The Body in Motion
The exuberant selection of works from the National Gallery of Canada’s collection currently on view in Movement: Expressive Bodies in Art celebrates the power of art to connect, engage and inspire. Works from the 17th century through the present day demonstrate art’s endurance and strength, and its capacity to inform contemporary life in new and dynamic ways. A central subject is the dynamic energy of the human body.
Photographs, videos, prints, drawings and paintings present movement as a graceful line or as explosive strokes of colour. In other works, artists set the body in motion to explore the many possibilities of human interaction and relationships. Bodies perform for the camera to question societal norms of gender, race and ethnicity, their movements embodying a call to action to redress inequities or injustices. In yet other instances, figures entwine, reach out and support one another, their movement momentarily stilled to embody the need for human contact and to acknowledge a shared physical and mortal condition.
At the turn of the 20th century, artists conveyed the dynamism of modernity through vibrant colour and evocative line. Paintings depict the body’s gestures as sinuous graphic elements – bold colours signify vital energies and unconventional moments. In Kees van Dongen’s Souvenir of the Russian Opera Season (1909), the Russian ballerinas Anna Pavlova and Ida Rubinstein are depicted dancing Cléopâtre through brilliant colours, stylized curves and a rhythmic composition that evokes the sultry languor of the dance and the exuberance of Parisian night life.
Somewhat earlier, photography suggested movement through sequential images that would ultimately lead to the development of cinema. Improved photographic technologies later enabled dynamism to be captured through proximity to the action and low camera angles, lending the subject a larger-than-life presence. Lisette Model relished the energy of life and unconventional moments. For her, a successful photograph must first convey the photographer’s excitement about their subject and their surroundings, a sentiment discernible in her image of the highly charged bodily expressions of Pearl Primus, a pioneer of Modern African-American Dance. Artists also exploit dramatic lighting and long exposure times to render the moment of a gestural dance a powerful statement on current events.
Artistic processes produce specific lines of inquiry for artists – particularly for those investigating the interrelation of restraint, control and movement. In early conceptual art, the artist’s studio was a means to focus on art-making, guided by the dictum that anything made in a studio is art. Narrative contexts were omitted to emphasize simple, repetitive activities. In other works, bodily shapes function as components of art. The body is also seen as captured, moved and restrained by unknown forces.
Suzy Lake’s dynamic suite of images expresses a physical and emotional state of vulnerability and powerlessness. The artist considers her images visual "records" of her efforts to gain control in circumstances where she really had no control. Other artists explore the notion of the individual dissolving through and sometimes across images, suggesting that what is not present or easily seen is as vital as what is foregrounded.
The body’s physical limits often contest psychological and emotional realities. Historical depictions of this state can be seen in Jacques Callot’s lively engagement of individuals in baroque dances. Nobility and impropriety merge indiscriminately through the artist’s handling of artifice and love of caricature bordering on the grotesque.
More recently, the work of conceptual artists Marina Abramović and Ulay focuses on the emotional dynamics of two individuals collaborating. In Relation in Space (1977), the artists repeatedly ran towards one another, their naked bodies colliding at ever-increasing speeds. Using their bodies to explore the potential and failings within the male-female dualism, they pushed physical and mental limits, their stamina often determining the performance’s length. The interactions of bodies reveal the process of artistic creation and communicate a range of states, from empathy to hostility.
In her work Long Arms, multidisciplinary artist Sarah Anne Johnson portrays the opposite condition. The artist depicts a couple’s emotional and physical bonding through a tight binding of elongated arms. The work explores the need for human contact and intimacy, portraying this deep emotional bond as two bodies merging – in effect, becoming one.
The centuries-old global movement of cultural objects – through theft, trade and commerce – has assigned foreign values to them and has orphaned works in museums and collections governed by colonial processes. Yet, while historical lines are broken or held in diasporic suspension, objects retain traces of the individuals and cultures to which they belong.
The art of Indigenous artists such as Brian Jungen and Daphne Odjig attests to the success of maintaining continuity with the past, in spite of the violence communities have suffered under nation building. Absence connotes presence, especially of the power and potential role these objects may still play for those eager to scrutinize historical injustices. Alutiiq artist Tanya Lukin Linklater’s performance and video piece A gentle reassembly (2021) encapsulates the core concept in her practice, as she continuously returns to Indigenous structures and forms of knowledge. Through research, choreography, and dance-based performances, she critically responds to the ongoing forms of colonial violence that continue to impact Indigenous peoples and cultures.
The racism that informs Western aesthetics has also underplayed many Indigenous objects’ original function in maintaining community, history and tradition. The entry of African masks into Western museums is one example, especially with respect to their role in supporting ideas of Modernist formalism and the 20th-century avant-garde movement. Brenden Fernandes explores the aestheticization of othered bodies and objects in his As One (2017) series.
The photographs place ballet dancers in conversation with West African masks from the Cravens Collection at the University of Buffalo Art Galleries. The artist envisions a performative mode of communication between the artifacts and the dancers as they maintain various poses in close proximity to the masks.
Uneasy histories also inform Adam Pendleton’s video Just Back from Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer (2016–17). The artist and avant-garde choreographer Yvonne Rainer share a meal and discuss her ground-breaking dance performance Trio A (1966). Pendleton then shifts the discourse by having Rainer read a text of mixed citations from African-American civil rights advocates and organizers Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, and activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, with excerpts from her own published works. The performance opens a space for the two artists to confront the pain, anger and hurt of generations of racism through compassion, respect, openness and care.
As the final work in the exhibition, a work by Marian Penner Bancroft presents the strength of comfort in 2:50 a.m. Mission Memorial Hospital … six hours into labour … Judy and Tennyson … dance a slow one (1982), where a couple is seen in close embrace, physically and emotionally supporting one another as they wait for their child to be born.
Movement: Expressive Bodies in Art is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from September 2, 2022 until February 26, 2023. Consult the Calendar for related Events and Performances. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.