The human body has, of course, been art’s great subject and central concern, even if it hasn’t always been kind. And there isn’t much in the way of kindness in ‘Body Shop’, a new show at the Michael Werner gallery in London. Indeed, as the gallery admits, the work here – stretching through the 20th century until the present day and including pieces by Kai Althoff, Hans Arp, Peter Doig, Francis Picabia and, inevitably, Allen Jones – tends to the fragmentary and the grotesque.
One of the earliest works on display, a 1914 terracotta bust by Wilhelm Lehmbruck, sets out the show’s conceptual stall. The subject is elongated, pulled out of shape – and doesn’t look as if he is enjoying it. Across the show bodies are truncated, sliced apart and/or boxed. Frederick Kiesler’s monumental sculpture David is all floating parts, the 20th century’s shattered self. Allen Jones has a green-faced voyeur, a head in a box, peeking at a faceless lady. Even Francis Picabia’s subject, in the most straight-forwardly figurative piece here, seems to have an unfeasibly squashy bum. She gets off lightly.
Of course, it is possible to trace all sorts of broad artistic shifts in these bodies, surreal, expressionist. And it is, by definition, an enlightening way to look at this century's kicking around of the figurative tradition. Ultimately though, the show seems to be about violence and constriction. It is, in this way, very 20th century.