Old Art Terms # 4: The Human Clay

John Elderfield
Dec 16, 2012 9:15PM

The Art.sy introduction to the gene, “School of London,” tells us that the artist R.B. Kitaj invented this name in the catalogue essay for his exhibition of figurative art, “The Human Clay,” at London’s Hayward Gallery in 1976. But where did “The Human Clay” come from? From a poem by W. H. Auden called “Letter to Lord Byron.” The relevant part is:

To me, Art's subject is the human clay/And landscape but a background to a torso;/All Cezanne's apples I would give away/For one small Goya or a Daumier.

I cringe at the rhyme of “Daumier” with “clay” and “away,” but that is a quibble compared to the problem with the poem’s message. We cannot, of course, object to someone liking figures more than landscapes and still-lifes. But we can object to Auden’s categorical separation of the three subjects. 

Now at The Museum of Modern Art is a famous painting by Edvard Munch in which the landscape screams just as much as the torso does; and at The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a less well-known still-life by Henri Matisse in which apples rocking on a table look just like the spherical breasts of the sculpture of a woman beside them. The paint that shapes figure, landscape, and still-life is made of the same colored clay. And it is because, not despite, the fact that the human body has been the greatest subject in western art that images of landscape and still-life have accrued to themselves some of its corporeality. 

John Elderfield