Skip to Content
A detail of a bronze sculpture showing two intertwined nude figures. The woman is bent over, her eyes closed, right hand covering her right breast, and her head resting on a man, who wraps his arms around her and presses his cheek to hers. Gm 390711ex3 Original Image 17 Claudel Image Bank Web 72ppi 2000px Srgb Jpeg


The Body Speaks


The artist Camille Claudel devoted her short but remarkable career to sculpting the human figure.

Fluently working in clay, bronze, and marble, she explored each material’s unique expressive qualities to convey narrative and emotion, revealing and concealing the body through garment and gesture.

This tour offers a look at how other artists have translated the language of the body through gesture and style. Begin your journey on the third floor of the Modern Wing.

Constantin Brancusi

© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Unlike most 19th-century sculptors who outsourced the labor of carving, Romanian-born, French artist Constantin Brancusi carved his own marbles (as did Camille Claudel). He introduced a method called direct carving, which skipped the creation of clay models, trusting the materiality of his chosen medium for inspiration. Brancusi rendered his highly abstracted human and animal forms as simplified, almost geometric shapes, inspired by machine-age modernism. Here, he refers to a Greek myth in which the god Zeus transformed into a swan to seduce the beautiful Leda, but Brancusi’s sculpture reverses the transformation. Leda becomes the swan, streamlined and glowing in white stone.

On view in Gallery 395

Germaine Richier

© 2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Germaine Richier began her artistic career working in the tradition of naturalistic figural sculpture, which she encountered in the work of Emile-Antoine Bourdelle and Auguste Rodin.  During World War II, while in exile in Switzerland, her subject matter began to include insects and woodland creatures. Then, in the 1950s, she started incorporating otherworldly and non-human forms into her figures, creating hybridized creatures such as this bronze sculpture. Enigmatically titled Man of the Night, the figure has heavy legs that ascend toward bat-like wings and a face that resembles an owl’s focused glare, inspiring questions of whether or not these physical shifts come with special traits and powers.

On view in Gallery 397

Alberto Giacometti

© 2018 Succession Giacometti / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man II takes steps forward on spindly, elongated legs, his whole body leaning forward in an extended diagonal. In the absence of flesh and volume, Giacometti emphasized the figure’s movement. This sculpture is one of many similar examples by the artist, indicating his repeated attempts to capture the essence of form and motion. Consider how the figure’s body language conveys emotion, even without defined features. Heavy bronze feet may weigh him down, but his determined stride propels him forward.

On view in Gallery 398

Jeff Koons

Symbolic representations of love, passion, and romance can vary greatly depending on how bodies are rendered, stylistically and in relation to one another. This work by American artist Jeff Koons, created in 1991, recalls Baroque tradition and 19th-century Neoclassical marble sculptures in a way that highlights fantasy and idealized bodies. Koons’s heart-shaped composition—a portrait of himself and his former wife, Ilona—offers a rhapsodic portrayal of romantic love. To what extent, it asks, is this public display of affection truth, artifice, or performance?

On view in Gallery 292

Elizabeth Catlett

Elizabeth Catlett focused on representing African American subjects throughout her multifaceted career. A sculptor and printmaker, she carved this bust in the early 1940s as she began to experiment with abstraction. Sculpture enabled her to consider form and the expressive qualities of the medium. The stylized head eschews detail in favor of modernist simplicity, the origins of which she believed were rooted in African aesthetics. Though the figure is simplified and abstracted, Catlett has carefully carved asymmetries into his features, creating a sense of individuality and vitality in smooth planes of limestone.

On view in Gallery 264

Elie Nadelman

Equally inspired by classical and folk art, Polish-American sculptor Elie Nadelman synthesized these influences to create a language of sleek modernism. As he began to depict more vernacular subjects, including dancers, actors, and circus performers, Nadelman’s work was increasingly criticized. This dancer’s expression of carefree joy actually provoked outrage—especially when paired with her short dress, which boldly exposes her legs in a spirit of freedom embraced by women in the 1920s. Critics preferred instead traditional classical drapery. Unconcerned, the dancer balances effortlessly on one foot and raises her arms overhead in a gesture of confidence and triumph.

On view in Gallery 264

Tamil Nadu

Ardhanarishvara figures, like this sculpture, depict the fusion of the male Hindu god Shiva, creator and destroyer of worlds, with his female consort Parvati, the embodiment of love and fertility. We see Shiva represented on the left: his broad, flat torso adorned in jewels and wearing matted locks and a short animal skin, while Parvati, on the right, bears her rounded breast while holding a lotus flower and wearing a long draped lower garment. This figure, standing in a traditional pose called tribhanga, exemplifies the perfect balance of masculine and feminine energies, the united generative forces of the universe fluidly carved into stone.

On view in Gallery 141


Clay figures like this one have survived nearly 2,500 years from the Tlatilco culture of central Mexico. Female figures were much more common than males, and many share striking features: wide hips with spherical upper thighs, extremely small waists, delicate facial features, and minimally modeled feet and arms. The artist would have pinched and molded the clay by hand and used a sharp tool to incise details in the face and hair. Scholars have described these kinds of Tlatilco figurines as “pretty ladies.” How does this depiction of the female body express ideals of beauty?

On view in Gallery 136


Just as artists exchange ideas over time and through physical proximity, style can emerge from an interplay among cultures and geographic borders. This carved figure comes from a region in Pakistan once called Gandhara and depicts a bodhisattva, an enlightened being who remains on earth to aid others in their journey toward enlightenment. The naturalistic features, draped robes, and heavy adornment illustrate the influence of Hellenistic, Scythian, and Kushan art on Gandharan Buddhist subjects. Though the figure’s attire indicates his elevated stature, his serene expression with gently closed eyes embodies the quietude of his inward gaze.

On view in Gallery 101

Marielle Epstein, assistant director. Interpretation


Sign up for our enewsletter to receive updates.

Learn more

Image actions