PRINT March 1996



FEMININ-MASCULIN, LE SEXE DE L’ART (Feminine-masculine, the sex of art), the first museum-size exhibition on French shores to address how visual art is traversed by the question of sexual difference, was, of course, eagerly anticipated. Comprising 500 works drawn from 20th-century-Western art that were displayed across the entire fifth floor of the Centre Pompidou—not to mention the gallery spaces on the ground floor—and accompanied by a 400-page catalogue,1 this survey of the “sex of art” certainly contained the stuff of fantasy. Two artistic approaches to sex served as a point of departure for the two curators, Marie-Laure Bernadac and Bernard Marcadé. One line descends from Pablo Picasso, who represents the traditional view of the difference between the sexes, the other from Marcel Duchamp, exemplifying an alternative axis that probably traverses (and transgresses) the first. Because the exhibition took on the entire 20th century, it is difficult to give an exhaustive list of what was finally presented. But a quick overview of the catalogue indicates that Hans Bellmer, Louise Bourgeois, Victor Brauner, Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Man Ray, André Masson, Annette Messager, Pierre Molinier, Jean-Michel Othoniel, Picasso, Rosemarie Trockel, and Andy Warhol are strongly in evidence and that the show leans heavily in the direction of Surrealism. But the most difficult thing of all would have been to choose between those works that were overtly sexual and those that were not. The curators evoked this difficulty by inventing their own terminology expressly for the show: “Not Feminine-Masculine, sex in art, but Feminin-masculine, the sex of art,” a magic refrain repeated too often not to smack of denial.

The very denial that, according to Freud, is the foundation of male fetishism—the fetish being the means by which the subject copes with a persistent yet repressed traumatic perception. Which leads us directly to the exhibition’s own irrepressible fetishism of the sex organ: to sex in art, whatever the intentions of the curators. It kept going round and round on the same track, as if the endless “artistic” variations on the cock-cunt-ass triad had been modeled on a reading of Bourgeois’ vast, piston-powered sculpture/locomotive Twosome, 1991, as nothing more than a sexual Big Bang. In fact, the exhibition’s point of departure was Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (The origin of the world, 1866), a painting where, as Marcadé points out, the “anatomical fatality” of the (female) sex is revealed. It is with this work that a conception of the artwork as “transgressive” because it depicts sexual organs, particularly of the female variety, begins. Indeed, the public success of the exhibition (despite the strike that shut down Paris for three weeks) was no doubt due in large part to the ease with which the exhibition could be viewed as a tour of the museum’s erotic treasures, one as potentially titillating as a visit to a peep show.

That is, though the curators claimed to draw from the well-known Deleuzian formulation “a body without organs,” “Féminin-Masculin” actually reflected a predilection for visibility—for an art organized (in every sense of the term) according to the logic of exhibitionism and voyeurism, a logic that also structured the relationship of the viewer, whether male or female, to the show itself. The second pitfall of the exhibition was that it was historical despite itself. Rather than starting with contemporary art, which is marked by what Judith Butler calls “gender trouble,” the Marcadé-Bernadac team chose to descend the staircase of 20th-century art, with Duchamp and Picasso on either arm. If in looking at Duchamp’s Fontaine (Fountain, 1917–64), Marcadé managed to find "something organic, indeed, fundamentally anthropomorphic in this urinal turned cul par-dessus tête [head over heels, or, literally, ass over head],2 how could he be expected to resist the temptation to uncover the sexual iconography in the work of Lucio Fontana (slit), Robert Morris (folds), or Anish Kapoor (hole)? Since most of the works shown were made by men (overwhelmingly the case for pre-1970 pieces), there was a crushing preponderance of the masculine or, rather, of the phallic. Not to mention that the works themselves, with but a few exceptions, were manifestly focused on heterosexuality. And, as long as we’re on the topic of complaints, it’s even more astonishing that not a single piece registered the effect of AIDS on sex and sexuality, as though the epidemic had changed absolutely nothing.

Divided into five sections (or “sexions,” as the curators called them) each addressing a particular theme and thereby circumventing the constraints of a chronological approach, “Féminin-Masculin” came full circle in the final portion, “Natural Histories.” Here again the curators, despite their best intentions, got caught in a normalizing trap: Bernadac and Marcadé ended up proposing a cycle of sexuality in which fertilization emerges as the ultimate goal. Seeds, grain, and fruit—as depicted by Georgia O’Keeffe, Karl Blossfeldt, Edward Weston, and even Sigmar Polke in his naturalistic photographic series—culminated in impregnation and reproduction with Charles Ray’s Family Romance, 1993, and the pregnant stomachs of Jana Sterbak and Françoise Vergier (Inhabitation, 1983, and La Chose centrale [The central thing, 1992], respectively). Though Fabrice Hybert and Marie-Ange Guilleminot ’s “virtual baby”—the first ever online infant—might have redeemed the naive naturalism of this part of the show, it offered no departure from a heteronormal model of procreation. If what was at stake was reproduction, then the curators should at least have taken their own strained phrasing into account—“not sex in art but of art”—and shown us art’s own reproducibility (Sherrie Levine’s work, for example) rather than a scenario befitting a pro-life rally.

Of the curators’ good intentions only two really bore fruit. The selection of works—ranging from pieces by Antonin Artaud to works by Salvador Dalí, from Twomblys to Mirós, not to mention the drawings and photographs of Hans Bellmer—is certainly pleasing to the connoisseur. In addition, the number of contemporary artworks included in “Féminin-Masculin” must be applauded; here, in contrast to the 1995 Venice Biennale, which rejected the contemporary penchant for breaking down the barriers between disciplines and periods (at least in the official exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi), contemporary art was boldly presented with work culled from the first half of the century in every section of the show. Cathy de Monchaux’s and Othoniel’s sculptures were placed opposite Duchamp’s Objet-Dard, 1951, as well as pieces by Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, and Salvador Dalí.

Though some might complain that artists such as Nan Goldin, Matthew Barney, Claude Cahun, and Pierre Molinier (to take a few examples) were tucked away in dark corners while a small number of French artists were given undue attention (Messager, Paul-Armand Gette, Othoniel, Hybert, Françoise Quardon, Johan Creten, and Vergier), the latter selection reflects the organizers’ personal history, which was in fact the only thing that made “Féminin-Masculin” at all likable: the potential institutional vastness of such an event was reduced to an intimate, if not Intimist, history of affinities and friendships. As a whole, “Féminin-Masculin” shed some light on the very limits of what such a show can actually achieve: a display of only what is visible—sexuality reduced to inanimate organs, that is, to works of art.

Elisabeth Lebovici writes for Libération.

Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.


1. The catalogue (Féminin-masculin, le sens de l’art, Paris: Éditions du Centre Georges Pompidou, 1995), edited by Bernadac and Marcadé, contains essays by Rosalind Krauss, Denis Hollier, and Thierry de Dune, amongst others. But the wittiest were probably Angelica Pabst’s “Dans les régles de l’art” (In the periods of art), on the occurrences of menstruation in art, and the “oriented glossary,” by Marcadé, a series of displays about sex and art organized alphabetically rather than chronologically or thematically.

2. Bernard Marcadé, “Le devenir-femme de l’art,” (The becoming woman of art) in ibid., p. 26.