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Claudia Zalaf Guarino

Thesis: Shame and Visual Art

Supervisor: Prof Paul Smith


I completed my diploma in Art History at Warwick University in 2018 and, following it I began a MA by Research at the same institution, being upgraded in the last September to a PhD course.

History of Art is my second area of expertise; I am a dentist, with a specialization in periodontology, and I was a university professor in Brazil. This previous knowledge equipped me with the capacity for teamwork respecting diversities, how to educate and orient lay audiences about complex subjects and, how to manage time under the pressure of tight schedules. My background directs me to pursue research that can have impact on the individual and society, particularly when dealing with an emotion relevant in our daily lives such as shame.

My background in health and its methodology facilitates the integration of scientific concepts of shame with the methodology of history of art in the analysis of its visual representation. This integration will enrich and widen the scope of the project, avoiding the unproductive polarization of knowledge between science and humanities.


Shame is an emotion frequently represented in literature, poetry, visual and representational arts. According to social psychologists and anthropologists, it evolved to solve adaptive problems pertaining to the relation of the individual and the social group in a system of valuation-devaluation. Shame also draws from socio-cultural contexts. According to Thomas Scheff, a sociologist, ‘shame is the master emotion of everyday life’. My thesis will analyse visual representations of shame, and their relationship with historical and political events, with the aim of explaining the meanings of shame in modern and contemporary British art. It will focus on the concept of anti-shame, how it was adopted by modern and contemporary British artists, and the impact of their work on public perceptions of shame. My thesis will inquire into the way visual arts in modern and contemporary Britain explored the constant tension caused by shame when dealing with the expectation on how the eye of the other or society is going to reveal the value or worth of the “I”. Shame persists in Britain, but a new attitude can be identified when dealing with shameful events. When caught in shameful behaviour, individuals would coordinate actions and discourses to fight back and employ counter-shaming, and persist with their ‘shameful’ behaviour to oppose inflicted shame.

Shame is a highly embodied emotion and the connection between the body and shame is reinforced by culture, religion, and history. Shame directly shapes narratives of sexuality. This project will explore how the body in the work of Lucian Freud, Helen Beard and Jenny Saville is connected with shame and anti-shame behaviour. The argument is that anti-shame allowed a new visual representation of the body disregarding the idealized body in art. This new representation of the body discloses the anxiety and uncertainties of modern and contemporary times. It triggers and fuels debates about art, eroticism and pornography; questions the ageing body; criticizes the medicalization of the body, but at the same time exposes in visual arts medical conditions as obesity, anorexia and plastic surgery. The thread that links all these visual representations of the body is shame, or more precisely, how shame was peeled from the body in modern and contemporary visual arts.