PRINT April 1974


Erotic Art of the West

Robert Melville, Erotic Art of the West (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1973), 318 pages, 30 colorplates, over 200 black-and-white illustrations.

ROBERT MELVILLE HAS BEEN WORKING on this study intermittently for many years. The guiding motto of his text is provided by certain lines from Baudelaire’s Salons in which the poet adumbrates an imaginary Museum of Love. Here

there would be a place for everything, from S. Theresa’s undirected affections down to the serious debaucheries of the ages of ennui. No doubt an immense distance separates Le Depart pour l’île de Cythère from the miserable daubs which hang above a cracked pot and a rickety side table in a harlot’s room; but with a subject of such importance nothing should be neglected.

Melville’s text is ahistorical, a fantasia which leads us from theme to theme—the Act of Love, Varieties of Love, the Object of Desire, and so on—taking each image as a dream or springboard for polished fantasy. The illustrations are grouped according to his themes and, as if deliberately to remove the originals from their historical roots, the captions give neither dimensions nor whereabouts nor dates nor medium nor, in most cases, the information that a detail is a detail. They are treated as “pure” images, existing simultaneously and without provenance, and just as the successful masturbator will perhaps “have” Dido and Deneuve in the same act, so Melville will move from Bosch to Alfred Stevens or from Van Dongen to Urs Graf in the course of his ruminations on a single theme. We are enclosed within his fantasy. The “universal feeling” (randyness)—Baudelaire’s words—has flowed strongly in him though not, one suspects, without cataracts and obstructions. There are melancholy and terror not far below the surface. Often his wit is pressed to the point where it becomes hectic, a kind of gallows humor in which the sexual impulse both reprieves and confirms the black sentence we are all under.

He is at his best, I think, when he abandons himself to the pleasure of words, of naming, and of pure description, reveling in the power of words to transpose and recreate the affective power of the image. A passage Iike the following, which is evoked by one of the Giulio Romano Sedici Modi engravings, reminds us that Melville was the first critic to write about Francis Bacon:

The woman standing with legs frenetically wide apart, one hand darted between them to grasp the man’s penis and urge it into her vagina, the other unheedingly grasping the man’s hair to keep her steady on her feet, is magnificently possessed and possessive; but the man too, lying on his back with hands pressed hard against the mattress and all his body muscles stiffened for the galvanic jerking that will start as soon as his penis is sheathed, is no less ferociously involved in the action. The bare room with its theatrical drape and its peeling wall, suggestive of a secret basement . . . is an appropriate setting for their delirium.

At the opposite pole from his vicarious reenactment of this murderous ritual are tender passages, acknowledgments of comfort. The allurement of a vastly fat prostitute by Botero is dependent upon her tremendous bulk, and one imagines that she draws tiny men to her like a magnet. For them she can provide the rare experience of woman as a total environment."

He writes as a connoisseur. Reading him resembles nothing so much as being taken through a stupendous private collection of erotica. Sometimes Melville’s commentary takes on a peculiar edge, as when the presence of a leg of mutton in an extraordinary double nude by Stanley Spencer leads him to imagine the artist eating his dead wife: “A ritualistic act of cannibalism might have quietened his spirit, for it would have represented their ultimate intermingling, and freed him from solitude.” Another unnerving remark comes in his discussion of some of Beardsley’s Lysistrata illustrations and the figure of the herald whose enormous erection is being examined by a grotesque old man. Melville believes that the penis was an idealized self-portrait. He imagines Beardsley, whose sexual adventurousness was curtailed by the threat of tubercular hemorrhage, crouched in front of a mirror. Of the self seen in the mirror he writes:

He raises narcissistic hopes that cannot be fulfilled. If only he would stop imitating you and come out and join you, you could do things together that you could not do with anyone else in the world. It could have been the artist’s concentrated stare at the mirror image of his own penis that has imparted to the Herald’s huge appendage its strange air of sadness.

Unlike so much art commentary, these passages seem to draw profoundly on the author’s own psychic experience.

Time, I cannot help feeling, has left Melville’s highly wrought text awkwardly stranded. Ten years ago it could not conceivably have been published in its present form. It has been written as if it were a forbidden text perhaps cued by the tradition of Surrealist erotic confession. The mere fact that explicit private fantasy like this has now been published reopens the whole subject of art and eroticism, opening up new political areas of curiosity and speculation. There is far more yet to be uncovered concerning the way in which art can be held to function as a “safe” or “protected” zone, and in this context the erotic plays a cardinal part. We need to know more about the shifting definitions of boundaries between decency and indecency, between the sayable and the unsayable, as recorded by social history. We need to know more about the way sexual imagery in art has been used, just as we need to know more and have more insight into the usage of art generally. Surely, the publishing career of Melville’s text, its final marriage of convenience with illustrations, would itself be illuminating on this score.

Of course, the erotic is a special issue: one can have more confidence in the universality of the “universal feeling” than in any other “universal.” One isn’t only talking about the depiction of erotic material and all that that can signify in terms of how the relations between the sexes have been valued, or the relation between mind and body, or fears of hell or syphilis or disgrace, but of the fact that depiction is expressive, takes place within a dialectic of style, is revelatory of an artist’s image of himself—and all that that can signify.

The magical element in primitive art which gives it its practical underpinning is, in Western art, dispersed. We do not look to pornography for a magical manipulation of potency or fertility—anymore than we look to primitive art for masturbatory titillation. But pornography (once forbidden, sexually illustrative material) is just a minor specialization, and it doesn’t begin to encompass the erotic. It seems to me that if we are talking about the erotic in Western art, the problem is to know which way to look in order not to see our target. What on earth can the idea of beauty signify if it is split off from the erotic? The question holds its force in spite of any attempt to denature, to purify, or to generalize. (Even Winckelmann’s esthetic was based on a taste for hairless youths.) Or, what is there to say in the end about the power of architectural form, or about the qualities of solidity and surface, or about the sharp point that painting gives to the sense of sight, if we split them off from the body and its arousal? Every artist of force, that I can think of, in the end brings me back to certain deeply felt physical preferences, certain rhythms of tension and resolution, and a certain charged outgoingness toward other bodies than his own.

Melville’s speculations on Beardsley and his penis made me think of the claim, variously attributed to Renoir and Gauguin, and, no doubt, familiar to most painters at one time or another: “I paint with my cock.” The act itself is sexualized and can easily become genitalized. It is common sense for an artist to think about his works as his children at some point in his relation to them, and he will take a parental responsibility for them. He conceives them, nurtures them, shelters them, and sends them out into the world. Potency and receptivity, aggression and care, go hand in hand. Style modulates these polarities: the orders of architecture have been characterized as male and female ever since Vitruvius. Neoclassical dogma asserts masculinity over against the feminine Rococo. Carol Duncan has brilliantly observed (“Virility and Domination in Early 20th-Century Vanguard Painting,” Artforum, December, 1973) the transition in the first years of this century when painters struck a defiantly all-ball attitude which was both a counter to the hypersensitivity of the nineties and an appropriate reinforcement of the primitivism and aggressiveness of their own art. It is the artist as well as the art which veers: his—female artists or their sexuality never having been discussed—view of himself as well as of what he is doing. In the popular imagination, there are characteristics given to artists that are incompatible with popular male stereotypes: sensitivity, unbridled imagination, instability, temperament, uselessness, and so on. June Wayne has recently urged (“The Male Artist as a Stereotypical Female,” Art Journal, Summer, 1973) an improved self-awareness among artists by attending to the way in which artistic and feminine stereotypes overlap in the popular eye.

One imagines that any artist worth the name will reject stereotypes in free acknowledgment of the sexual multivalence in his or her own make-up. It is Matisse who is the big exception according to Duncan: Matisse who is able to paint the luxury and grandeur of the female nude without either aggression or abasement. He can give her a face. And the Joie de Vivre, she says, “is one of the few images of nudity in this decade of nudes in which a male attempted to transcend the assertion of virility and the male-female dichotomy it implies.”

Humanizing art will be built out of fantasies in which domination and omnipotence alternate with an affirmation of freestanding presences and of the wholeness of the surface touched. In Matisse, to take him as an exemplar of the totally positive artist, we feel that whatever the extremes on the first level of description, the support itself, the canvas, is nourishing and being nourished. Much is symbolized in this exchange as in the act of love itself, in which, whatever the murderous by-play, the goal is justice. There is a good deal of ammunition in Melville’s book for those who are keen to see Western art as the pimp of property. The book exposes itself to this kind of indignation despite itself, because it evades the historical and because it evades connecting moral with esthetic evaluation. I believe that a fuller discussion of the erotic in Western art would in the end find a way of talking about the quality of this connection, as illuminated by love itself.

Andrew Forge