
When an artist chooses to dress a figure in real or imitated clothes, what might otherwise be a generalized image of the body can be located in a specific time or culture. The act of dressing a figure can be a form of liturgical, religious, or ceremonial observance or of artistic intervention, changing the work's significance by the choice of garb. By these means, such sculptures can become more ritually effective, politically potent, superstitiously charged, or viscerally present.
The term "flesh" indicates part of the living substance of the body, the tissues that sheathe its structural inner core. Conventionally, statues rarely reveal this bodily matter beneath the skin; the representation of flesh—that multicolored muscular material contained within—disrupts the Renaissance conception of sculptural form as one of wholeness and purity.
For a range of reasons, some artists were nevertheless called upon to sculpt the contents of the human body. Church congregations in certain areas of Europe demanded grisly polychrome sculptures of the tortured Jesus, whose lacerated, bleeding body illustrates the central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, or the humanity of Christ, and his suffering for humankind. Fragmented body parts not only convey the vulnerability of the flesh, they signal the separate connotations of each element. In the eighteenth century, a genre of colorful wax anatomical models—simulated flesh and viscera that often feature female reproductive organs—emerged at the intersection of science and art, challenging viewers with combined images of sex and death. Indeed, a soft, fleshly eroticism has historically been a feature of men's representation of women, viewed as passive and penetrable. In the twentieth century, however, this visual tradition compelled especially female artists to deconstruct notions of gender and the body through tactics of abstraction and mutation.
Figurative sculpture closely relates to ideas of human mortality. A three-dimensional marble figure can seem petrified mid-movement, with life coming to a sudden pause. Sculptures made of durable materials such as stone or bronze can also transcend the temporal limits of living bodies. When sculpture adopts a highly realistic mode, this play between the inanimate, the possibly alive, the dead, and the eternally present becomes more complex and interesting. When such a figure is lying down—either resting, sleeping, dying, or dead—the deliberate slippage between the states of temporary and permanent rest is all the more enigmatic and poignant.
Artistic strategies of life-casting, modeling, clothing, polychromy, and automated movement are again deployed in these horizontal sculptures to approximate real bodies. The apparent passivity of these figures blurs the distinction between sleep and death, and also between bodily object and human subject. Palpable fleshiness and symbolic presence are both evoked to highlight the human body's position at the intersection between physical and conceptual form. As the pedestal transforms into the autopsy table, the coffin, or the bed (for birth, sleep, or death), the figures traverse the spaces between art and life.
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.