Authors: Hugh Aldersey-Williams
– with the body’s entire weight borne on the front of the toes – is something I do not attempt. The position developed as a way for dancers to appear elegantly lighter than air, as if hovering a few inches above the ground, and seems still more unnatural. I say so, and discover that Deborah has a bit of a bugbear about the supposedly torturous demands of ballet. ‘Ballet develops the muscles to hold the skeleton in a particular shape,’ she tells me a little severely. ‘And developing a muscle is not a bad thing to do.’
, the foot makes the terminus of a straight line to the ground, which is braced all the way up the body by the muscles of the calf, thigh, abdomen and back in turn. I am reminded of the structural engineer’s view of the body as a system of columns and beams and levers. I see that, held like this, the body’s entire weight is constantly brought back towards this central axis, so that it passes down the leg and out through the pointed foot. It is like the steel column of a modern building, which tapers almost to a point where it touches the ground despite the great weight that it supports. ‘These movements are totally within the bounds of the human body,’ says Deborah. ‘We don’t know its limits.’
The concept of record-breaking so crucial in sport is absent from dance, but there is nevertheless a drive for constant physical improvement. So, for example, in the arabesque – a movement where the dancer stands on one foot and extends the other behind her – the height to which the dancer raises that leg has crept up over the decades. There are some fundamental limits, however: the height to which a dancer can jump has remained constant because it is subject to immutable physical laws. (In fact, to a good approximation, it is the case not only that all comparably fit humans, but also that all species capable of jumping, from the flea to the elephant, can jump to roughly the same absolute height of a metre or so. This is because both the energy needed to produce the jump, generated by the muscles, and the potential energy gained at the top of the jump are directly proportional to the animal’s mass, ultimately making this mass, or size, an irrelevant consideration.)
Above all, the physical activity of dance is distinguished from sport by the requirement to disguise the effort involved. Watching a sport, we hear the grunt of the wrestler, see the sweat of the treadmill runner and notice the wobble as a weightlifter’s leg threatens to give way under him. Some of these signs of exertion may be solely cultural, that is to say physically avoidable, and only used by the sportsperson as a way to show how hard they are trying. It’s hard to believe that the extravagant shrieks with which some tennis players now embellish their stroke-play are anything other than part of a performer’s act, for example.
But grunting is clearly out in ballet. So are visible sweating and wobbling limbs. All of these would shatter the outer shell of effortlessness that the dancer must project in order to produce art. At the Laban Dance Centre in its colourful modern home on Deptford Creek in south-east London, I learn of a scientific project to explore the physical limits of the dancer’s body where this illusion breaks down.
is a twenty-minute dance piece that aims, according to its creators, to expose ‘the effort beneath “effortless”’. The performer and subject of the experiment will be Emma Redding, a dance scientist at the centre. The choreography will require her to execute repeated strenuous actions until she is overcome by muscle fatigue and exhaustion. The ‘performance’ will be based not on what she thinks her limit is, because we naturally tend to stop ourselves before we reach it, but the further limit to which she is pushed by a trainer. ‘Near collapse,’ Emma tells me, ‘someone would be getting nauseous and light-headed and be shaking. Which are our anthropological habits and which things do we need biologically?’ Emma’s legs will be strapped with devices to monitor the build-up of lactate in her muscles and other vital signs. The scientific data will be interpreted along with more subjective feedback, such as Emma’s running commentary on what she is feeling and the critical comments of observers.
The latter are valuable because the impressions of knowledgeable spectators of physical activity are especially informed. They are known to be based on the action of so-called mirror neurons. Discovered as recently as 1992 during the course of magnetic resonance imaging studies, mirror neurons are brain cells that fire not only when you perform a particular action for which you have been trained, but also when you see that action performed. The phenomenon helps to explain why the best sports commentators are often people who have themselves performed at a top level in that sport. When the football commentator sees the footballer’s foot flick the ball in a certain way he is able to predict the flight of that ball more accurately than a naive spectator. It also explains why dance critics are more often ex-dancers than music or theatre critics are former musicians and actors. They quite literally have a feel for what they are seeing, and use this extra-sensory dimension to inform their judgement. On a broader level, it seems that mirror neurons may play a vital role in helping us to learn through observation, and may also be involved in our ability to feel empathy.
Emma seems amazingly upbeat about the prospect of what might in other circumstances be fairly described as torture. No dancer myself, I cannot engage my mirror neurons properly to empathize with her. All I can do as I leave is wish her well with the experiment.
Perhaps because they are usually in motion of one kind or another, feet when they are frozen in stone seem to exert strange powers. In the Book of Daniel, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar has a terrifying dream in which an idol appears before him with a head of gold, arms of silver, a trunk of brass, and ‘legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay’. It seems that the further the parts of the figure are from the ground, the more precious and artificial they become. The feet of clay – a metaphor for the fragile unity of his kingdom and one that is still used today to indicate a person of flawed character – are helplessly rooted to the earth. It is perhaps a warning to the king that he should not neglect the soil over which he rules.
Another ‘king of kings’ is the subject of Percy Shelley’s familiar ‘Ozymandias’, inspired by the remains of the vast tomb of Rameses II, the thirteenth-century
ruler of Egypt, who reigned some 700 years before Nebuchadnezzar. The poem is another dream-like vision, and indeed Shelley worked from an ancient Greek historian’s account of the monument, which was already a ruin in the first century
and long gone altogether by the time that he was penning his famous lines in 1817. Its anonymous narrator reports the description by a ‘traveller from an antique land’ of the ruined statue at Thebes, of which only ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone’ remain. The poem was written in a contest with his friend Horace Smith, whose own effort reduces the remnant to a single limb:
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desart knows: –
‘I am great O
,’ saith the stone,
‘The king of Kings; this mighty City shows
‘The wonders of my hand.’ – The City’s gone, –
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
To gain an impression of the residual power of even just a foot, I recommend a visit to the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Here are the monumental surviving fragments of the memorial to another great ruler, the Roman emperor Constantine. The so-called
Colossus of Constantine
once stood some twelve metres tall in a basilica at the Forum. But today all that remains are the head, the right arm, two right hands (it has been suggested that the statue was remodelled at some point so that the emperor was seen holding a Christian symbol), both kneecaps, some fragments of shin and the feet, which are so large that you need to use both arms to encircle one big toe. The reason why it is the extremities alone that survive is that they were carved in marble rather than assembled from soft brick like the bulk of the statue. When the fragments were uncovered in 1487, history reminded us of the parts that most make us human.
Perhaps as early as the fifteenth century, a variety of rose arrived in France from its native Crimea to be named Cuisse de Nymphe, which means ‘thigh of nymph’. The flower was an extremely pale pink with a slight tinge of lilac. In 1835, the winemaker Laurent-Perrier gave the same name to a new rosé champagne. In Britain, Victorian prudery saw to it that the rose variety was renamed more modestly as Great Maiden’s Blush. (It produces a large, full blossom; the English name is not a reference to ladies’ girth.) No such strictures applied in France, though, so when a new sport of the rose was developed with a deeper pink flower, it was named Cuisse de Nymphe Emue – thigh of
nymph. This rose was a favourite of the writer Colette, and makes a brief appearance in her semi-autobiographical novel
. The colour has been dismally translated into English as ‘hot pink’. This shade, too, soon spread to other things. Amid the rainbow of synthetic colours that became available for artists’ paints during the mid nineteenth century, often given the names of recent European battles such as magenta and solferino, was also a cuisse de nymphe émue, although its precise hue was apparently rather variable, ‘anything from pink to lilac to yellow’.
Painting flesh has always been one of art’s greatest challenges. It is not a colour that comes ready-mixed out of any tube, not least because individual skin tones vary so much. It emerges instead from the skilful mixture of the four basic colours of the ancient palette favoured by artists such as the Greek Apelles: red, yellow, black and white. These colours were associated with the four elements, and by extension therefore also with the four humours. Mixed in different proportions, they could represent any shade of skin, from the palest infant to the tanned sailor, and from the florid bacchanalian reveller to the most deathly cadaver.
Realistic skin tone – or rather, realistic variableness of tone across a person’s skin – is something scrupulously avoided in most three-dimensional representations of the human body. Barbie’s skin exhibits no flaw (unless you can find the umbilicus where she was injection-moulded), but also no variation in colour due to veins and blood vessels. She has no scrofulous patches, no body hair, not even tan lines. She is supremely glabrous. Shop-window mannequins likewise may have preternaturally pert nipples but they never seem to have areolae darker than the rest of their plastic skin, as we do.
When the natural variation and texture of skin is faithfully reproduced, as in the sculptures of Ron Mueck, the effect can be unsettling. The son of toymakers, Mueck began his career making animation models for Australian television and the advertising industry, only latterly becoming an artist. A work of 1997 called
gives a good idea of his technique. It is a supine figure of the artist’s deceased father, not much more than one metre in length, so about half life size. It reproduces his skin, which is pale with a slight shine, edging to pinkness at the ears and eyelids. Each crease on the knuckles is there, and every piece of stubble on the chin. The work is disturbing not only because of its highly personal nature, but because it has Mueck’s characteristic combination of extreme realism at the level of detail and the gross inaccuracy of its scale. It brings our perception and our experience into direct conflict, asking us, forcefully, to believe that it is real at the same time as it tells us, equally forcefully, that it is not.
What all these bodies lack, of course, apart from a third dimension or the correct magnification, is life. Barbie’s perfect skin is repellent to the touch because it is hard, cold and sticky-slippery, whereas we know that our real skin is warm, either soft or firm, and delightful to caress. The warmth comes from circulating blood, which also provides the surface colour that distinguishes the live body from the corpse. A human being radiates power at a rate of 100 watts when resting, rising to 300 watts when doing exercise, which is a power conversion per unit area roughly equal to a rooftop photovoltaic solar panel, and enough that architects must take it into account when designing spaces that will be crowded with people. This heat is usually a welcome sign of life. We prefer a warm handshake to the one proffered by a ‘cold fish’. But sometimes it is a reminder of human presence we would rather not have. Marcel Grossmann, a Swiss mathematician who was a student contemporary of Einstein, once confided to the physicist that he could not happily sit on a warm lavatory seat, to which Einstein blandly pointed out that the heat is ‘entirely impersonal so that to receive it in this way was not to be subject to an unwanted intimacy’.
I do not know if Charles Darwin grew Cuisse de Nymphe roses (émue or otherwise) in the garden where he took his daily circular walks, but he did concern himself with the question of maidens’ blushes. In fact, it was something that bothered him for most of his working life. He made his first notes on the topic in 1838, speculating that dark-skinned people surely blush just as Europeans do, and that animals do not – he was almost sure he had seen a Tierra del Fuego woman blush when he visited that land during the voyage of the
. He devoted an entire chapter to it in
The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals
, published in 1872. Blushing is a uniquely human characteristic. But why should such a behaviour emerge? What evolutionary advantage does it bring? The fact that the blush is invisible among dark-skinned people rules it out as an effective sexual signal. The prevailing view in Darwin’s time was that the blush was part of God’s design to expose human shame – a silly idea that Darwin justly refutes with the observation that it would be unfair then, wouldn’t it, to inflict the trait especially on those who are merely shy.
Darwin drew evidence from friends and correspondents about this ‘most peculiar and most human of all expressions’. He asked whether children blush, and if they do, but not from birth, at what age they start. He asked whether blind people blush. He confirmed that blushing was not dependent on skin colour by finding subjects in whom scar tissue or albinism allowed the coloration to show through. One eager lady correspondent informed him that women who blush prettily fetch a higher price at the sultan’s seraglio. He asked the sculptor Thomas Woolner to report on how low his ingénue models blushed: ‘I daresay you must often meet and know well painters. Could you persuade some
men to observe young and inexperienced girls who serve as models, and who at first blush much, how low down the body the blush extends?’ The answer was that the
of a blush is generally confined to the face and neck, although the person blushing may
as if the whole body is blushing. (Thus, the thigh of an aroused nymph might well become
owing to a similar effect of increased blood flow through her capillaries, but this has a physiological, rather than mental, cause, and so is not a
. Monkeys, too, Darwin noted, ‘redden from passion’.)
In the end, Darwin concluded that blushing arises from the human ‘habit of thinking what others think of us’. It was not a result he was especially happy about, as it emphasized the uniqueness of human consciousness over our evolutionary connection with other species. But it explained the observations: why infants do not blush, but children do; why the mentally retarded seldom blush, but blind people do; why we tend not to blush when we are on our own, but can nevertheless blush at an embarrassing memory. What it didn’t really do was to explain why we find blushing so attractive in others, which, for Darwin, interested as he was in the mechanisms and effects of reproduction, was surely the point. Today, scientists are able to measure capillary blood flow and even the temperature of rosy cheeks, but are still not much closer to an answer.
‘Darwinian Man, though well-behaved, / At best is only a monkey shaved!’ So sings one of the lady professors in
, Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical satire on feminism, evolution and other novelties thought up to confuse the Victorian paterfamilias. From Darwin’s shaven monkey to the naked ape of Desmond Morris we are endlessly reminded about our skin: its vast expanse, some two square metres in all, making it, in answer to a famous trick question, the largest organ of the human body; its colour relative to others, and our curious propensity, having declared that this matters so greatly, to ignore its real hue and settle for calling it ‘black’ or ‘white’; and above all its sheer, vulnerable, embarrassing nakedness.
So great is our sense of exposure that we have developed an elaborate vocabulary to deal with it. The concept of the ‘nude’, as Kenneth Clark points out in his masterly (and only marginally lecherous) examination of the subject, was devised in the eighteenth century as a way of enabling artists to work from and talk about the naked body without shame. But with the advent of film and, shortly afterwards, abundant pornography, we need also to distinguish between ‘the nude’ and ‘nudity’, and, tediously, between official classifications such as partial nudity, rear nudity, full frontal nudity, brief nudity, natural nudity, sexual nudity, graphic nudity, and so on. We even have the oxymoronic state of ‘fully clothed nudity’, seen, for example, in a 1956 short film about Lady Godiva in which Maureen O’Hara rides through the streets of a Hollywood Coventry wearing underwear, a full flesh-toned body suit and, just to be on the safe side, hair down to her knees. Tiny differences in usage of these terms have huge semantic implications. To be ‘in the nude’, for instance, is not quite the same as being naked, yet nor is it the equivalent of an artistic nude. It implies the presence of a spectator whose motives are not primarily aesthetic. And it also carries with it the expectation that the nude is in some way there to be watched. Thus, an actress photographed by paparazzi will conventionally be described in the tabloid press as being ‘caught in the nude’, whereas a politician photographed in some compromising situation will typically be called merely ‘naked’. There are hundreds of academic studies of the nude in art, but comparatively few of the nude in film, in advertising, on the beach or in the bath. Sometimes, we even draw a veil where there is no veil to be drawn. For example, Classical scholars have often translated the Greek
to mean ‘scantily clad’, but the words did in fact mean ‘naked’, notwithstanding the views of do-gooders such as William Gladstone, who could not believe that naked athletics contests were normal in Homeric Greece.
The essential difference is all to do with context and intent. A naked person may become a nude if painted in oils but perhaps not if photographed, if seen in a studio but not in a club, if holding still but not if moving (a streaker at a sports event is not a nude), if maintaining a certain codified attitude, such as the pudica pose, as we have seen, but not if flaunting their nakedness. The absurdity of these distinctions was pushed to its limits in British strip clubs during the mid twentieth century when it was illegal for a stripper to appear naked if she also moved. Elaborate acts were devised in which the stripper would remove her clothes while strategically hidden behind fans wielded by other (clothed) dancers. At the end of the act, she would stand stock still for a brief moment under the spotlight.
The Victorian critic John Ruskin is famously supposed to have been shocked when he saw his beautiful bride Effie Gray naked on their wedding night. The marriage was not consummated, and the couple later divorced. Ruskin stated that, ‘though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it.’ Effie told her father that Ruskin ‘had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening April 10th’. But why? Some hideous deformity, a birthmark, cellulite? Scholarly speculation, echoed by popular retelling, has it that the great critic was shocked by the sight of the pubic hair so conspicuously absent from the statues that were the habitual subject of his admiration. Matthew Sweet punctures this myth in his book
Inventing the Victorians
, citing Ruskin’s previous familiarity with ‘naked bawds’ while a student, but still does not explain the difficulty, choosing to ignore Effie’s guileless description of her normal femininity. Clearly, Ruskin had sensed something about her naked body that was not to his liking. Perhaps it was just the unexpected difference between the warm, breathing, supple flesh of an animate body and the cold marble that he was accustomed to perusing. The feeling, it seems, was not entirely uncommon. For example, Arthur Thomson’s
Handbook of Anatomy for Art Students
, published in 1896, makes much of its author’s disappointment that female buttocks are not always the smooth globes of Classical statuary. Fat here, he writes, ‘is particularly liable to occur in female models past their prime, and imparts a grossness to the form at variance with the delicacy and refinement displayed in earlier life’. Perhaps Ruskin would have been more comfortable with modern porn magazines, in which, in contradistinction to medical publications, there has often been a legal requirement to retouch images to trim away (women’s) body hair and in other ways to ‘heal’ the models on display. Whether it’s done for legal or aesthetic reasons, such prurient editing may not produce ‘nudes’ in the sense understood by the art world, but it does serve to distance the subject from the ordinariness of being merely naked.
It is only human clothing that makes bare skin exceptional and human morality that makes it troubling, as I am reminded when, for the first time in my life, I attend a life-drawing class. I began this book in a dissection room, where I was attempting to reproduce on paper the appearance of dead body parts. As I draw towards a conclusion, it at least feels more natural to be drawing from living subjects.