FLESH can excite you, delight you; flesh can make you creep, even recoil. Flesh, the new exhibition at York Art Gallery, will have you reacting in all those ways.

As Laura Turner, senior curator of art and science, says: “Flesh is a word that immediately provokes a reaction. It's no surprise that artists have always drawn on this tactile, organic and changeable material for inspiration.

“This exhibition brings together some of the biggest names in art as well as exciting, emerging artists who all interpret flesh in different ways. From still life paintings and anatomical studies to abstract sculpture and contemporary film, Flesh presents a series of visual encounters that surprise and challenge, raising questions about the body and ageing, race and gender, touch and texture and surface and skin.”

York Press:

Ceres and Two Nymphs with a Cornucopia, by Peter Paul Rubens. By Permission of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Among those big names are Peter Paul Rubens, the 16th century Flemish Baroque painter synonymous with paintings of pulchritudinous splendour; Edgar Degas, Jean-Baptiste Chardin, Auguste Rodin, Circle Of Rembrandt (probably Rembrandt, but circling around a definitive attribution) and "York's very own" William Etty.

The exhibition spans five rooms in the three galleries on the ground floor, taking in more than 60 works that show how flesh has been portrayed by artists over the past 600 years, from the 14th century religious work Dead Christ with Virgin and St John onwards.

By complementing works from York Art Gallery’s own collection with loans from countrywide, Flesh combines the old, the modern and the now, and immediately striking is how an artist's ability to shock and provoke is not something new: even the "Rembrandt" work Carcass Of An Ox may upset some with its imagery of the ox recalling Christ on the cross.

Lucien Freud's Girl Holding Foot and Francis Bacon's Henrietta Moraes On A Blue Couch encapsulate how those distinctive, divisive modern titans share with Picasso the ability to confront perceptions of female beauty, stretching the boundaries of life studies with their candid brushwork, so at odds with our photo-shopped age. Bruce Nauman, Ron Mueck, Jenny Saville, Jo Spence, John Coplans and Jonathan Yeo all challenge too.

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Wrestlers, by William Etty, circa 1840

The rooms are divided into themes: Figuring Flesh, Still Life, Materiality and Surface. Figuring Flesh has the exhibition's predominant conversation piece, Adriana Varejao's Green Tilework In Live Flesh, a response to Brazil's colonial history work that has innards seemingly bursting out of the back wall, but relax, they are not real.

Still Life focuses on life and decay and the "the precarious nature of our worldly goods" in works ranging from Frans Snyder’s 17th century masterpiece A Game Stall to Sam Taylor-Johnson’s famous 2002 time-lapse video A Little Death, the one where a hare’s body is consumed by maggots and clouds of flies.

Romeu My Deer, a 2011 work in skin-toned wax by Belinde De Bruychere, replicates one beast in Snyder's piece, stripped of paint's gloss and laid bare on a box: a far more brutal truth of a life curtailed.

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Romeu My Deer, 2011, by Belinde De Bruychere. Picture Frank Dwyer

Materiality's representation of the abstract ways flesh varies from Sarah Lucas’s playful sculpture NUD 4 to The Boyle Family’s art-meets-science photograph Skin Series (Number 8) and Bruce Nauman’s fibreglass and resin sculpture Untitled, a skeletal piece that makes art out of the stuff you normally leave out of art.

Surface's key piece, or more correctly eight pieces, is Katarzyna Mirczak’s The Special Signs, wherein she documents the tattoos from pieces of skin posthumously removed in the 19th Century from prisoners in Krakow and kept preserved in formaldehyde...long before Damien Hirst started doing such "ground-breaking" artistic practices.

Make sure to leave one room to the last: the one round the corner that has been kitted out to the specific instructions of Steve McQueen to present 1993's Bear, his first major film, that harks back to William Etty's 1840 painting Wrestlers in its depiction of the interlocking bodies of two naked wrestlers. McQueen's film has all the more power for being silent and so close up you feel they could knock you over. Much like the impact of this exhibition, in fact.

Flesh is the second superb show in a row at York Art Gallery after Truth And Memory, the largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years, presented in tandem with the Imperial War Museum.

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Laura Turner, York Art Gallery's senior curator of art and science, with Ron Mueck's Youth. Picture Frank Dwyer

"I like people to feel an immediate reaction to the works in Flesh, which is what children do when they look at something," says Laura Turner . "This exhibition is full of things that you might want to touch, or poke, or recoil from, so there's something very tactile about this show, which is why we wanted so many different media in it."

For Flesh, Dr Jo Applin, from the University of York, was the joint curator in her last contribution to York before moving to the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

She is delighted with the show that has been assembled, citing Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon as examples of its quality. "We knew we needed a Freud; we knew we needed a Bacon, and we've got a real kick out of bringing the big names to York," she says. "Freud, for example, gets something more out of his subjects than just the body." That, in a nutshell, sums up Flesh, an exhibition that will get under your skin, but in a good way.

Flesh will run at York Art Gallery until March 19 2017.