They say that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. And yet the eye, as part of the body, can also be a part of beauty itself. That’s one of the many fascinating things I learned at a wonderful exhibition titled “The Human Image: Art, Identities, and Symbolism” that was presented at the CaixaForum Palma and was one of the highlights of my cultural visits in Mallorca.
The exhibition combines iconic works from ancient civilisations in the British Museum with a selection of contemporary art from the CaixaForum’s collection, as well as some important loans from other institutions such as the Prado Museum in Madrid. But rather than focusing on different time periods, it uses five universal themes to explore how we as human beings have represented ourselves around the world and what this means in the context of our views today.
The first theme explores our ongoing fascination with the aesthetics of the human form. It makes the point that, for millennia, artists across the world have been drawn to the representation of the human body, often idealising it beyond its inherent imperfections. This section showcases the rich diversity in how we understand bodily perfection, ranging from the long-standing reverence for symmetry, balance, and youth to the more contemporary challenges to traditional beauty norms.
It’s interesting to note how this historical journey through the lens of ideal beauty serves as a mirror to societal norms by reflecting the roles and behavioural expectations we ascribe to different genders. For example, traditional representations often assign feminine traits such as compassion, gentleness, and purity to the female form, while capturing courage, honour, and assertiveness within the male figure. But the exhibition highlights an evolution in these archaic perspectives as modern society increasingly questions and deconstructs such restrictive definitions. Indeed, contemporary artists responding to shifting social attitudes often find creative ways to subvert and interrogate these stereotypes, which allows them and us to explore and redefine our concepts of identity in a modern context.
The second theme takes a closer look at portraiture. While a portrait often emerges from the real-time interaction between the artist and the living subject, it can also serve as a posthumous commemoration of an individual’s life and achievements. Indeed, in showing how portraits have evolved over centuries to capture more than just a physical likeness, the exhibition looks at how they can serve as a window into the identity of the subject by conveying individual character, social status, and even mood through aspects such as facial expressions, attire, and surrounding objects.
Portrait of imán Husain Zaino by Adel al-Quraishi
The power of portraiture also extends to the portrayal of relationships by encapsulating universal themes – motherhood, love, and community – that have been crucial to human social behaviour throughout history. In essence, these intimate depictions of friends, lovers, and family reflect our innate desire for companionship and connection, reinforcing the role of art as a mirror of the human condition. This is best seen in the photograph Black Madonna with Twins by Vanessa Beecroft, one of the most striking works in the exhibition.
The third theme walks through the intersection of human and divine imagery in religious and spiritual contexts. It argues that human-like depictions of gods and sacred beings, which are often created to inspire devotion and embody spiritual power, are prevalent across many religious traditions. But this theme also acknowledges that not all religions embrace this kind of visual symbolism. In some traditions such as Judaism and Islam, this type of iconic representation is viewed as sacrilegious.
Another interesting aspect about this section is the acknowledgement that the belief in natural spirits inhabiting the earth is widespread and that these entities are often given form through statues or paintings to facilitate human interaction and reverence. To that end, the exhibition also features artworks representing individuals engaged in acts of devotion rather than the divine entities themselves. These portrayals of devout people and religious communities reflect the central role of religion in shaping human life and, consequently, art.
The fourth theme delves into how imagery has been employed by rulers and political leaders throughout history to project their power and authority. These depictions range from grand statues and paintings to mass-produced coins and posters, which are often not so much about portraying the individual’s personality but rather highlighting the ideal of a supreme leader. Indeed, rulers frequently align themselves with legendary predecessors by mimicking their portrait styles or even physical features just to position themselves in archetypal roles of the invincible military leader, godlike monarch, or wise statesman.
But while these iconic images almost always serve a political function, they aren’t always positive. Critics, political adversaries, and independent artists occasionally produce images that highlight a leader’s shortcomings to provide an alternative viewpoint that reflects public perception rather than a curated image. These depictions can serve as official propaganda or critical commentary. Either way, they underscore the intricate relationship between power, perception, and art.
The final theme and my favourite of the five explores the metamorphosis of the human body as represented in art across various cultures. A particularly prominent aspect here is the idea of death as portrayed through funerary masks, skulls, and skeletons. But the exhibition also shows how artists have used the image of the traumatised body to express turmoil (often in response to the catastrophic impacts of war) or, on a more personal level, use the body as a canvas for expressing complex facets of identity.
Another aspect of this theme is the idea of the supernatural. Many cultures have myths of magical transformations, whether it’s punitive metamorphoses of wrongdoers or spirit beings adopting human forms. (This is best captured in the work Two Copulating Fish by Nigerian-born artist Sokari Douglas Camp.) Indigenous cultures often attribute such transformational abilities to shamans and other magical practitioners, who shape-shift into animal or ancestral spirits to protect their communities. These compelling narratives of magical metamorphosis continue to inspire artists, demonstrating the enduring allure of transformation in human imagination.
What made this exhibition particularly engaging is the fact that it wasn’t designed as a purely abstract or overly intellectual in the way that many contemporary art experiences can be. Instead, viewers could scan QR codes next to various artworks and be presented with thoughts to reflect on and questions to ask. This made the concepts and ideas that much more tangible.
The exhibition has since transferred to Barcelona but, as is the case with many of the CaixaForum sites I’ve been to so far, there’s always something new to discover. And if you want to eat your art out even more, here are three ideal choices for modern and contemporary work in Palma:
- The Juan March Foundation Museum is housed in a 17th century building that was originally constructed as a stately family home. The museum was inaugurated in 1990 and initially displayed just 36 contemporary Spanish artworks from the foundation’s collection. But much like the building itself underwent expansions and renovations, the number of gallery spaces and displayed works has increased as well. It now offers a vast collection of 20th century Spanish art that’s free to discover in person and that you can even explore online.
- The Joan Miró Foundation is a cultural centre and museum dedicated to the life and work of the renowned Spanish artist. And even though it might be a little geographically apart from the others it’s still worth a visit. The foundation’s mission is to preserve and promote Miró’s artistic legacy and foster the study and understanding of contemporary art. To that end, the complex houses a museum, a library, an art workshop, and Miró’s original studio, where visitors can explore the creative spaces where he worked.
- The Baluard Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is located within the bastion of Sant Pere, which dates back to the last quarter of the 16th century and forms part of the Renaissance walled enclosure that surrounded the city until the early 20th century. The museum opened in 2004 and boasts a seamless integration of modern architecture with a historic site. Today it offers a vast interior space – at the time of my visit there were four separate exhibitions – that you can zig zag your way through until you get to the rooftop with more incredible views.