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Carnal Light; A Review of York Art Gallery’s New Exhibition Flesh – by Helge Torvund

Poet, author, psychologist and critic Helge Torvund has reviewed York Art Gallery’s latest exhibition Flesh for the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen. We are delighted to be able to share Torvund’s translation of his review.

CARNAL LIGHT – By Helge Torvund

Sometimes you can feel at home even though you are far away. I had just that feeling as I was passing through the historic city gate Bootham Bar in the wall surrounding York a clear autumn morning not long ago. And that feeling didn’t come because of the heads of three persons that was exhibited on this gate in 1664 after they had opposed Charles II.

No, the feeling had to do with what I was going to do that morning.  At first I visited the second hand bookshop of Jeanette Ray just outside the gate. She is specializing on books about art, architecture and gardens. As I am allergic to traffic noise and often a bit uncomfortable with urban settings, it feels like being safe home again, when the little door in her shop closes behind me.

To floors with potential interesting books in front of me feels exciting. But that day there was something I was looking even more forward to; At 10 o’clock the York Art Gallery opened its doors, and I went the few steps from “Rare Books” to the Museum Square.

On this place a large sculpture of the towns own painter son; William Etty, welcomes me. He painted naked skin, women and men, in a way that upset the good bourgeoisie of his time. A critic in The Times wrote in 1882 that it was only ”dirty flesh”. While many others saw his ability to catch and show the human body as the result of the unique brush of a master.  I certainly agree with the latter group.

The fact that we human beings are surrounded by skin, is something that affects us in many ways. Psychologically it has immense effect on how we perceive ourselves. Yes, how we perceive what our self is.  On the one hand, our skin is our largest sensory apparatus. The skin gives us great pleasure and comfort, but also pain and concerns. The skin surrounds and rounds us up, is our edge towards the surrounding world. ”I am this that exists inside my skin”, we easily think.

But that is a truth that can be modified, since so much of what is outside our skin takes part in the creation of our ”self”. Still we are quite materialistic in our heads, that this thought is deeply rooted in our mind.

In a time like ours, where the facade, the looks, and the surface have much weight, the skin is a very  important when it comes to the way we regard ourselves and each other; young, smooth, and clean skin is highly valued. The cosmetic industry knows this better than any one else.

While, what I call ’experienced skin’, skin with smile lines, wrinkles, birth marks and other marks of life is less attractive. Research shows us that healthy skin makes enhances our chances to become partner with someone that wishes to make a new baby. In my poetry collection ”Taxa meter and pulse” I once wrote a ”Skin Song” that went like this:

Our first joy: the skin
Our second joy: the skin
Every human being sings this song
Small thin notes and more coarse calligraphy
What is passing over faces making marks?
It’ the wind
The sun that is pouring in
It’s the smile and the clenched teeth

When we grow old
We can say so much
Just by showing our faces
And our bodies

I have got skin for you
The skin of my hands
It is singing

Concerning ”our first joy”, it has been shown that it is of great importance that the skin is being touched and stimulated during the first years of our lives. When baby skin is being touched by parent skin, the so called love hormone oxytocin is being released.

A hormone with many fascinating abilities, that among other things strengthens bonds and reduces stress. Skin toward skin we can calm down and become more able to make important relationships. In a baby that does not experience this kind of skin contact, the ability to make good relation can wither.

But what we experience at our ”self”, this undefinable and important phenomenon, embraces our whole life story, our culture and our language. And even if we internalize this and store the memories and pictures in our minds, will much of it have come from the world outside of our skin, from the landscape and the civilization.

I think the best we can do is to think that our ’self’ is a verb, sometimes vibrating and alive, sometimes calm and awaiting, and something that is moving out and in of the room that our skin is covering. It can never be caught in one single substantive, like an object.

Inside the five rooms in York Art gallery there is an exhibition rich in content, with the title FLESH. Here you will meet many ways of show skin in art. The York painter Etty is of course one of the first you will meet when you come through the entrance.

You might want to use much time on one single work of art here, like a sculpture or a painting by Degas. An important work by Francis Bacon; ”Portrait of Henrietta Moraes on a Blue Couch”. You will find a drawing by Lucian Freud, a slaughtered ox painted by Rembrandt or one in his circle. Work by Ruben and a still life by Chardin, and a sculpture based on the death mask of William Blake.

You can also find hyper realistic sculptures, icons, a video showing a hare being eaten by the small army of cleaners in nature. Japanese prints show how a noble lady changes after her death. The gallery shows around 70 works of art from about 600 years of art history, and all of them showing this what we are, that we see around us, that which we eat and that which in the end dissolves and disappears.

But first and foremost beautiful paintings of the naked human beings of this life. Shown by engaged painters who sees and loves with their eyes and their brush. The light of the body.

It makes a mighty impression, and it is both uncomfortable and a pure pleasure to get from this exhibition. We can see art approaching something basic in our lives, from many different points of view.  And our eyes can follow the gaze of the different artists, and I felt that it made me richer, gave me new experiences, thoughts and feelings. And wonder: What are we? What am I? Where are we going? And we can watch here some of what we came from, artistically, anyway. Skin and flesh, lust and light. I remember some lines by the Nobel prized poet Pablo Neruda, from his “Ode to a naked beauty”:

brightness, pouring itself out of you,
as if you were
burning inside.
Under your skin the moon is alive.

Your Comments

  1. Helen warlow |

    This is a wonderful in depth description of an exhibition that I may have been wary of seeing but here because it is so sensitively written it awakened my interest.
    After reading I felt that art is so much more than something pleasing to the eye and I questioned my own narrow view. Thank you for a thought provoking tour of the exhibition. Helen Warlow

    1. Rachel Wade |

      Dear Helen,

      Thank you for your comment regarding Helge’s article, we’re very pleased to be able to publish the translation here.

      Kind regards,

      Rachel at York Museums Trust