Following on from the post about delicious looking food in painting, here’s another example of “associative pleasure”: images of people which prompt sexual or romantic desire. Obviously this is totally subjective, as with the food pictures. That’s another thing I might write about some time – the problem of our universalising language and grammar in talking about art (ie. “That painting is interesting”, when the accurate statement would be, “I find that painting interesting”, or; “That painting is good”, when the accurate statement would be something awkward like “I have a good feeling in response to that painting”).
Anyway, back on topic: Out of all the millions of people and bodies that I’ve seen in paintings, these are the ones that appealed to me sexually and/or romantically sufficiently to lodge in my memory.
Moroni’s Tailor is in the National Gallery, London, so I’ve seen it a few times. Like all Moroni portraits, it seems to present the face of an individual, not a mask-like idealisation or stylised type. In The Tailor, the imperfect reality of a living body is evoked by details like the uneven lay of his hair and beard on the side of his face, or the shadow cast under his eye. I have a strong sense that, if he were dressed in modern clothing, he would look exactly like people I know today. And if he were living in my time, or I in his, then I would be attracted to him. This feeling has a sexual dimension, but leans more toward romantic desire and, as I get older and he stays the same age, there is also an edge of nostalgia for youth gone by.
Veronese’s Four Allegories of Love also hang in the National Gallery, London. I guess it helps to form an attachment with a painting if you can see it in reality on a regular basis.
All four paintings feature a man who must have been drawn from one model with some degree of accuracy, since he’s recognisable as the same person seen from four different angles. His body may be idealised, but the individuality of his face retains the sense of a flesh-and-blood person, and there is realism in (once again) the unevenness of the hair in his beard and on the back of his neck (evidently, I have a thing about that). There’s so much happening in these paintings but, usually, all I see is him.
I first saw the work of Bouguereau when I was researching academic art of the late 19th century. I wanted to see what the “Salon art” of that time was, since I only ever heard about it negatively in relation to the early modernists who deviated from its conventions. It’s easy to see why Bouguereau’s highly-skilled traditional paintings were revered at the time, and equally why they fell out of favour when modern tastes turned to contemporary subject matter and visual innovation. Early modernism may have looked jarringly ugly to audiences then, but today, Bouguereau’s version of “beauty” is just as likely to strike us as kitsch and cloying (especially the soft-focus eroticism of his nudes and sentimental portrayals of peasant children).
Good taste aside, there’s something about his rendering of Christ that I’m attracted to. I don’t see this man as Jesus, possibly because he’s implausibly pale-skinned for a jewish man living in the Middle East. I simply see a man. My response to his image is partly sexual – especially to the curve of his buttock, emphasised by the light and composition – but, as with Moroni’s Tailor, it tends more toward romantic desire and empathy. Somehow, this radiates out to the other men in the picture. I find beauty in the man crouched in the foreground, in the calves of the flagellator on the left, and in crowd member who turns away, his vascular forearm and hand clenched in a fist. There is sex appeal everywhere, but also a deep sadness in seeing all these male bodies that I can imagine engaged in pleasure, but which are shown in violence and suffering.
During his time in Nuenen, Van Gogh painted many portrait studies of local “peasants”. Recognisable faces recur and none of the paintings appear to flatter their subjects. These are hard working rural people painted by an artist seeking to represent them honestly. Given that context, my enjoyment of Head of a Young Peasant with Pipe is partly coloured by the possibility that the beauty I see in this man’s face may have been something that neither he nor van Gogh were concerned with or even aware of. There is no vanity, no gilding the lily, just a window through time to a handsome young man who is now long gone.
His faintly furrowed brow and thousand-mile-stare give me an impression of some kind of sensitivity, which I then also relate to van Gogh’s personality as it is conveyed in his letters.
I was eighteen when I first saw a reproduction of Schiele’s Portrait of Albert Paris von Gütersloh, and he was my first crush in art. Mostly it was the eyes, combined with the youthful impression of him being almost buried in his roomy clothes, yet at the same time being tall, broad-shouldered and long-limbed. The smartness of his clothing seemed to me in keeping with the kind of cultured life that would involve having one’s portrait painted. It was all fuel for my vague adolescent longing, which I was reminded of when I unexpectedly saw the painting for real in the Facing the Modern show at (as usual) the National Gallery, London.
As a teenager, I spent a lot of time looking at my miniature copy of Phaidon’s The 20th Century Art Book, which included Hartley’s Madawaska – Arcadian Light – Heavy. I don’t recall being impressed or interested in the way it was painted, but rather having a casually positive feeling about the man in the picture. For one thing, I liked that he appeared to be of an ethnicity other than “white” and was presented with dignity (I was already tired of seeing such an overwhelming predominance of white bodies privileged in art).
Apart from that, and without ever really thinking about it (until now), I was responding sexually and emotionally to the many elements combined in this painting: his face (which I found handsome), big hands, big nipples, hairy chest, his strong healthy body with a natural covering of flesh around the waste, and, perhaps most importantly, that this hulking strong man was sitting calmly and comfortably naked, not aggressive or tortured or posturing. In many ways, he’s a great antidote to the vain pneumatic clones that populate Tom of Finland’s (often violent) fantasies. That was the other book I spent a lot of time looking at back then.When Francis Bacon paints male bodies I’m usually conscious of my desire (and I assume Bacon’s too) being complicated by a sense of alienation or repulsion from what is animalistic – in the man pictured, and in myself and my own nature. As my eye roams these images, erotic stimulation is countered by anxious melancholic reflection (among other things). This balance is especially precarious in the barren rooms of Double Portrait of Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach. I feel pity and unease about these sprawling men with their demolished faces, but that’s almost completely overwhelmed by the sexual desire I feel for their writhing pink bodies.
The man in Marsden Hartley’s painting is nude, but these men are naked from the waist down, so their lower bodies seem comparatively exposed (even if our view is partially blocked by furniture). The tight t-shirts play a big part. It’s like Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, except he’s jerking off and showing his ass. There’s little potential for romantic projection since the faces offer only a stark reminder that, under the skin, these men are meat and bone like any other mammal.
Of all the paintings in this post, these Bacons are the only ones that portray named individuals who I’m actually familiar with, and yet what I feel is far more depersonalised than with the other paintings. This is impulsive lust swimming in alienation. It’s kind of a downer note to end on, but I appreciate the effects of all these paintings, even if some are easier to love than others.