From Nudes to the Nervous System, Studies of the Human Body

From Nudes to the Nervous System, Studies of the Human Body

In contrast to Phaidon’s historical sweep, “Body” focuses only on pictures taken in recent decades. Drawing on myriad genres and techniques — portraits, nudes, fashion spreads, medical micrographs — Nathalie Herschdorfer, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Le Locle, Switzerland, approaches the body as a nebulous and dynamic organism, a site for self-invention, a source of self-loathing, and an arena for personal myth and public scrutiny. Wrangling 369 images into seven thematic chapters including “Alter Ego,” “Mutations” and “Love,” Herschdorfer presents an unwieldy vision of the human figure as a fraught but ubiquitous muse.

The quality of the works is inconsistent, and even some of the stronger ones are saddled with vague, shallow descriptions. Regarding four luminous portraits of transgender subjects by the French photographer Bettina Rheims, Herschdorfer merely notes “the strenuous work involved” in maintaining the models’ appearances.

Frustrations aside, the book contains a number of contemporary masterpieces. In her 2004 nude self-portrait “Feeling Me,” Elinor Carucci looks away with riveting ambivalence as her husband’s hand touches her pregnant belly. Catherine Opie’s well-known “Self-Portrait/Cutting” (1993) depicts a bloody cartoon house, sky and female stick figures carved into the skin of her back. A portrait by the rising star Paul Mpagi Sepuya, who photographs his and others’ bodies fragmented by mirrors, complements the late Ren Hang’s sculptural compositions of intertwining torsos and limbs. Some obvious choices are absent: Rineke Dijkstra, the Dutch artist who captures the vagaries of adolescence, is excluded in favor of Kim Kardashian’s selfies.

One work finds its way into both books. “Study, Charité, Berlin” (2015), by the German photographer Thomas Struth, depicts dozens of antique wax and plaster casts — death masks, hands and feet — arrayed like sacrificial offerings on a marble slab. It’s fitting: Now that we can manipulate our bodies more radically than ever, from our noses to our DNA, these two volumes offer a spectrum of ways to view, and celebrate, the living machines that allow us to taste, touch and navigate the world. Through them we marvel at how incredible it is to exist, in the flesh, at all.

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