Our obsession with bums

(Image courtesy of the Thai Volleyball Team)

After a giant bottom was revealed in the exhibition for this year’s Turner Prize, Kelly Grovier traces a history of our fascination with the derrière.

Ours is the Age of the Bum. Where the 18th century’s Age of Reason was obsessed with the mind, today things are a little fleshier, a little wobblier. So swollen in cultural consciousness has the rump become, it and it alone is believed to be powerful enough to break the internet.

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We flatter it with songs as if it were a grumbling God we’re desperate to please. Lots of songs: from My Humps to Anaconda, from Baby Got Back to Bootylicious and its tushy taunt “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly”.

So committed are we to glorifying the bottom, we increasingly undertake surgical procedures to inflate it beyond its natural size (so frequently in fact that 2015 was christened ‘The Year of the Rear’ by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons).

And now, we nominate exalted representations of buttocks for major art awards.

A photo taken this week of a young woman standing in a gallery in London’s Tate Britain, contemplating the groaning, cleftal horizon of a huge, prised-apart posterior as if the secrets of the universe might whisper fragrantly from it, is merely the most recent example of our era’s obsession.

Project for a Door by Anthea Hamilton has just gone on show at Tate Britain and is based on a design for a New York entrance (Credit: Reuters)
Project for a Door by Anthea Hamilton has just gone on show at Tate Britain and is based on a design for a New York entrance (Credit: Reuters)

The cheeky work, Project for a Door, is a 5m-high (16ft) sculpture by the London-born artist Anthea Hamilton, who has been nominated for this year’s Turner Prize, among the most prestigious (and controversial) awards for contemporary art.

Hamilton’s backside has a backstory: its design is based on the Italian architect Gaetano Pesce’s never-realised vision for an entranceway to a New York apartment complex.

Ninety-nine years after the French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp scandalised the art world by proposing to install a urinal in a gallery, and nearly two decades since the British artist Tracey Emin outraged critics by exhibiting a rumpled bed in the very same competition as Hamilton, one might have thought modern sensibilities had become immune to shock.

And perhaps they have. It might be that the buttocks alone are capable of such a backdraft of fascination, representing a unique and inexhaustible source of cultural regard.

The photo of an observer mesmerised by Hamilton’s magnified maximus takes the history of human-gazing full circle.

The earliest work of figurative art that survives, the so-called Venus of the Hohle Fels (discovered in Germany in 2008 and believed to be up to 40,000 years old), reveals just how hard-wired we are, as a species, to embellish the proportions of the bottom.

Forged in ivory from mammoth tusk, the teensy statuette is a rugged clump of morbidly bulging breasts and bloated buttocks – exaggerations scholars speculate may relate to its function as a fertility totem.

Since then, the derrière has proved a touchstone of visual genius for every image-maker from Hieronymus Bosch (who inscribed one with musical notes) to Salvador Dalí (who tugged William Tell’s into a grotesque tuber) and from Jean-Léon Gérôme (who imagined one magically melting from stony sculpture into peachy flesh) to Kim Kardashian’s cyberspace-destroying selfies.

The bottom line? When it comes to art from prehistory to the present, “we don’t want none”, as Nicky Minaj insists, “unless it got buns, hun”.

Report shared by BBC Culture

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