Why Body Painting? — 4: Radical Act — The essential celebration of our humanity / the ultimate modern art

by Christopher Agostino

Traditional Significance: in cultures with profound traditions of bodypainting it is a celebration of the beauty of the human form. Among the Southeast Nuba the most elaborate painting is reserved for the young men in their prime health and youthful vigor. In the highlands of Papua New Guinea the brightly colored body-decoration presents a heightened self-image, an idealized form beyond the individuals’s daily persona.

Primal Transformation: anthropologists now point to the use of symbols and the beginnings of art as the igniting evolutionary spark of modern humanity, the defining impetus of the final great leap from animal to human— we are the symbolic species. And, as likely as not, that first act of art was to paint ourselves.

Radical Theory: to paint a body today is the most profound expression of that which makes us human, transcending the boundary of our physical, animal form through the act of making ourselves into art, into the essential celebration of our consciousness — reaching back to our origins on the plains of Africa through the most traditional of all art forms while startling the modern viewer with the acknowledgement of our naked identity as human animals. 

Traditional celebratory bodypainting from Papua New Guinea

Why does a painted, naked body evoke such a response? How can the most ancient of art forms be so surprising today?

I venture to say that a painted, naked body would be more disturbing in effect on an unsuspecting viewer than a body merely naked. A naked body is more readily comprehensible and our reaction more easily determined, or perhaps pre-determined, depending on the brand of morality we bring to the occasion. A fully painted body is less easily definable. It is both naked and clothed, both primitive and civilized—evoking the quality of “disturbing strangeness” as described by Freud, an uncomfortable reaction to “the return of what we have driven back” as we moved from tribal to modern culture. As relayed by Michel Thévoz, Freud was talking about why a member of modern society reacts so strongly, so negatively, to the painted faces of “primitive” people. I think there is an additional element of confusion, an additional uncertainty in how to react, when that unsuspecting modern viewer is confronted by a live example of full fine art bodypainting, because in addition to an apparent return to the primitive (a naked painted body) there is also the apparent elevation to higher culture (as that body has become art).

To continue in an overreaching, radical vein, I can make the argument that bodypainting is today an art form which is capable of fulfilling the quest of the artists 100 years ago who threw out the academic conventions to create “Modern Art” in order to re-establish the ability of visual art to challenge society, compel emotional response and shock the viewer into paying attention—in order to return art to it’s original function, the function art has in primitive cultures, of defining our humanity and raising individual and social consciousness. 


To say that I think bodypainting is capable of functioning in the same revolutionary way as the radical art of the early modern artists is not to say that I think that MY bodypainting has ever achieved that. I have no delusions that my work will ever rock the art world (or the bodypainting world) in the way that Picasso and Matisse did. When I use their imagery in my work it as an art lover and a student.

So to bring this back to the question “why body painting?”, as in “why do I paint bodies?”, it’s not that I’m trying to be the next Picasso. I do however find that artistic bodypainting (and facepainting, for that matter) have an effect on consciousness in a local, immediate sense both for the person you paint and for the people that see them. When you paint someone at an event, it injects a quality of magic, of mystery, into our modern civilized lives. In returning a glimpse of the primitive, it allows for questions about human identity and the permanence of form, and in that way it touches upon the original, transformative power of art.

the real thing

the student work

Learn more at my Body Painting Page http://thestorybehindthefaces.com/body-painting/

And read the related post:

is a painted body naked?  http://thestorybehindthefaces.com/2011/04/15/is-a-painted-body-naked/

3 comments on “Why Body Painting? — 4: Radical Act — The essential celebration of our humanity / the ultimate modern art

  1. Check out my friend body painter Filippo Iocco.


    AND he’s an amazing person……Thnx, Deb

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