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The Body as an Object of Beauty

It is impossible to conceive of beauty in the absence of the body and its perception or sensation of the beautiful. Whether in Enlightenment definitions of beauty as mental harmony or in postmodernist repressions of the body in encountering the sublime, the body and beauty are inseparable. If beauty is concerned with transformations occurring within the body, it is also the body itself that is necessarily the closest site of the desire for beauty. Furthermore, the link between certain types of bodies and the feelings they arouse is central to the experience of beauty. The body is therefore at the core of human creativity and desire for its modification into an object of beauty is an essentially human creative practice.

The Beauty of the Body in Classical Sculpture

From the time of the Ancient Greeks in the fifth century BC, when Sophocles wrote ‘Wonders are there many none more wonderful than man’, the human form and appearance has been considered as a proper and predominant subject matter of the artist. Portrayals of idealized beauty in the image of man were associated with the Greek discovery of individual value and divinity in every ordinary, mortal human. The development of the human figure in Greek sculpture shows a progression from the stiff, archaic kourai to the freedom of the Kritios Boy in the early classical period and the unrestrained, thunderbolt-throwing beauty of the bronze Zeus of Artemiseion. The bronze sculpture of the Discobolus by the Greek sculptor, Myron (c. 450 BC) is exemplary as an early object of beauty encapsulated in the perfect balance of human proportions and representation of the body.

Renaissance Bodies of Beauty

A moral sense of the goodness of beauty streams from the artwork of the most celebrated artists of the sixteenth-century Renaissance in Italy. The triumph of the nobility of human nature in the form of a beautiful goddess contrasts sharply with the bestiality of the slavish half-animal she holds by its tangled hair in Boticelli’s painting, Pallas and the Centaur. Similarly, the statue of David by Michelangelo displays his concern to emphasize the beauty of the human form on a grandiose proportion. Inspired by the Renaissance model, the English Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of 1848 took up the theme of the body as an object of beauty. Rossetti’s obsessive depiction of languorous women clothed in the drapes of mediaeval gowns, with swollen lips, serpentine necks and long, luxurious hair unpinned and flowing freely, achieved notoriety against the contemporary backdrop of Victorian rigidity and convention. Burne-Jones provides a portrayal in excess of these bodies of beauty in his depiction of eighteen such identical women in the painting, The Golden Stairs (1880).

Contemporary Art Scene

The advent of modernism saw the rejection of the body as an object of beauty in Western art. Considered an outsider and largely abandoned in favour of pure form and sublime vision, beauty as an aesthetic ideal became a pejorative word in art throughout the twentieth-century. Pablo Picasso’s paintings of distorted female nudes and Lucian Freud’s stark depictions of male obesity exemplify the modernist repression of the body as beautiful. However, critics are beginning to signal that the tides are now turning. Influential thinkers such as Arthur Danto, Dave Hickey and Peter Schjeldahl are putting forward new conceptions of beauty, and artists themselves are speaking about their unease and disenchantment with the formalist dogma of the 1950s onwards. Louise Bourgeois invites consideration of the body’s ability to seduce as well as repel in her rounded stone sculptures of human folds. Outsized shop window mannequins by Charles Ray and satirical fashion photographs by Sherman suggest that new technologies in the media combined with an emphasis on fashion and style in contemporary culture are also influential players in the reinstatement of the body as an object of beauty.

Culture of the Beautiful Body

If the body is re-emerging as an object of beauty in the fine arts, then this trend is already securely established on the mainstream high street. In the current culture of the body, desire for beauty is paraded everywhere in fashion, aesthetic surgery, body art and modification. Direct action on the body through piercing, tattooing and surgery serves as individualisation in the quest to be beautiful. A proliferation of eating disorders marks the extreme end of this culture of the beautiful body as an ultimate proof of individual worth and value in an arena of hyper-individuality. If the desire to be beautiful is epitomic of human desire and pervasive in modern life, the pathology of conditions such as dysmorphophobia is brought into question. Perhaps above all, the present climate reveals how cultural ideals of racial and gendered bodies inflect the very laws of beauty themselves.


  • Greek Landscapes includes thoughts and pictures from the natural and cultural landscapes of Greece. There are photos and further information about Ancient Greek sculptures.

  • A website devoted to the life and works of Michelangelo.

  • Indecent Images is a gallery of evocative pre-Raphaelite paintings, with commentary and background by Steven William Rimmer.

  • Enlarge photographs of the sculptures of Louise Bourgeois.

  • This site is devoted to the mutual appreciation of the human form as a work of art across cultural, international and intellectual boundaries.

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