An important strength of the Hirshhorn Museum is its holdings in figurative art. Strange Bodies brings together some of the most praised and popular examples of figuration from the collection to show how expressionistic and surrealistic impulses toward human representation have evolved from the early and mid-twentieth century to recent decades. The tension between the enthusiastic response that figuration often receives from general audiences and the loaded, at times dark content it can carry is also explored. Moreover, the installation allows an assessment of past collection building.
The core collection amassed and donated to the museum by Joseph Hirshhorn contains masterful and multiple works by Alberto Giacometti, Jean Dubuffet, Willem de Kooning, and Francis Bacon. These works trace artists’ interests in dissolving or warping the human form to heighten its expressive impact during the first half of the twentieth century. Hirshhorn also acquired paintings by Balthus and René Magritte which represent the human subject in a surreal way, locating the body (or its parts) in contexts that are dislodged from the normal world. Past director James Demetrion built on Hirshhorn’s legacy by bringing important examples of figuration from the 1980s and 1990s into the collection, including sculptures and paintings by Magdalena Abakanowicz, Georg Baselitz, Lucian Freud, Robert Gober, Julian Schnabel, and Franz West. Some of the museum’s recent collecting activity has included acquisitions of works by Janine Antoni, Matthew Barney, John Currin, Ron Mueck, and Lisa Yuskavage. Many of these contemporary pieces demonstrate how artists use figuration to distort the human form in order to investigate the borders between representation and abstraction, as well as to tangibly manifest psychological states and concepts of identity.
Installed in the lower level galleries, Strange Bodies will also include a small gallery devoted to a survey of the museum’s in-depth but under-utilized holdings of works on paper and paintings by George Grosz—works that further demonstrate a socially-charged use of the figure.