A sumptuously shimmering erotic photograph by the one of the greats of 20th Century photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson (previously featured in this series, see Dreams of Desire 50 (The Decisive Moment) of the Argentinian Surrealist painter, illustrator, fashion designer and writer, Leonor Fini. A fiercely independent woman renowned for her unorthodox personal life, Fini is credited with being the first woman artist to paint a male nude.
The School of Fontainebleau was renowned for their use of coded allegory and veiled erotic symbolism, and the most famous painting of the school, Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses soeurs la duchesse de Villars (Gabrielle d’Estrees and one of her sisters the Duchess of Villars) is certainly no exception.
In the foreground we are presented with a view of Gabrielle d’Estrées, the mistress of King Henry IV of France, in a bath with one of her sisters, the Duchess of Villars. Gabrielle is holding a ring, which some art historians believe is Henry IV’s coronation ring, in her left hand, while her sister pinches Gabrielle’s right nipple with her left hand. The two central figures are painted in the usual Mannerist style associated with Fontainebleau, however in the trompe l’oeil background is a Dutch domestic interior with a woman sewing (again with her left hand) besides a fireplace, above which hangs a picture of a naked man, albeit with a piece of red drapery positioned in such a way to preserve decency.
This enigmatic work has been the subject of a number of interpretations. At first glance it does seem to be a very forthright representation of incestuous lesbianism, however the nipple pinch, the ring and the woman sewing what could be a layette for a child would suggest that the painting is more likely a symbolic allusion to Gabrielle’s pregnancy by the King. The repeated emphasis on left-handedness is also very unusual, as it carried entirely negative connotations in this period of history.
The first truly Modernist painting (though change had been in the air for some time), the radical break constituted by Pablo Picasso 1907’s study of a Barcelona brothel, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, led to Cubism and sharply divided critics.
Never before or after did Picasso spend so long on one painting as Les Demoiselles, drawing hundreds of preparatory sketches over a period of nine months. The innovation doesn’t lie with the content; the courtesan had long been a covert subject of Western Art before being explicitly identified as a prostitute by Edouard Manet’s Olympia, to becoming somewhat of a Bohemian cliche by the time of Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1890’s. Picasso’s claim to blazing, revolutionary originality lie in the form. First of all he throws five hundred years of accepted practise out of the window by abolishing perspective, then instead of the traditional curves we have the harsh angular, geometric poses of the women. Picasso signifies his reaching back in time and across continents with the Iberian mask (the figure on the far left) and the African masks (the two figures on the right) which lend a further disconcerting effect to an already confrontational, provocative painting. The bowl of fruit surrounded by the women seems ripe for Freudian interpretation, just one of many that the painting has been subjected to, including formal, feminist and esoteric.
Although at first Picasso only showed the painting to friends and fellow artists in his (quite extensive) immediate circle, it had a galvanising effect. George Braque further developed Cubism as a response to Les Demoiselles and it intensified the rivalry between Picasso and Matisse, who realised that the Spaniard had wrestled the crown of Modern Art from him with this incendiary work, never again to be relinquished. Andre Breton, who for all his flaws had a very keen eye for art (see my series The Surreal World for further information on his collection, Rapa Nui, Papua New Guinea, Haiti and Mexico) recognised in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon the definitive Modernist masterpiece, a harbinger of the violent, revolutionary menace of the unconscious and he arranged for its first publication in Europe in La Révolution surréaliste.
Despite the fact that Surrealism was involved in literature, illustration, painting, film, architecture, philosophy and politics, the area where it achieved its greatest impact and subsequent influence is undoubtedly the field of photography (see Dreams of Desire 2, 3, 21, Angel and many others for examples of Surrealist and Surrealist inspired photography).
This influence can be seen in the nudes of the French photographer Lucian Clergue, who at the age of 21 in 1955 struck up a friendship with Picasso that was to last until the great modern master’s death in 1973. Clergue’s nude photographs often feature the zebra effect which creates a distancing coolness and abstraction to the exposed flesh. The model (or models) are defined by the interplay of light and shadow. In other studies the model is placed in natural surroundings where the body merges into the landscape in the manner of Magritte.
The publication of Les Fleurs Du Mal by Charles Baudelaire in 1857 can rightly be judged as the birth of Modernity. Baudelaire’s innovation wasn’t in style or technique, but in the bold, shocking subject matter, (that would lead to obscenity trials) and its depiction of a sordid, urban milieu. As well as the poems themselves, Baudelaire as a perceptive art critic would have a great influence upon emerging young artists determined to break with convention and tradition, notably Edouard Manet (see Olympia Press: A Brief History of DBs which features his groundbreaking painting Olympia from 1863).
The great realist Gustave Courbet was directly inspired by Baudelaire’s poem Femmes damnees Delphine et Hippolyte (Damned Women Delphine and Hippolyte) from Les Fleurs du mal in his masterful erotic painting Le Sommeil (The Sleepers) from 1866. This provocative depiction of lesbianism with its compelling, and at the time completely new, realism led to a police report and removal for display when first exhibited in 1872. Le Sommeil was not subsequently allowed to be publicly shown until 1988.
1866 was also the year that Courbet completed a commission for his most famous erotic painting L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) with its graphic close up view of a naked woman’s genitals and abdomen. In February 2016 a Parisian court ruled that Facebook may be sued in France for removing the image from users pages.
(This is a revised version of a post that originally appeared here September 2016, in order for to fit in with the Dreams of Desire Series. If you like this post or my many other stories, poems, essays then my collection Motion No. 69 will be available for sale on 30th November 2017.)