Vitruvius, in The Ten Books on Architecture, proposed that the perfected form of the human body could be diagrammed by being placed inside both a circle and a square. Though he himself did not provide illustrations, Leonardo da Vinci made a drawing demonstrating this proposition to illustrate Paciolio's On Divine Proportion (1509). This was more than a geometric exercise, as Vitruvius imbued the square and the circle with divine attributes: the circle represented the cosmos and the square, those things secular. In the Middle Ages, artists painted the crucifixion both as a representation of Christ's divinity as well as his incarnation as an earthly being. Five hundred years later, August Rodin upended many of these concepts regarding the proportion and deportment of the figure in sculpture with his monumental The Gates of Hell and Monument to Balzac.
The British sculptor Rachel Kneebone, making her museum debut at the Brooklyn Museum, creates a dialog between her porcelain sculpture and Rodin's bronzes. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of Rodin's work, "No part of the body was insignificant or trivial, for even the smallest of them was alive. Life, which appeared on faces with the clarity of a dial, easily read and full of signs of the times, was greater and more diffuse...more eternal." Rodin twisted and torqued bronze into a simulation of muscle in action. His studies of individual parts of the body, arms, legs, and so on were subsets of larger equations, yet worlds unto themselves. Kneebone adopts his strategies and then expands on them, like a fractal mathematical equation -- endlessly multiplying limbs and torsos, piling them up, and rearranging them.
In "Eyes that look close at wounds themselves are wounded" (2010), a figure sits atop a round plinth. Brambles of fingers, ivy, and roses creep up the base, while a hooded figure, its cowl pulled back, seems to scream from a vulva-like orifice. Its Alien-like body, all knuckles and cunts, is arched, dragging a third set of labia along the ground like a snail. Somehow Kneebone imbues this wretched creature with enough pathos to balance out the sci-fi horror by taking a page from Rodin's book. He wrote, "Why am I blamed...? Why is the head allowed and not [other] portions of the body? Every part of the human figure is expressive." Kneebone produces some of the same effects as Rodin's Burghers of Calais (1884-1889) with a visceral connection to the body that Rodin sought. Human emotions such as grief and despair are expressed through gesture -- though fragmented, we connect them, through viewing, into a story.
Rodin's Burghers was controversial in its time for showing struggle rather than achievement. It tried to recreate an event rather than depict the outcome. In Kneebone's work the shrouded figure is both Lazarus and Michelangelo's "Pietà" -- its amorphousness allows us to project ourselves on it too. A mass of teeming viscera and vag, it presents vulnerability rather than talks about it.
Kneebone combines and subverts two conventions of sculpture, the triumphal monument and the historical representation of heroes. By working in porcelain, she is bringing a feminist twist to the very idea of "monumental" artwork. Her large-scale "The Paradise of Despair" (2011, above) usurps the concept of the triumphal column, a classical monument of military victory that dates back to Vitruvius. She slyly intertwines parody into the mix; in place of a noble or heroic figure, she gives us five headless bodies, upside down. Smaller figures crawl up the base to form piles of victims, or participants, in a mutant orgy. Whether a paean to war victims or a tribute to de Sade, Kneebone, like Rodin, creates a cosmos big enough for both. - Bradley Rubenstein
The Brooklyn Museum is at 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York.
Photo: Stephen White, courtesy of White Cube.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.