Essay: Exploring how above/below the skin can be represented beyond the human body

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A topic that really interests me is human biology and what exists under the skin, the intricate networks of veins and bones all linked together through flesh and muscle. For my personal investigation entitled “SKIN” I aim to explore both what is above and beneath the human skin and experiment with exposing the unseen aspects of the body, whether that be microscopic details, organisms that live on our bodies, or organs.

Inside the body I am particularly interested in the structure of veins and arteries, how fine and delicate they are and yet the whole body is dependent on them transporting blood, nutrients and oxygen. The interlinking pattern would be interesting to explore through print and embroidery because it is so detailed.

When exploring the skin I want to look at it in the context of fashion, how clothes can play the role of a second skin and also how the skin is a popular topic in contemporary fine art using textiles/mixed media.

An Australian fashion student, Minette Shuen, created these pieces of work focusing on the formation and layers of the skin. They explore texture and tone in an innovative way, placing the skin beyond the body as a literal extra layer. Shuen cut and formed the fabric on the body, using minimalist designs to create sculptural constructions. This collection is called ‘disect’ as Shuen cuts through the fabric tp reveal the body below like a surgical incision, it is about the opening of the body and layers. Shuen frames the body with her cut away shapes, folds and ripples she creates, they accentuate the formation of the body and the microscopic ridge formations of the skin.

Iris Van Herpen

This haute couture collection by Iris Van Herpen was inspired by sound waves, she explored the visualisation of sound waves through geometric shapes. Although the idea that she is representing is the formations of sound, I find the forms created through laser cutting and layering interesting in relation to the topic of skin. The complicated and whirling formations are reminiscent of the ridges and cascading curves of the skin on both the large and minute scale. Also, Van Herpen’s use of natural tones which blend into the body of the model accentuate the form of the human anatomy. This piece could be seen as an extension and exaggeration of the framework of a body. The laser cut fabric falls onto itself forming a sort of pleating similar to the lines of skin found in knuckles and joints. Even though this dress was not made with the intentions of representing human form, it is represting a natural element of our world and that may be why they are such versatile creations with numerous possible interpretations.

This other dress is formed of glass bubbles and mesh, once again we can clearly draw connections between this garment and the human skin. An obvious connection would be that the mesh exposes the skin beneath, but also that the glass bubbles create small mounded feautures like imperfections of the skin such as moles or cysts, obscuring the body beneath. The glass represents the blemishes of the body and re-presents them in a delicate and intricate form, finding beauty in the obscure. The fragility of the glass could be seen to represent the fragility of skin, how easily we can be torn and scarred just as glass can smash. The glass bubbles could also represent perspiration and small beads of sweat dripping from the body, trapped under cloth and lining our skin.

Even though this collection was not intentionaly created to be compared to anatomy, it has perfect form to do so. The intricate techniques utilised by Van Herpen create frail structures which could be applied to most natural forms such as the earth or water. The pleating appearance of the first dress is particularly striking, with a curving design extending and distorting the shape of the model.

Elsa Shiaparelli


Elsa Shiaparelli was an abstract fashion designer who blurred the lines between art and fashion in the early 20th century. She worked collaboratively with very few artists and designers and most of them were from the surrealist movement. Her work was ironic and made fun of women’s clothing and beauty standards in a surreal and artistic way, focusing on colour, shape and feel.

Some of her most famous and interesting work comes from her collaborations with Salvador Dali, they created fashion pieces inspired by illusion and shiaparelli”s wit.

This piece is a pair of evening gloves made in 1938 in Paris, this pair of pink, skin toned opera gloves with exaggerated ruffles that extend from the elbow to the beginning of the fingers create an illusion of rippling and peeling skin, folding backwards, revealing layers below. The appearance of these gloves is quite grotesque and it juxtaposes their purpose to be an elegant addition to a lady’s outfit.These gloves were made in collaboration with Salvador Dali and are a comment on the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.

Two years before Shaparelli made these gloves, Dali painted three pictures depicting people with flayed skin where the torn flesh and clothing blended together. One of these pieces was called the Necrophilliac Springtime. The image to the left is the Dali painting and you can see clear links between the flayed and distorted woman’s face and the ripples in the ruffles created by Shaparelli. I find these gloves make me feel very uncomfortable because the nature of their appearance is quite sinister, they appear to have tears or scars and the natural reaction is to be shocked by them as a reflex to protect ourselves.

This pair of gloves was made in1936, two years prior to the ripped opera gloves. This pair of elbow length winter gloves have golden nails attached to the exterior, creating vicious claws. These gloves are more of a fashion statement than distortion of the skin, however they still relate to the physical body being represented beyond the skin and used as a garment accesory.

What I find most interesting about Schiparelli’s clothing designs is that she created fashionable clothing that could be worn to public events however they had an underlying sinister twist. Her clothing was a commentary on social issues and the pressure of women to look a certain way. I think the torn opera gloves a great commentary on social injustice and how the bourgoise will continue to live a luxurious lifestyle with no consideration of the pain or suffering of those fighting in war. They wear the horror on their arms as decoration

One of her pieces which really interests me is her Skeleton Dress, Schiaparelli’s dedication to combine controversial ideas with over the top perspectives led her to create fashion items posing the question of where the body ended and the clothing began. This dress made of black crepe and quilting was inspired by the surrealist fascination with human form.

This evening dress accentuates certain bones and structures of the body, the exaggeration of the rib cage in particular can be seen as a commentary on women’s fashion relating back to corsets and the whale boning which gave them structure and crushed the ribs into shape. The rigid skeletal forms contrast with the folds in the soft falling fabric creating an iteresting juxtaposition of the coarse and soft.

Shaparelli’s work was made with the intention to shock and introduce abstraction into every day clothing. Her work has underlying humerous tones in pieces such as the evening gloves with nails attached. However, she is also able to convey destruction and death through pieces such as her torn opera gloves, contrasting the aristocratic classes with the soldiers who fight for the country, creating a st
atement on class and patriocy.


The surrealist movement really began in the early 1900s in France, a group of Parisian poets and artists, lead by Andre Breton defined the term as:

“Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.”

This movement was a complete rejection of conventional artistic values and was adopted by writers, photographer, filmmakers and artists across the world. The movement emphasized the importance of channeling the unconscious and the aspect of the imagination that we use in our dreams when we sleep and then transferring that into art.

Surrealism emerged from the death of the Dada movement but shared a focus on the idea of anti-rationalism; the movement coined the term ‘surrealism’ in 1924 when Breton published ‘The Surrealist Manifesto’. The fantastical style grew as political instability increased in France; it was a way of people expressing the uncertainty and anxiety.

Rene Magritte (1898-1967) was a Belgian surrealist artist who explored taking objects or textures and placing them in unusual contexts, a lot of his work focused on transferring natural textures onto the body, often relating the sky or trees. Magritte challenged people’s perception of reality by creating dream-like sculptures and paintings. This painting is called Discovery and was made in 1928; it is a discovery of the unknown or hidden. The alteration of the naked skin to blend its shapes and pattern with that of wood is vey sensual and natural, exploring the idea of humans coming from the earth and being connected with natural forces. Furthermore, this painting almost portrays an evolutionary vision of mankind adapting and changing form in order to reconnect with the natural world. This painting was created in the inter-war period and that is why use of natural forms is so poignant because it is a demonstration of how humans are not naturally creatures of brutality but we have lost our way. This sensual image conveys the notion that all humans come from the same place, we are all of the same world and made of the same materials so why do we fight and kill in order to gain power over one another. This highlights the futility of mass destruction. The way in which the patterns of the wood are concentrated is beautiful because it follows the contours and shapes of the body so well, it is a demonstration of how the skin is a natural pattern, humans can often distance themselves from the natural world but this painting is trying to draw us back to the realization that this is where we come from.

After seeing Magritte’s work I began to notice similar themes in other pieces of Art, I was at the Scottish National Gallery when I saw Andre Giroux’ Apollo and Daphne, 1824. This piece was painted over a hundred years before Magritte’s Discovery but the similar theme of metamorphosis intrigued me. What first grabbed my attention in this painting is the man grabbing a woman who at first glance seems to be climbing a tree but on closer inspection we see that she is going through some form of metamorphoses and her limbs are transforming into the bark and branches of a tree. The image appears to be very romantic and whimsical, as though she is returning to the roots of her origin or connecting with nature. After researching the image, I discovered the story behind the image in which Apollo falls in love with Daphne the nymph and wants to marry her however she has vowed to remain a virgin for the rest of her life so she calls upon Peneus her father to transform her so Apollo cannot catch her. Peneus turns Daphne into a laurel tree, rooted to the ground; in order to protect her and Apollo swears he will wear a crown of laurel on his head to remember her. Giroux was a French artist and a lot of his work was very romantic depictions of stories or landscapes, I think the way in which he has captured the transformation of Daphne is very touching in that the light complexion of her skin is so greatly juxtaposed by the rough bark of the tree. This painting demonstrates the strength of nature and also how nature can be a protective; we seek comfort in where we came from.

Magritte’s depiction of transformation is more abstract and focused on the idea of making us question our connection to nature, where as Giroux is portraying a romantic tale of lust and transformation and so there is less of a focus on the metamorphoses itself. Both pieces propose interesting ideas about the human relationship with nature.

Skin Pattern

Our whole body is covered in tiny ridges and patterns, a key example of this is Fingerprints. Fingerprints are formations of the skin that develop in the womb due to pressure on the child’s growing body. Each fingerprint is individual with a different structure, meaning they cannot be replicated and are unique to every individual.

Similar to the clear formations of skin on fingertips, the woman pictured above has a skin illness known as Epidermal Nevi. This growth on the skin can create tan coloured patches and show the lines known as Blaschko’s lines.

A German dermatologist named Alfred Blaschko discovered that there are lines which run all the down our arms and legs rather like stripes and then form a V on the stomach, then they proceed to swirl across the back. However, for most people these lines are completely invisible, apart from those who have conditions such as Epidermal Nevi. This image demonstrates the intricate pattern of our skin, it is remarkable to see the patterns as vividly as this because we can usually only see small sections of skin and not how it affects the body as a whole. The pattern looks like a marbelling affect across the whole body.

This is not an artists work but a scientific diagram of the unique patterns of the skin and they appear as an artwork within themselves because it is such an unusual and intricate sight.

To the left is a diagram of the mapping of these Blaschko’s lines which are ususally invisible to the naked eye, they show a intriguing uniform pattern. What is particularly interesting to me about this diagram is that it demonstrates that all people have a similar skin formation no matter your race or any other factor we are all fundamentally the same. However, the complete individuality of the finger print directly contrasts the universal pattern of skin.

You could liken the shape of Blashko’s lines to the structure and form of Iris Van Herpen’s dresses which follow the structural patterns of the skin.

Giuseppe Penone

Guiseppe Penone is an Italian artist who began to work professionally in 1968, he was a member of the Italian movement called “Arte Povera”, the artists involved focused on explored unconventional processes using non-traditional materials which usually included soil, rags and twigs. Art Povera literally meant poor art as in it was art created with limited materials; the movement had a lasting impact on conceptual art. Guiseppe Penone wanted to use natural materials to establish a relationship between man and nature.

The series of images above is a body mapping which Penone created by pressing a glass sheet against different parts of his body and using a camera to record all of his anatomy. The images were arranged to create a map of his body. The rectangular format of presentation gives a scientific and forensic feel to the work, like a scientific documentation of human form. Also, each square is like a piece of abstract art work due to the fragmentation and ambiguity, look
ing at the body with no identification or information. This juxtaposes the idea of the piece itself as a map of a body, documenting exactly what he is; if you were to take each piece on their own they are left with no owner and extreme ambiguity. Each image is a piece of abstract art exploring the formation of the skin and its varying tones and depths. The concept of creating a flat and fragmented two-dimensional display of yourself is intriguing in how it changes the shape of the human body and how it is perceived. This self-portrait is so literal and exposing for the subject, showing them in all of their nakedness that you would expect it to create a sense of vulnerability however instead we feel completely removed; it is an objective map of the human body.

The objectification of the body is unusual as there is no form of sexualisation just a detachment from what we are seeing, but if we were to see a dissected human body people would feel far more uncomfortable.

This three panel drawing is entitled Skin of Graphite, 2012 and is a graphite drawing on canvas. This piece of work really demonstrates Penone’s idea of uniting nature and man together. The patterns of the graphite seem to form intricate lines similar to the formation of human skin but they also bear resemblance to the bark of a tree. In this way, he is referencing the similarities between the textures of nature and people, how our skins are similar and patterns repeat through nature. The intricate detailing of this piece is really beautiful, how the small marks interplay with one another to create crevices and depths. It reminds me of the patterns you see on the top of old tree stumps, there is a sense of ageing and weathering to the piece as though it has experienced a lot.

You can see direct similarities between some of the images of crevices in Penone’s skin and the linear formations of this drawin.

Judy Clark

These body prints mapping out the body are similar to the work by Guiseppe Penone, except Judy Clarke created these by rubbing powdered graphite onto an area of skin and then pressing it into adhesive plastic. These body maps were created in 1973.

Much like Penone’s mapping, Clark documents segments of the body, once again displayed in a square format suggesting a medical context. Both of these artists are creating abstract portraits, with the same theme supporting their works but executed using different methods. The mapping creates an objective distance between the humanity of a person and their physical form. If you were to look at the shapes individually their abstract forms could be mistaken for a segment of concrete, unless if we are looking at the fingers or toes there is nothing distinctly human about the rubbings. This is interesting because it poses the question of what makes us human and whether our humanity is within our skin and structure or something within ourselves.

The reason Clark made these prints was that she “wanted a sort of total body image – [she] really wanted hair, fluids and skin in one, but it wouldn’t work out like that so [she] separated them”. Clark used herself and one of her male friends as subjects for the prints and thought it was of key importance for people to consider the universality of skin patterns and the forensic side of her work, “I was interested in the idea of tracks and by tracking people’s lives and movements and relationships – right at the beginning I read some books on forensic methods, so I was aware of things like fingerprinting techniques”

Clark’s work poses great questions of how we should be viewing our bodies, especially since we have created a society largely focused around the importance of appearance and presentation of ourselves. But fundamentally when broken down into little squares we are all made of the same thing, a skin covered in little intersecting lines and crevices. This work represents that every human has the same basis of genetic mapping and no matter how much you may idolize someone else or their body, if they were to have their body be documented in this way, they would look no different to anyone else.


Exploring what grows on our skin is just as important as the skin itself; we house thousands of different types of bacteria on our bodies.

Sonja Baumel is a textiles artist who looked at growing bacteria from her skin and then creating fabric samples in response. She investigates the “balance between individual identity and the surrounding local environment. By doing so, [she] wants to create a new second living layer on out body based on the interaction between individuals and the surroundings.”

Baumel experiments using fibers to grow her bacteria onto fabric samples such as muslin to create a skin like texture. Similarly, she also created a full body bacterial print of her own skin which can be seen below, she created it by lying in a human sized Petri dish of agar growing nutrient.

She creates another form of body mapping just like Guiseppe Penone and Judy Clark in how she is preserving aspects of her body. Instead of the pattern of her skin, she is delving into what is on and what lives on her skin. This is an interesting idea in that she is creating forensic samples of her body. She filled a large tank with agar nutrient that encourages the growth of bacteria, and then she lay herself in it, to create a full-scale living print of her body. It can be seen in the image on the left. She developed the idea of a body map into growing a living organisms directly transferred from her skin. Conceptually this project is astounding, pushing the idea of what we are, what we are made of and how much of us is actually our own body.

We don’t think of ourselves as hosts to other life forms because we can’t see them, but this project works to visually represent the unknown aspect of our being.

This work is disturbing in the essence of the existential questions which it raises, if we remove a part of our body and what we are made of, yet it continue to lives beyond our skin it is ourselves existing independently of the host body.

The Visible Human Project

The Visible Human project was created with the aim of taking cross-section photographs of the human body to help with medical progression. One man and one woman volunteered for their bodies to be used in the project after their death. They were thinly sliced and then photographed in cross sections by the U.S National Library of Medicine, they became 1,871 thin slices of human anatomy.

The image above is a slice from across the male abdomen but it doesn’t look like a piece of a human at all, this is intriguing, as I have never seen a dissection of a body performed in such a way. The colours and patterns of the organs, fat and bones create an intricate design with some aspects completely symmetrical. Although much like with the Blachko’s lines this is not a piece of work by an artist, it is still very interesting as an abstract image and concept on its own, it is removed from any depiction or mapping of the body that we would be familiar with. This is a mapping of the body that is more literal than the skin-deep investigations by artists such as Guiseppe Penone, Judy Clark and Sonja Baumel. Even though this is not an artists work, we would only be able to see diagrams such as these through scientific investigations as they have access to body donations. These images give a better idea of the tones of the body than Clark or Penone
who worked in grey-tones, the full-colour images give a more visual representation of the flesh tones and variations. We also see more pattern structures than on the skin, showing the diverse composition of the body. The shapes and tones create intriguing formations and abstract forms.

Lucy Glendinning


“People shed their skins, and leave them crumpled and glossy on the wall”

“In my studio piece, I am more personal and problematizing. The results therefore much more intimate and the thematic content heavier”

This series entitled ‘Skins 1” explores the internal nature of humans, even though there is no distinct recognizable form of a live person; we still humanize the pile of plastic. Glendinning has literally created a fallen shell of the human form, as though someone has stepped out of their own body and abandoned it or shed their skin like a snake. If the sculpture were a less natural tone I think people would find it more difficult to empathies with her work, it would be more of an alien form.

I see this as a physical representation of emotional states rather than a literal representation of the body. It is like the decay of emotions and a mental break down where someone feels as though their entire body is collapsing under the weight of their feelings. The plastic is an entrapping and suffocating material, smothering you within your own body, trapped within yourself. The curling of the toes and positioning of the body curled into the fetal position is very evocative of the vulnerability of children.

This work is far more conceptual than that of Guiseppe Penone or Judy Clark, this is a literal representation of human form but with a much more emotional concept behind it.


All of the Artists I have discussed in this essay explore the idea of documenting the skin through different medias and forms.

I first discussed the use of skin and human anatomy within fashion, looking at the work of Minette Shuen, Iris Van Herpen and Elsa Shiaparelli. A common theme through the three designer’s

work is peeling back one layer of fabric to reveal another below, or to reveal the skin itself. They are referencing the fact that our skin is composed of several layers, constantly breaking and peeling. But the really interesting idea raised by their work is that clothing actually works as a second skin to our body, protecting us. ¬

Guiseppe Penone and Judy Clark both look at forensic style documentation of the human form. Both produced abstract interpretations of what our skin is and whether it really represents individuality or natural forms as a whole. What I found to be really interesting about both of these artists work was that when they were reduced down the patterns became very obscure. Penone highlighted in his piece the skin of graphite that the pattern of human skin is actually a form which can be seen through a lot of nature, examples being leaf patterns, tree bark and soil. Penone and Clark produced their work within 50 years of one another; Clark’s skin maps created in 1973 show definite similarities to the style of “Arte Povera” the movement Penone was a key character of. The themes they discuss raise the question of how much how we look really mattes, considering that all skin looks the same up close; Blashko’s skin lines demonstrate this.

Sonja Baumel’s documentation of human form within textiles is very different to the styles that I have referenced so far. As she goes as far as to create living bacterial prints of her body, creating a bacterial map. Her work is more conceptual rather than visual on that she is questioning how much of our body is actually human and to what extent are we just a host to other life forms. She explores more possibilities of what it means to be human and the links between the human form and nature to a greater extent than Penone or Clark have. Baumel has more of a focus on the potential of the human body rather than just documenting what can be seen by the naked eye.

Last of all I looked at a very different style of modern fine art by Lucy Glendinning and her latex skin shells. Glendinning’s work is a more literal representation of human form and can most easily be likened Elsa Shiaparellis flayed skin gloves, as both work more to question hoe we perceive the human form and how we relate to it rather than looking at the intricate detailing. This work is more of an expression of emotion and how it can be portrayed through body language and how we move.

From this essay I have gained ideas into how I can consider the form of a human and the aspects I want to look at. I am interested in combing ideas and textured represented through the fine art with the concept of clothing functioning as a second skin.

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