Body in Fragments
René Magritte, L'evidence éternelle (The Eternally Obvious)1930 Oil on canvas, 63-1/4 x 11-1/2 inches
The Menil Collection, Houston Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston
August 21, 2009 - February 28, 2010
Within the Menil’s collection of more than 16,000 objects—paintings, sculptures, works on paper, rare books and manuscripts, and other works of art—one finds numerous examples of fragmented human bodies. These range from the disembodied limbs and heads of Egyptian and medieval sculptures to works of art that highlight, exaggerate, or reconfigure the human anatomy, such as a fifteenth-century finger reliquary and a twentieth-century Central African sculpture of an oversized foot (to which a head is attached).
These arresting works reflect the de Menils’ interest in the imaginative possibility of the fragmentary, and how such imagery can represent both the strength and weakness of the human body. Various other sculptures and paintings in the museum build upon this theme, taking as their subject the act itself of breaking apart the body. One of the most significant groups of work in the collection that addresses this theme is a selection of early modernist paintings where Cubist artists like Pablo Picasso splinter the female figure in jagged compositions and Surrealists like René Magritte rearrange fragments of the female nude.
Body in Fragments brings together diverse works from the collection to explore the ways in which different cultures conceptualize the spiritual, physical, and intellectual aspects of personhood. The fifteenth century finger reliquary, for example, evokes the miraculous power of the physical body, the oversized finger acting as a testament to its spiritual or supernatural significance. A wooden Dan comb, with a handle that depicts strong, well-sculpted female legs, brings together the idealization of the female form with the act of beautification itself when the comb is used. The disintegration of the human body witnessed in Cubist and Surrealist works speaks to modern art’s challenge to Cartesian dualism and perceptions of the human mind and consciousness in the wake of world war, reflecting the development of psychology and its embrace of what was once known as “primitive” art.