PRINT May 1965

Filthy Pictures: Some Chapters in the History of Taste

IT IS SURPRISING THAT Sir Kenneth Clark, in his “The Nude, A Study in Ideal Form,” confines his discussion of the most obvious category to which the nude belongs, the erotic, to a few remarks in the opening chapter, in which he differentiates the naked from the nude. Pausing only to dispute the Victorian notion that the nude as a subject should not arouse erotic desire in the viewer, he contends instead that “no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow––and if it does not do so, it is bad art and false morals.”

The following discussion of nudes that not only fail to arouse erotic feeling but perversely call forth a reaction of distaste is clearly no occasion for revising Sir Kenneth’s enlightened appraisal. For, though the taste for (and production of) perverse erotic art seems to be growing and so is worth investigating, this art is interesting mainly in the way it reflects contemporary attitudes toward the body as they are expressed in art, rather than as art of any great quality.

Because the recent flurry of excitement about the Austrian Expressionists, Gustav Klimt and his disciple Egon Schiele, strikes me as linked in a curious way with the taste for the new erotic art, I want to begin by defining how their works are examples of a perverse eroticism. By perverse, I ought to point out here, I mean that which is used 21 in a way other than the manner in which it was intended to be used and, in the context of this article, I mean specifically the nude which evokes not sexual desire but anti-sexual responses of repugnance or distaste. I will mean also, as I intend to illustrate later, flesh rendered as a material other than flesh, and the treatment of the body as an inanimate, inorganic object among objects.

To return to Klimt and Schiele: my first reaction to their joint retrospective held recently at the Guggenheim Museum was to dismiss most of the work, especially the figure studies, as poor art, a superficial echo of the moving Expressionism of Munch and the first generation of Germans. But, succumbing to their curious fascination, I began to wonder why Schiele’s flayed, distorted figures and Klimt’s tortured, crammed surfaces should prove so provocative, and why, after several decades of relative obscurity the Austrians should suddenly be enjoying a vogue. The works, certainly, make no great formal or expressive point. On the contrary, they suffer from the same “horror vacui” as Art Nouveau ornament, to which their tangled, febrile arabesques are related. In Klimt, the multiplicity of small, irregular forms remains a patchwork of fragments, which never coheres into any decisive unity, whereas in Schiele’s more linear style, the sameness of line and its crabbed, involuted character are as much a sign of a limited content as they are of a limited and unvariegated sense of form. But these pictures raise interesting questions, both about expression and about the decorative in art, questions which seem, at a time when an Expressionistic style has been rejected for an essentially decorative one, particularly relevant. Why, for example, does Klimt appear superficial when compared to Munch or Klee, and Schiele unambitious when set beside Beckmann?

As Expressionists, Klimt and Schiele fail to engage the emotions because they perversely use the explosive rhetoric and thematic material of expression toward the end of an ornamental style. Distortions of the human figure are what mark them as Expressionists, rather than the ability of their canvases to evoke an emotional reaction. Not the heartstrings but the fingertips react. The perfumed garden, the exquisite “frisson” that raises gooseflesh, the exacerbated estheticism we associate with the fin-de-siecle sensibility of decadent literature and Art Nouveau is still essentially the content of the Viennese works.

Our new found use for these works seems to me part of that taste recently defined as “camp” for art that is coy, over-developed, elegant and refined to the point of parodying elegance and refinement, which is literally, as well as figuratively, superficial. This taste for the “recherché” has led us to appreciate the delights of late Mannerism, the pre-Raphaelites, the Art Nouveau decorators, and, now, the Viennese Expressionists. Perverse taste, or “camp” taste, undeniably one of the dominant modes of contemporary sensibility, finds something especially delectable in these styles, which have in common that they are largely concerned with the erotic in its more remote forms of expression. And, not surprisingly, perverse eroticism has come to be the content of a certain part of our own art. What is remarkable about this art is not that it is being made––there has always been underground erotic art, even in the most repressed societies––but that, as part of the general sexual revolution which permits the distribution of banned books, the screening of banned movies, and the use of banned words, it is now being exhibited.

A good deal of this perverse eroticism has found its way into a new style in figure painting, related to Pop Art, which appears to be emerging. This new figurative style is quite unlike the figure painting of the past decade, which was more often than not only a variant of Abstract Expressionism. Though some valuable artists continue to be committed to this late Expressionist style, and even though de Kooning’s most recent pictures have been figurative, the “return to the figure” trumpeted a few years back has hardly been a mass migration. On the other hand, the success of Pop Art appears to have stimulated a revival of interest in the figure to the extent that one sees more figure painting in the galleries than one has in quite a while. Mostly these figures are nudes, and their erotic content is quite explicit. Given the social context of more liberal attitudes in general toward sexual activity and its treatment in art, such a development might have been expected. Nor is it surprising that not only non-Western erotica but contemporary Western erotica is beginning to be seen in both museums and galleries. Yet, despite all this, it still comes as something of a shock to get announcements of group shows which consist of photographs of the participants in the raw, smilingly joined in the happy camaraderie of the pages of “Teen-age Nudist.” The popularity of nude activity being what it is (what with nude dances, nude movies, nude announcements, etc.), one begins to have the idea that if you haven’t seen your friends without their clothes they aren’t really your friends.

Now I would like very much to agree that this is, as the jukebox would have it, the Garden of Eden, the Paradise Regained looked forward to by Norman O. Brown in “Life Against Death,” wherein the spirit and the flesh are reunited in a post-Freudian Golden Age. But something about the new erotic art, which, for all its frankness, strikes one as, at bottom, essentially perverse, either because of the odd ways bodies are coupled or the unpleasant quality flesh takes on, makes one suspect that we have exchanged original sin for only another set of difficulties, if only because ours is not a Mediterranean culture, and the ghost of John Calvin dies hard.

To test the content of the new figure painting, one might begin by comparing Wynn Chamberlain’s picnicking couples with the original from which it was derived, Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass.” Chamberlain’s “Homage to Manet” differs from its prototype in that the male figures, as well as the female, are nude, and in that the figures are taken out of a landscape and put in an anonymous setting. Manet’s relative lack of modeling, which made the picture so shocking when it was first exhibited, is replaced by a degree of plasticity that gives to the figures an eerie, mannikin-like quality. In contrast with Manet, one might call Chamberlain’s nudes realistic, except that there is something peculiarly artificial about the harsh light that casts patterned shadows, and something unpleasantly unnatural in the quality of the flesh, which, as a texture, is not differentiated in any way from the inanimate objects like the picnic bag and thermos that lie strewn about on the ground.

Flesh is treated similarly by other painters such as Philip Pearlstein, Jack Beal, and Mel Ramos. This unwillingness to differentiate the texture of flesh from other textures makes a disquieting equation between the organic and the inorganic. Their work resembles Chamberlain’s, too, in that the figures stare out at the spectator with a bland, expressionless impersonality, which is quite the contrary of the intense rapport Manet’s figures establish with the viewer.

Philip Pearlstein’s “Two Nudes on Tan Drape” differs from Courbet’s “The Sleepers,” another painting of two women asleep which it immediately brings to mind, in much the same way as the Chamberlain differs from the Manet. In the Courbet, again, the details, the crystal and satin setting of the bedroom, are clearly described, whereas Pearlstein’s figures like Chamberlain’s are transferred to an anonymous, nondescript setting. Like Chamberlain, Pearlstein, too, seems to work, if not from photographs, then under the inspiration of them. (Chamberlain literally does work from photographs of his friends posing as we see them in the paintings.) And Pearlstein’s figures, too, have that strange super-plasticity, which he exaggerates to even more grotesque proportions by playing with tour-de-force effects such as rapid foreshortening and oblique vantage points. Other analogies with Chamberlain’s work exist: Pearlstein’s figures also seem made, not of flesh, but, in his case, of some bony, calcified material, and their expressions are equally blank, though Pearlstein, less cheerful than Chamberlain, sees his figures as frozen in attitudes of trance-like isolation, aggressively powerful in their grotesque plasticity, but ultimately helpless in their torpor.

Jack Beal’s “The Roof” also recalls Manet’s “Dejeuner” in that it contains recognizable faces who stare out at the viewer. Beal shares with Chamberlain and Pearlstein the wish to give to flesh the same anonymous, uniform treatment he gives other textures, assigning to the body the status of an object among other equally undifferentiated objects.

Not directly related to precedents in older art, but suggesting an amusing analogy with Goya’s clothed and nude Majas are Alex Katz’ life-sized painted wood cut-out “Maxine,” which is seen clothed from the front and nude from behind, and Wynn Chamberlain’s “The Poets” which, like Goya’s Maja, also exists in two versions, dressed and undressed. But the genuinely erotic content of Goya’s Maja stands in sharp contrast with these oddly neutral, unsensuous treatments of the body. Perhaps the point being made is that dressed or naked the body has the same allure or lack of it-clearly not Goya’s point. Beyond this, a fetishistic obsession with genitalia seems to go beyond the merely frank, both in Tom Wesselmann’s “Great American Nude” and in some of Schiele’s drawings. Wesselmann again reduces the human figure to an object-like status by failing to differentiate between the appliqued texture of the leopardskin couch and the appliqued pubic hair of the nude reclining on it. Like Manet’s “Olympia,” the “Great American Nude” wears a velvet band around her neck; otherwise she has no features save mouth, nipples, and pubic hair; as a result, as opposed to Matisse’s luxuriating odalisques which she resembles in her flatness, she becomes the rather repulsive symbol of a commercialized sexuality. That this is the idea is emphasized by the presence of a half-clad girl in a girdle who runs through a field seen through a window in the background.

As a sexual object, “The Great American Nude” is perverse because she is unappealing. Belonging equally to the manufactured sex of the pin-up and the calendar girl is Mel Ramos’ “Peek-a-boo Blonde,” who as a sex symbol is as coy and absurd as lngres’ simpering “La Source.” Like the others, Ramos also uses rich paint texture; the pigment is buttered on as it is in Thiebaud’s pastries. Again, the setting is anonymous, this time the girl is behind a keyhole, an insinuation that the spectator is more voyeur than viewer. The creaminess of the pigment does not in any way enhance the appeal of this blonde cutie who stands as a caricature of Movieland sexuality, but rather adds to our impression that the flesh is somehow disagreeable.

Another kind of perverse eroticism is that which depicts the nude figure as not entirely nude, but as semi-clothed. Schiele was fond of such themes, and perhaps nothing is so strikingly perverse in his work as the immodest ladies who stand about clad only in their stockings. Lucas Cranach’s jeweled and elegantly hatted Venus with her transparent veils was an early example of the kind of archness we find echoed in Ben Johnson’s nudes dressed only in their pearls and oversized flowered hats. Like Wesselmann’s “Great American Nude,” Johnson’s “Flemish Lady” was inspired by Matisse; and like Wesselmann’s diagrammatic female, she seems all secondary sex characteristics. Along these same lines, Marjorie Strider’s girl in a bikini, with its 3-dimensional breasts, is even more egregiously mammalian, and even less art.

Treating the body as an object has allowed other artists such as Harold Stevenson and Paul Waldman to isolate fragments of the nude and enlarge them to bizarre proportions. (In Stevenson’s case, enormous blow-ups of mouths and fingers as well as the ubiquitous genitals increase the possibilities.) The result is unpleasant in the extreme, and the parts of the body are not made any more attractive in the way they are rendered. Flesh is made to look sticky, gooey or gummy––a little like underdone meat tarred at the edges. By taking a slice of the body and enlarging it to monstrous proportions, one again manages to reduce the human body to the level of an inanimate object. In one sense this is what Paul Harris is doing too, in a work like “Nude on a Red Couch,” in which he makes the nude simply continuous with and a part of the furniture, as Frank Gallo has made a female nude part of the chair in which she sits, in no way distinct or separate from the world of manufactured objects.

By considering these new ways artists are treating the nude, I have been trying to make the point that erotic art is not necessarily sensual; it can deny as easily as affirm the body. And although the denial or distortion of the body in former times may be construed as the elevation of spirit over matter, when it appears in a context that should normally be considered erotic, it becomes merely perverse. Thus, the schematization of the body and the denial of its corporeality in medieval art or its etherealization and dematerialization into ghostly flickers in El Greco constitutes a negation of the body in favor of the spirit. But, by contrast, its schematization into a two-dimensional surface pattern in Art Nouveau or its distortion and attenuation into something gnarled and deformed, but equally incorporeal, as in Klimt or Schiele, strikes one as a perverse abuse of the flesh on the purely material level. To see Schiele’s nudes as sensual, as Michael Levey has in a recent essay, seems to me absurd. Though the context is erotic, flesh is treated so as to deny its warmth, texture, and corporeality. This is perverse. Thoughts turn not to the bedroom but to the mortuary. And this fascination with the morbid––quite overt in Klimt’s imagery––which critics have found common both to later Mannerist art and fin-de-siecle romanticism, is the antithesis of the true erotic style of Rubens or Renoir, or to the force of Eros as Freud describes it.

So far I have been finding connections between the coy-sentimental nudes of Ingres––who is a pioneer in the line of development that passes through 19th-century Salon virgin-sinners and ends in the White Rock Girl––and the perverse eroticism of Art Nouveau and Viennese Expressionism on the one hand and some nudes being done today on the other. But though many parallels may be found, the perverse eroticism in contemporary art is of a radically different order; for, rather than projecting fantasies for a sexually deprived Victorian society, it is mirroring the collective fantasies of a sexually obsessed American society. Though the fantasy element in current imagistic art is undeniable, the fantasy mirrored is the realized and externalized one which reflects an environment so sexualized and erotically charged that sexuality seems to invest the commonest objects from automobiles to vacuum cleaners. The world of Pop Art and the new “cold” erotic art is the double of the world where giant mouths and breasts stare down from billboards and movie screens, where housewives rush to buy Mr. Clean because “he’s mean” and secretaries in topless bathing suits suffer more from exhibitionism than from hysterical repression. The fantasies thrown up by repressed sexuality are no longer the issue: rather the acceptance of a collective erotic fantasy as reality in the absence of any apparatus with which to interpret it is the point. If what one means by reality is the external world, the objects and environment around us, then the new erotic art, unpleasant as it may be, is a clear reflection of it. That it is unpleasant and that it tends to be perverse says as much about the nature of our reality as Rubens’ fleshy goddesses and Raphael’s ample, soft Madonnas tell us about attitudes toward sexuality in less confusing times. Confusions about the nature of eroticism, sexuality, perversion, pornography and obscenity may be an inevitable stage in the evolution of a more natural attitude toward the body. That the art being produced in the wake of this confusion is taking on peculiar forms is hardly surprising.

––Barbara Rose