As you climb the stairs and enter the exhibition, the first thing you will see is your body reflected and distorted in a group of mirrors (the drawing of Mirrors by Michelangelo Pistoletto).

It’s the perfect entrance to the 20th Century Masters: the human figure, the flagship exhibition of The France-South Africa Seasons 2012 & 2013, a collaborative project involving the French and SA governments and numerous French and SA corporate sponsors with the aim of celebrating ties between France and SA and improving mutual understanding.

The exhibition that will run in the Standard Bank Gallery until mid-September follows other landmark exhibitions organised by this partnership with the French Embassy, the French Institute of South Africa (Ifas) and leading French cultural institutions.

South Africans are blessed to see a collection of about 40 works curated by Sylvie Ramond, director of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon. The exhibition includes works by some of France’s most acclaimed modernists, as well as more contemporary French artists and a few other giants of the international art world who have connections with France.

She explained that the exhibit gives viewers the chance to explore how artists at different times regarded and depicted the human body through painting, print-making, film and photography.

Artists, such as Fernand Leger, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Félix Vallotton, Victor Brauner and Wilfredo Lam, are renowned pioneers of early modernism who brought a new focus to innovation and personalised expression.

The exhibition also showcases works by 19th-century greats Gustav Courbet, Jean-Francois Millet and Edouard Manet, and those associated with Impressionism including Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas and August Renoir.

A leading contemporary artist is Annette Messager, an installation artist, who deals with issues of femininity, prejudice, social mores, birth and death. Another is Belgian Jan Fabre, who works with unconventional materials to test the limits of social taboo.

The exhibition is complemented by a comprehensive book which includes contributions by French and South African art historians and critics and casts a fresh light on the diversity and vitality of French art of the 20th century and depictions of the human form.

• Standard Bank Gallery, cnr Simmonds and Frederick sts, Joburg. Tel: 011 631 4467.