My ongoing project has been interested in drawing parallels between images of the old and the corpulent female body, in making connections with the way they are received and experienced culturally, socially and phenomenologically. Although there are many such connections, there are also differences between age and corpulence. One of the major differences concerns control. Ageing is ultimately out of our control: we may use cosmetics or surgery to lessen the appearance of age, to put it on hold temporarily, but it remains an inevitability. Corpulence, on the other hand, is a relatively controllable bodily reality that can be repressed, prevented or avoided by asserting strict control over mind/body/lifestyle and diet.
As we see in the research of Susie-Orbach and Susan Bordo, gaining weight is one of the major fears among young women. Out of the two states of ageing and corpulence, it is corpulence that provokes the strongest reaction of repulsion and fear - while the display of the aged female body may be shocking and unnerving to some viewers, it does not provoke the same level of disgust as the presentation of corpulent nakedness. Joyce L. Huff's essay A “Horror of Corpulence” goes some way to explain the reasons for this: “the corpulent body was seen as particularly resistant to normalisation, because it was visibly individuated; it would not resolve itself into the supposedly universal body defined as average”. It is with this idea of rejecting the normalisation, in favour of radically different and challenging bodies in mind that a discussion of disgust can take place.
In her essay Jenny Saville and A Feminist Aesthetics of Disgust, Michelle Meager makes a connection between disgust and an ethical encounter with the image of the other, arguing that Saville's art of unknown bodies provokes knowledge of others' realities. Her argument is that disgust acts as a form of knowledge-gathering, in that it prompts the viewer to make thought-inquiries about the state of bodies' representations in art history as well as in culture and society. Meager suggests that “Saville presents bodies rarely appreciated in contemporary Western culture. In a cultural climate that encourages women to conceal, if not exercise, those parts of their bodies considered fat, jiggly, out of control, and excessive, Saville insists upon revealing precisely these features.” Continuing the theme of physical disgust as visual and moral injury, she writes: “The fat female body, laid bare on Saville's canvas, provides an opportunity to find out what disgusts, and what disgusted and disgusting bodies can do, and in short it offers the opportunity to pay attention to the visceral reminders of how we embody social contexts and cultural expectations”.
In Propped, 1992, (left) Saville presents the viewer with an image of the female form on a pedestal; the woman looks down at us as the great mass of her body towers precariously above us. This body does not fit the pedestal that women have been placed upon in the history of art and Western culture: she runs the risk of any moment falling/failing, the uncontrolled abundance of her body knocking her off its pedestal. Yet this image is actually still, she does not fall. It is an image full of paradoxes and contradictions, for despite the precariousness of this large body on a tiny stool, the composition is balanced and pleasingly symmetrical. All the full rounded parts of her body are displayed to full advantage, her breasts squashed together, her hands and fingers grasping at the generous flesh of her thighs and calves, yet this is combined with rather slender ankles with the thin traces of tendons running down from ankle to foot; this is then met by the hint of pointy white strappy shoes wrapped around the stool. This mixing of the excessive body out of bounds with the conventional beauty of dainty ankles in feminine shoes causes a stir: it is shocking as well as familiar. It also breaks with the conventions of the nude by showing a nude wearing outdoor shoes; this trope in fact has more in common with the styling of pornography in which women are often only wearing high-heeled shoes. This choice of keeping the shoes on does not however act like a pornographic fetish, but rather through this reference to sex inscribes the body as a sexual subject. But because this body on display is so unusual for both contemporary pornographic and art historical nudes, having the shoes kept on gives the body back a personality: it is the body of someone who walks about, wears and chooses shoes etc. Therefore she is not just a nude, not just a body on a pedestal, but a subject with agency.
Speaking of her choice to use usual corpulent bodies in her work, Saville comments: “We live in a time where that type of body is abhorrent. A body this size represents excess, lack of control, going beyond the boundary of what's socially acceptable. I wanted the paint itself to be kind of obese, to have a diseased quality to the the paint – a overabundance of paint on the surface”. Saville achieves quite a feat by both managing to give agency back to the owners of these corpulent bodies, and presenting them as aggressively challenging to look at. This yoking together of tenderness with disgust is a powerful mixture which makes her work difficult and confrontational.
It is by making the abundant flesh that is so taboo the main focus of her work that Saville makes her paintings so viscerally disquieting. They are also portraits of flesh itself, presenting the excessive and culturally undesirable as worthy of regard, pleasure and appreciation. It is also this very aspect which many viewers find disgusting. Mark Cousins explains our visceral relationship to the ugly as follows: “the case of the obsessional shows that the ugly object, in its relation to the subject, is not static but is always eating up the space between it and the subject". Applying this to the experience of a Saville painting, our spectatorial position can be seen as one of invasion: we have a sense of our personal space being intruded upon. Chris Townsend explains the phenomenological threat with which Saville's work confronts art viewers, noting that there is “in Saville's even larger paintings, an overwhelming figure of domination and threat. What was, what is, classified as abject, and perhaps pathetic returns as an object of horror and aggression that is barely limited by the glass. The sensation that these pictures give is that the screen is more there to protect the viewer, than imprison the subject-victim”. The glass here is that of the painting's frame; it is this that holds this body of abundance at a safe distance from the spectator. The horror of disgust is approached but we are protected from being overwhelmed by the corporeality of the real boundless body. This is an example of the sublime: we come close to being overwhelmed by something but are at a distance that allows for pleasure to arise from an encounter with the disgusting, free from real pollution.
In Savouring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics, Carolyn Korsmeyer uses Kantian theories of the sublime to link the arousal of the feeling of disgust with that of the overwhelming negative pleasure of the sublime, both of which possess attributes of fear, fascination attraction and repulsion. But she then backtracks, unsure of her conjecture: “There is a reward for encountering terror if it results in the sublime, which is a transcendent experience well worth the pain of its achievement. But encounters with disgust do not seem to pay this kind of dividend, as its objects are base and foul – unworthy of our regard”. Yet, as suggested here, this is not always the case: the bodies considered in this project can be, and have been, described in terms of disgust, and yet also are very much “worthy of our regard”. As we have seen, feelings of disgust, appreciation and pleasure can be experienced simultaneously; indeed, such feelings are closer together than is often thought.
George Bataille suggests that transgressing the rules of Western morality and art history - rules that posit that bodies categorised as disgusting, abject or obscene can only be experienced negatively as morally or physically unpleasant – can provide a source of subversive pleasure; for Bataille, indeed, this transgression is the definition of Eros. In Eroticism he asserts: “Because beauty counts insofar as ugliness cannot be further sullied, and the essence of eroticism is filth itself...Beauty is desired in order that it may be fouled; not for its own sake, but for the joy brought by the certainty of profaning it”. Bataille's assertion then is that there is a strong element of pleasure and delight in the experience of the “disgusting” body. Korsmeyer's writing confirms this notion, “[D]isgust becomes part of deep aesthetic apprehension of difficult experiences, including some that might even qualify as beautiful – and even more surprisingly as delicious”. This also demonstrates the way a body that is thought of as ugly, or disgusting - not a body that is surface perfection and beauty, but a body that is a product and producer of abjection - shares an affinity with the murkiness of sexuality. This approach to the disgusting recasts the abundant body as an agent provocateur of visual pleasure and feminist desire.
Part One: Art History and Ugliness: Bodily Abundance as Subversion
Part Three: Abject Art and the Aged Body: Learning Self-Delight in the Photography of Melanie Manchot