At first blush, you may find yourself asking why Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi sculpts figurines in the shape of female genitalia or why New Zealand artist Rachael Rakena sculpts a public work in the shape of male genitalia or why Australian artist Kristen Fredericks knits phalluses or why British artist James McCartney sculpts the private parts of both genders.Is this some kind of new trend in the art world that moves contemporary artists from very different lands to disunite the human form and focus on pudenda?The answer is a definite no. Far from a trend, taking apart the human form has been going on for a long time, though admittedly not with focus on our reproductive parts.

Fragmenting is an old story and its significance is no small thing.

Sign of the times

Commenting on this history is art scholar Linda Nochlin who wrote in her 1994 book "The Body in Pieces" that fragmenting the human form is a "metaphor of modernity." Her argument starts with Henry Fuseli's 1778 drawing "The Artist Overwhelmed by the Grandeur of Antique Ruins."

The drawing describes a figure bent in grief over mammoth relics of a foot and a hand from antiquity. Nochlin calls Fuseli's image one of remorse for our "lost totality" or our "vanished wholeness." Artists don't see themselves as whole anymore because they can't relate to the heroic works of the Hellenes, the ancient Greeks. Their despair is what led to the partial image, "the crop," as Nochlin called it, and the start of modern art.

Even fragmented, the barn door scale of ancient art is an overwhelming sight, as evident in the Met’s current show of Greek classical art. The grandeur of, say, the fragmentary marble head of Alexander the Great is a staggering sight. It’s no wonder, then, that the modern artist would mourn the loss of the authority that such work commands.

Where’s the rest of me?

While Fuseli expressed the artist’s vexation, those who came after him acted out their sense of loss by cutting up or cutting off the human form in their work. Likely that’s why in 1818, Theodore Gericault painted “Severed Limbs,” anatomical fragments that he reconnected in unnatural ways.

That same heartache would also account for the exhibition about the French Revolution at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1989, which presented a sculptural collage of mutilated statues of the French kings with giant toes and hand. As Nochlin put it, “The coherence of the body is totally shattered...The body in pieces marks the modern experience.”

Examples include Degas painting “Ludovic Lepic and Daughters in the Place de la Concorde” in which he literally cuts off people at the knees. Manet also shows a “crop” in his painting “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere with the bar cutting the barmaid in half.

As for the artists today who zero in on sex organs, it’s clears that they have gone from fragmenting to fetishism.

But it’s all the same phenomena. “The Body in Pieces.” The mourning continues.

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