I love some of the titles of art exhibitions. A few years ago, I saw a unique one entitled, “Recline/Design: Art and the Aesthetics of Repose” at the Palm Springs Art Museum’s location in Palm Desert, Calif.
The introductory panel of the exhibit read, “The human body is a classic source of inspiration for artists of all genres, and it is also the unit of measure in furniture design. With the museum’s wide-ranging collection of chairs alongside modern and contemporary representations of the body at rest, this exhibition considers how the figure in repose shapes artistic explorations of form, function, and feeling. Works include Henry Moore’s sinuous sculpture, Duane Hanson’s lifelike bronzes, images documenting the laid-back style of Palm Springs, as well as chairs by Cini Boeri and Ron Arad.”
The works are in every artistic medium conceivable and encompass cultures from both ancient times to the present. Such well known artists as Maillol, Rodin and Tamayo, as well as Buddha and other religious images from around the world are included.
Also there are wonderful photographs by luminaries such as Julius Shuman, the photographer most known for his shots of mid-century modern homes and some beautiful images of body builders in repose by an artist known as Bruce of L.A.
Throughout the history of art one of the most consistent of all subjects is the reclining nude. Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore were all well known for their figures in repose. A great example of Moore’s work is on the grounds of the Columbus Art Museum. His reclining figures are not mere exercises in abstraction; rather, they symbolize larger themes, such as the relationships of humans to the organic and inorganic natural world.
The Palm Spring’s exhibition was divided into three sections: The Classical Figure, Design and the Built Environment, and Nature and Spirituality.
Back home again, I visited our very comprehensive St. Louis Art Museum and got my afternoon exercise walking for over an hour identifying pieces from our own collection, which fit into these three categories.
The chairs in the decorative arts and design section of SLAM featured works such as the Herter Brothers Sewing Chair to Frank Gehry’s chair fabricated by the Knoll Group. A chair can be looked upon as pure sculpture on the one hand, and functional equipment on the other. The evolution of the modern chair forms its own chapter in art history.
David Conradson, the Grace L. Brumbaugh and Richard E. Brumbaugh Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at SLAM once told me, “Chairs have so much to say, they’re loaded with information.
“We recently created an installation at SLAM based on that most familiar kind of furniture-chairs-as an entry point to discuss the place of functional objects in an art museum. Using a range of chairs from different time periods and traditions, we invite viewers to reflect on their form, technology, and style. The selection is always changing and there are many kinds of chairs to discover throughout the galleries, from wood to plywood to metal and the latest digitally printed resin. There’s even a paper chair by the Japanese designer Tokujin Yoshiota.”
The Zapotec vessel in the form of a seated figure in the Pre-Columbian area of the museum is outstanding, as is the chief’s chair and the Yoruba mother and child in the African section. The Chinese seated Bodhisattva (Guanyin) work not only is in repose but puts us in a very meditative mood that makes one want to be in a position of repose as do the numerous works showing the Buddha in every guise. These of course, fall under nature and spiritual.
And in the category of the classical figure, the Artemesia Genteleschi harks back to the notion of the Odalisque, the nude or partly clad female who is both desirable and dangerous.
Other outstanding works of figures in repose at SLAM include Paul Delvaux’s surrealistic “The Fire” in which women who seem to be in some sort of a trance advance towards a reclining androgynous figure, Lovis Corinth’s fleshy Parisian courtesan “Nana,” and Matisse’s “Bathers with Turtle,” in which one of the figures reclines.
So take a walk through our own art museum or an art museum anywhere in the world and notice how many works deal with figures at rest or in some state of repose.
For more of Nancy Kranzberg’s commentary, listen to KWMU (90.7) St. Louis on the Air the first Friday of each month at approximately 12:50 p.m. She also hosts a weekly Arts Interview podcast for KDHX (88.1), available at artsinterview.kdhxtra.org.