“Portraits by Ingres:

Image of an Epoch”

At the National Gallery of Art to Aug. 22

Just when we thought the body was bedrock, the last sure thing left us by an increasingly materialist century as it stripped away all vestiges of the impalpable, along came AIDS to teach us that indulging the body’s prime directive could lead it to turn on itself. But it took us a few years to catch up with the notion of corporeal destabilization; it’s been the ’90s that have hosted a cultural explosion that takes the body as battleground, playground, and canvas.

In the last few years, we have seen DNA tests give positive IDs to unknown soldiers and abortion-clinic bombers withdraw the right to privacy thought to reside in the body. Porn has gone mainstream, while talk shows have devolved into hair-tearing hymns to biological need. It’s been the age of the Wonderbra and the teen face lift, of record-breaking obesity and record-setting body sculpting, of eating disorders and liposuction, of big and proud Practice Emmy winner Camryn Manheim and Tae-Bo impresario and shill Billy Blanks.

The art world has been right there in the thick of things. French stunt-exhibitionist Orlan made her plastic surgeries the stuff of performance, HIV-positive Ron Athey raised hackles for cutting and blotting a non-infected assistant, and extreme photo-portraitist Catherine Opie asked how we look at people who have voluntarily undergone tattooing, piercing, scarification, and hormonal alteration. Kiki Smith used sculpture, and Cindy Sherman the photography of performance and sculpture, to examine the grotesque body. Janine Antoni made a huge block of gnawed chocolate a monument to physical appetite gone haywire.

So where does neoclassicist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) fit into all this? Only as creator of the most splendidly unearthly physiques in the history of Western art, and thus as a cynosure for those taking the next steps in the ongoing development of artistic body-awareness. In arguably his most famous painting, the Grande Odalisque, he outfitted his subject with extra vertebrae and a right arm seemingly made of India rubber. He set the features of Madame de Senonnes adrift in the pond of her face. He placed the right shoulder of the Vicomtesse d’Haussonville out of sight, then slipped it down several inches. It can almost be seen in the mirror behind her, but Ingres has reversed the specular reversal, tipping the wrong shoulder down and throwing us another elegant curve. Optics be damned! Anatomy, too.

Whatever liberties the artist took, real women sat for these paintings, but the Ingres now on display was a portraitist—meaning he painted famous people with their clothes on. The Vicomtesse is in attendance; the Odalisque is not. The U.S. and U.K. National Galleries and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, organizers of the exhibition of drawings and oils, want us to see them as constituting the “Image of an Epoch.” All right. But does the age in question have to be the first half of the 19th century? I’d just as soon see them as the key to the present moment.

The above roster of ’90s artists signals an obsession with the body as a literal entity. They are performers, sculptors, and photographers, working in media where the real and the representation of the real overlap. Painting is more pliant, the high-art medium of choice if you want to represent not the actual but the imagined body, which of course was Ingres’ specialty. His portraits may be labeled with the names of real-life well-heeled Euros, but that doesn’t mean they depict living, breathing beings.

Some of Ingres’ critics have refused to enter his fantasy world. A currently popular piece of feminist revisionism, Carol Ockman’s 1995 Ingres’s Eroticized Bodies: Retracing the Serpentine Line, finds repression and horror in the painter’s distortions of the female form. The charges stack up drearily (if she wrote the book without assigning keystroke macros for “discourse,” “gendered,” “strategies,” and “abjection,” there was a lot of wasted typing), and by the time she has concluded with a curious bit of tendentious poetry (“Back down. Back off. Turning back. Back up. Backlog…”) she has thought to ask, “[H]ow is one to represent a person who happens to be a woman without having her be interpreted as a specific woman?” as if this weren’t exactly the sort of thing art does every day. Ockman is the kind of high-dudgeon specialist who likes to daisy-chain deduced violence (odd concept, that) with the real thing. I honestly don’t know why such people claim to like art. Why not devote oneself to politics, where incitement, a crime I’ve never felt too comfortable about, actually counts for something?

Ingres knew from feminized monsters—just check his Oedipus and the Sphinx—but the formlessness of his women, while pronounced, isn’t something he beats you over the head with. To see them as freaks, you first have to disconnect yourself from their beauty. The act of consciously shunning rapture is perverse enough that it doesn’t happen without dissonance. If you can’t look at Ingres exultantly, you’re missing the point, and if you can’t look at him guiltlessly, why bother?

The imagined body has thrived in the ’90s, too; finding it is just a matter of shifting your context, away from areas where theory-besotted academics, closet literalists all, set the agenda, and toward arenas where they can comment on but aren’t powerful enough to influence what they call “praxis,” i.e., toward popular culture. TV has given us shape-shifters from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s intergalactic cop-in-a-box Odo to The X Files’ Methuseloid liver-lovin’ home invader Eugene Victor Tooms. Both shows owe a debt to George Lucas’ morph-happy, Terminator-creating Industrial Light and Magic, an outfit whose late-model robot roly-polies update the Transformers’ mechanized form-fumbling and whose digitized trickery succeeds in turning a not untalented young dancer into a cross between Stepin Fetchit, the Trix Rabbit, and Ally McBeal’s toilet-dwelling pet frog. Right now, the most appealing imagined body on the tube is Bender, a binge-drinking robot who uses “Meat Bag” as a term of endearment for his fleshbound buddy. Futurama is a veritable clearinghouse for jokes at the expense of the imagined body, as foxy, cycloptic Leela bemoans her physiognomic uniqueness and lousy depth perception, and the heads of late-20th-century celebs survive the entire next millennium with all the dignity of pickled eggs sitting pink and forlorn next to the jerky rack at the Sheetz.

The young painters of today who seem to be on a beam with Ingres’ imaginary bodies draw on the old masters, but they also riff on two-dimensional pop culture. Lisa Yuskavage specializes in bulbous Disney-cum-Playboy-cartoon nymphets, some part of which—head or breast or belly—always seems swollen to bursting; Margaret Keane’s big-eyed kids were the first paintings that spoke to her. Lately, John Currin has combined the body shapes of Lucas Cranach the Elder (high-breasted, high-waisted, but a little skinny to pass muster with Ingres’ Empire style) with the direct gaze of the come-hither pinup; a few years ago, he melded averted-glance vulnerability (a pinup trope that advertises availability more shyly) with bust sizes that would have dwarfed implant-era Pammy. (Like Keane’s kids, body-mod superhero Plastic Man is also undergoing something of a Renaissance these days; it comes as little surprise that his creator, Jack Cole, late in his career was a regular Playboy cartoonist.)

What all these artists understand is that the real subject of the imagined body is not the real body but the real mind. Catholic-raised psych-couch regular Yuskavage is concerned with a panoply of sexual anxieties. Like her, Currin uses formal mastery to draw attention to his concerns with the dark soul of kitsch, then deflect it. Whatever you think of Keane, she is still active and still all about the deep hurting in the world, something my mother understood instinctively years ago, when she refused to allow me to hang a Keane knock-off print I had won at a carnival in my room; the puppy in the gutter was, she said, “too sad.” Cole’s saucy cartoons for Hef weren’t real smut—few guys ever got friendly with the bishop over them. His best stuff addressed the ridiculousness of desire. And the creator of the character born India Rubber Man knew what Ingres knew: that when you free the imagined body of its formal bonds, you enter the realm of the supernatural.

There are lots of fabulous personages in “Image of an Epoch,” some of them men: the rumpled, mountainlike newspaperman Louis-Francois Bertin, the long-necked, earringed Count Nikolai Dmitrievich Gouriev. In the opening days of the show, you could stand before the magnificently peremptory Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne and look across the West Wing’s fountained courtyard to Sargent’s Madame X, from one daring, nearly career-destroying masterpiece to another. But for me everything comes down to the last room. There you’ll find the Vicomtesse, Madame Moitessier Seated, Madame Moitessier Standing, Princesse de Broglie, and a much smaller self-portrait dating from 1864-1865. The women are ravishing china dolls, depersonalized even by Ingres’ standards. The artist regards them from his corner, an old man adoring his creations (though it must be said that in Ingres, no one ever looks his age). Call his devotion to beauty, fabric, and finish toadish and superficial if you must, but this installation obtains real pathos. Ingres’ actual religious paintings are no more reverent. I know I started fetishizing youth and surface when I was in my 20s; how will I feel in my 80s? (Princesse de Broglie herself never found out; deathless in her portrait, she succumbed to “consumption” at 35.) If there are real bodies at stake in these paintings of women, made when Ingres was in his 60s and 70s, they are the artist’s and the viewer’s own. CP