In art we lust
At second blush, classic works are allowed to rise to their full erotic potential

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 2009

Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned.

Whenever I've gone by Titian's great "Venus With a Mirror," sitting topless in the Renaissance rooms at the National Gallery of Art, or Canova's marble "Naiad," lounging a floor below in the no-kini of a classical goddess, carnal thoughts have come to me.

If only I'd been keeping up with the latest scholarship, I'd have had a more up-to-date reaction: full-blown, panting lust.

After well over a century of prim coverups, literal and metaphorical, of the sexual content of the greatest nudes in art, experts have been waking up to the erotic, even pornographic, potential. "I think it's essential that we understand them as objects in the context of men wanting to look at naked women," says Amelia Jones, a pioneer of feminist art history who teaches at the University of Manchester in England. Over the past decade or two, most of her colleagues have abandoned the genteel distinction Sir Kenneth Clark insisted on, in a famous lecture series in Washington in 1953, between the chaste "nude," cleansed by an artwork's aesthetic and philosophical ambitions, and pictures of the pruriently "naked," meant to get a rise out of viewers.

The new view: Flesh is flesh is flesh. Any culture that thinks "sex" when it sees naked bodies will still think "sex" when it sees pictures of them.

As usual, Marcel Duchamp had hammered all this out before others, as we can see in an important show now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It digs deep into the making of his "Etant Donnés," the wildly explicit peep show Duchamp left to the museum when he died in 1968. Duchamp's last work did for pornography what his urinal "Fountain" had done for men's-room plumbing back in 1917: It made clear that there's nothing so out of bounds in our culture that it doesn't have artistic repercussions.

But before considering Duchamp and his final word on lusty aesthetics, we need to go back to beginnings and take a more licentious look at Titian and Canova and their times.

The art of lechery

The men of the West, even at their most refined, have long had a Playboy culture. (Women were mostly left out, or relegated to Bunny roles.)

During the Renaissance, seedbed of most later art, inns and taverns flaunted naughty pictures. We know this because fine-art nudes were attacked for looking like them. Racy pictures were in private homes as well: The Inquisition went after one rake who kept a lewd painting over his bed. And they were in retail circulation: In the 1520s, some of the great cultural figures of Rome published a set of sonnets called "The Positions," with anatomically correct illustrations. The pope was not amused: The engraver did jail time, the writer and the illustrator had to skip town, and almost all copies of the work were destroyed. The surviving ones still deserve brown-paper wrappers.

That's the context in which a nude like Titian's so-called "Venus With a Mirror" was being ogled.

There's evidence that "ogled" gets the looking right. In 1544, a Roman cardinal asked a subordinate to visit Titian's studio in Venice and report back on a painting he'd commissioned of the myth of the Greek princess Danae. As high-flown a subject as one could imagine . . . and a subject, wrote the subordinate, that Titian had made so sexy it would get the strictest puritan going. Compared to the new painting, the report went on, Titian's earlier nude, the so-called "Venus of Urbino," might as well have been a nun -- though for centuries now that "Venus," one of the Uffizi's greatest treasures, has been considered the pinnacle of refined taste. It turns out Mark Twain may have been right about the Uffizi's "Venus" when he ranted that "the attitude of one of her arms and hand" -- she is busy committing the sin of Onan, or of Onanette, I guess we should say -- makes it "the obscenest picture the world possesses."

As late as 1800, even a less "active" naked lady, depicted in Goya's famous "Nude Maja," seems originally to have been kept behind another picture of her, clothed. (Both visited the National Gallery a few years ago.) The two pictures were among other nudes, including the great "Rokeby Venus" by Velázquez, described as "obscene paintings" in a document from 1814. The next year, the Inquisition subpoenaed Goya about them.

When Canova created his "Naiad," at almost exactly that time, the sensualism of his nymph must have been at least as striking as any ideals she represented. Canova sent another copy of his "Naiad" to George IV of England -- an infamous playboy and a collector of pornography -- and asked for it to be installed on a rotating base. That would have allowed a patron to take in a foot-first view up her legs, across her naked haunch and right up to her come-on glance.

It isn't only female flesh that has been seen as getting viewers going. Michelangelo's "David" was fig-leafed when it first went on display, and one prelate described the artist's "Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel, distinctly un-fig-leafed, as a bathhouse scene and tried to have it destroyed. A naked Saint Sebastian by another Renaissance painter had to be removed from a church, the story goes, because women had confessed to having sinful thoughts of it.

In 1798 in Paris, when a parade was supposed to include the classical statuary Napoleon had looted from Italy -- including the "Laocoon" and "Apollo Belvedere," icons of high art -- one writer wanted those nude male bodies excluded: "It is ridiculous to subject our innocent youth to such naked images."

You don't censor sights that leave people cold.

Scholarly Viagra

Our new habit of not censoring the most pungent art may be throwing cold water on it. One of the most infamous pictures of all time is the "Origin of the World," a close-up on a naked woman's crotch painted in 1866 by the great French realist Gustave Courbet. It was originally meant for a Turkish roue in Paris, and when he gave a peek to his most privileged visitors, they must have felt a thrill at seeing the work of a great artist married to ("mated with" might be more accurate) forbidden flesh. But ever since the picture passed into public hands, the "Origin" has felt almost tame. In a recent Courbet survey in New York, "it was just another landscape -- with hair," says David Rosand, a senior art historian at Columbia University.

Nude flesh has been made safe by art, and in the process lost its potency. Experts have set about restoring it.

The British scholar Charles Hope is famous for talking about Titian's racier pictures as mere "pinups." Several other art historians have raised objections -- but only to Hope's "mere." They've insisted that the stunning erotic power of such masterpieces enables all the complex things they do. We don't have to choose between seeing these works as erotic objects, even in a full-blown Web-porn mode, and seeing them as tremendously important, sophisticated art.

Rosand, long considered Hope's chief rival, says he wants to take Titian's nudes "out of the closet," where pinups belong. Instead, he aims to show how "the appeal of the flesh is something that draws the viewer in," exposing art's profundities.

The tragedy in some of Titian's greatest nudes -- heroines being ravished by gods or manhandled by fate; male saints or Christ himself being martyred -- is made all the more poignant, says Rosand, because of the pleasures of the flesh that are interrupted or canceled out by the tragic outcome.

Even Titian's raciest art isn't pornographic, Rosand says, because it avoids the merely explicit: "It's all foreplay."

Going all the way

With Duchamp, we're talking rumpled sheets and cigarettes.

The Philadelphia show goes into every detail of the making of "Etant Donnés," which took place in absolute secrecy between 1946 and 1966. ("Etant Donnés" is French for "Given That," which is short for the full title "Given That: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas" -- we'll get to the water and the lighting in a second.)

The piece is far too extreme for us to illustrate, and I'll have to tread lightly even in describing it.

"Etant Donnés" is a peep-show diorama in 3-D. To see it, you peer through two eyeholes pierced in a weathered barn door, mounted on the far wall of a dimly lit little gallery. What you get when you look through is a pleasant country landscape -- a waterfall in the distance, a forest closer up. And, in the foreground (here's where the trouble starts), the perfectly rendered torso and splayed legs of a naked blonde, fully "Brazilianed," as we'd say today, thrown onto her back on a pile of branches, with one hand raised to hold a gas lamp.

As many scholars have insisted, what we're seeing, really, is a woman lighting the aftermath of her own rape, as hard-core as any image could be -- so extreme that it's almost more forensic than sexual. I wouldn't describe this piece, as the show's catalogue does, as merely a "a recumbent nude in a bucolic landscape setting" that captures the "erotic frisson" of Duchamp's affair with his model and represents "an open and desiring body." How many desiring women would choose to lie, naked and exposed, on a bed of pointy sticks? Jones, the art historian and Duchamp expert from Manchester, believes "Etant Donnés" is an important work in part because it is so "creepy." It creates "a visceral reaction for women. . . . I don't see how you can engage with that work without being uncomfortable." One woman visiting the Philadelphia show went as far as calling the piece "snuff art."

Duchamp may have been running a kind of test: If art could "cleanse" the erotic, could it whitewash evident pornography?

The answer -- luckily for Duchamp and the survival of his final work -- seems to be yes. On its Web site, the Philadelphia museum says the piece offers "an unforgettable and untranslatable experience to those who peer through the two small holes" -- true, but the most thoroughgoing euphemism I've come across.

The show itself, and its impressive catalogue, builds a classic image of the artist as hardworking genius: all those drawings and preliminary studies, all those plaster body casts, all those meticulous notes and photos. What it doesn't quite do is put a spotlight on the extreme imagery itself and what it means -- maybe because, in an age where porn is only a mouse-click away, we've lost the ability to recognize its force.

Yet that imagery is crucial to Duchamp's "woman with the open [legs]," as he called his nude, because it lets him be direct about how art can work, instead of draping it in decorous veils.

Duchamp was looking back at the tradition of the nude in art, recognizing the sexy nakedness that was in it all along, and seeing how much further he could push it. According to philosopher Mary Devereaux, "Etant Donnés" gives "a kind of wry or ironic reflection on that tradition." With Duchamp's final work, she says, we're put into the position of "noticing the voyeurism" that's in all nudes, and maybe even in all art. "Etant Donnés" makes you feel that "the whole museum is a peep show, in one sense."

You could say Duchamp's final work isn't about looking at this particular woman who's been ravaged, but about the centuries of gawking that have come before, and the ravishment implied in that. Duchamp's piece specifically connects "why we want to look at art, and why certain people want to look at women's bodies," according to Jones.

Other thinkers say that all art makes that connection -- that enjoying almost any work is built around the same gawkish desire that comes into focus when we look at nudes. Staring at pictures, of whatever kind, is a sublimated version of staring at flesh. Or this is so, they say, for men in our culture, who've made and ordered and consumed almost all its art. It's all about that "male gaze" they talk about in Gender Studies 101, and its impact on almost every sight our eyes are open to.

"Etant Donnés" may be built on the idea that its peep show is simply the challenging endpoint in all art's love of looking. If ogling pictures is a version of ogling flesh, Duchamp wants to see how fleshy a picture can become and still get people gazing. As conceptual artist Les Levine once said, the piece has "a cultural power equal to Leonardo's 'Mona Lisa.' You can't stop looking at it. It puts questions in your mind."

Questions such as: Do we dare sidle up to Duchamp's peephole and confront our own invasive need to gape -- at flesh, and at art?

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