How do artists use skin as a cultural material?


Skin is a hugely significant part of every individual’s life and story. It can identify our race, health and even consumerism. Our body is what we are, and we are all aware of our own body. We can observe the body in different ways, especially if we consider it in the media and a cultural material. In this essay, I need to be able to distinguish between if the skin is a material object, a piece of meat or if it is something divine, something that has been given to us.

Our skin is one part of us that gives the human body its own language, due to this it gives us a means of understanding life. We become inspired to explore our human body as a text (a language) that we can read and reveal to us a great deal of cultural information.

“This symbolic function of the body applies not only to the taboos and rituals, but to parts of the body, to representations of the human body – in art works, medical texts, racial ideology, and advertisements – and to decorations and modifications of the flesh, from ornaments, hair fashion, cosmetics, masking, costuming, tattooing, piercing, and scarification, to body fattening or thinning, muscular development, and cosmetic surgery. However extreme or seemingly whimsical the practise; it always has meaning, always is shaped by the sociocultural context in and through which people act.”[1]

This quote is a perfect starting point as an example of hoe diverse the literal idea of skin can be. All these changes can be made physically, but also require a certain amount of emotional and mental consideration as well. The idea my chosen essay question poses to me though, is that is this skin that we have a cultural material, and do artists make it that?

Looking at the idea that skin most defiantly is used as a cultural material, we can go back as far as to look at early representations of people, and consider the work of artists such as, Botticelli. His painting of Venus and Mars is a clear depiction of his understanding of the personification of beauty, looking at the skin of Venus, we know that at the time Botticelli was producing this piece, no contemporary woman of that age would have had such perfect features and alabaster skin.

This gives us a clear notion of the idealization that artists of the 15th century had about what they considered beautiful. Even in this era, the depiction of what was considered aesthetically beautiful was still highly regarded, and remained significant in the paintings produced at this time. This figure of Venus is perfectly symmetrical; Botticelli has created the ideal woman that is not only the perfection of physical attractiveness but also the philosophical level of beauty that was demanded by the scholars of the time. Though looking at the painting we can hardly ignore the extremely sexually provocative depiction of Mars, not only has Botticelli created his perfection of womanhood, but the god-like physique and classical features he has given Mars revel a greater depth of understanding to this piece as we begin to understand the artist and the requirements of the culture that surrounded him.

Following this idea of skin depictions through the ages we can go on to look at the 18th century, and in particular on image by Jacques- Louis David, ‘The death of Marat’ (1793).

This one painting by David is a perfect representation of the ideals held in high esteem at the time, and the importance of the portrayal of significant figures in society. His image is telling us about the death of Marat, a man that was an important Jacobin, and who was also friends with the artist himself. Due to his role in the convention and as editor-in-chief of L’Ami du Peuple, he was murdered as he bathed.

As I am concerned with the idea of skin as material culture the importance of Marat’s portrayal in his bath, is crucial to this piece. Marat suffered from a disfiguring skin disease that required him to bath for hours in order to treat It, however as we look upon this piece we can clearly see that there is no trace of such a disease. David has created an idealized image of Marat, partly due to the fact that when he came to produce this portrait, Marat’s body was too badly decomposed. He has painted him as a healthy young man, and although his face is marked by suffering it is also gentle and immersed by a growing of peacefulness. The use of the elements such as light upon the skin are also vital to the composition, as David’s subtle interplay between these factors highlight his blend of compassion and outrage that he felt towards the victim of the piece.

Baudelaire wrote in 1846,

“The drama is here, vivid in its pitiful horror. This painting is David’s masterpiece and one of the great curiosities of modern art because, by a strange feat, it has nothing trivial or vile. What is most surprising in this very unusual visual poem is that it was painted very quickly. When one thinks of the beauty of the lines, this quickness is bewildering. This is food for the strong, the triumph of spiritualism. This painting is as cruel as nature but it has the fragrance of ideals. Where is the ugliness that hallowed Death erased so quickly with the tip of his wingNow Marat can challenge Apollo. He has been kissed by the loving lips of Death and he rests in the peace of his metamorphosis. This work contains something both poignant and tender; a soul is flying in the cold air of this room, on these cold walls, around this cold funerary tub.”[2]

In this quote Baudelaire is restoring David’s work to its honour after being mistake by the Romantics as cold classicism.

The idea of skin as material culture is so apparent here as the masking of a disease is known. I need to now enquire as to why things such as that are hidden and disguised, why is it important to sustain such a perfect ideal.


Onians, J. ‘the biological basis of renaissance aesthetics: in F, Ames – Lewis, M, Rogers, eds. Concepts of beauty in renaissance art’, Aldershot: ash gate publishing Ltd. 1998.

Walters, S. ‘Material girls: making sense of feminist cultural theory.’ University of California press, Ltd. London, England. 1995.

Pitts, V. ‘In the flesh: the cultural politics of body modification.’ Palgrove Macmillan TM. 2003.

Tilley, C. ‘Reading material culture.’ Blackwell publishers, Ltd. 1990.

Hall, S. ‘Cultural identity and Diaspora – theorizing Diaspora: a reader.’ Wiley-Blackwell, 2003.

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