Appearance and Desire

Nineteenth century artists like Cézanne and Degas believed that if they channeled sexual energy into their work they would get better results. Matisse had the same view. Models should be attractive, but the feelings they aroused had to be transformed into art—to have sex with the model would waste everything. The idea was to make pictures, not fool around with the models, so the popular view (also the uncritical feminist view), that the male artist’s studio was a kind of bordello, is completely wrong. The strength of a male artist lay in his personal restraint, which enabled untamed invention in the work. Interesting that the viewer who misinterprets the sexual content of modern pictures also misses their very real eroticism, which is found in their distortions. Of course art entails indulgence of every impulse, but the strongest drive is to make a work, so some choices have to be made, amounting to the management of desire. This paradox deserves further thought, but for now just to observe that experience rarely matches the ideal. Degas could well have been a virgin all his life, but if so I don’t think it helped his art. His drawings are full of sex, expressed through sensitivity to curve, proportion and shape. The beauty of the line is identified with the beauty of the body, and that’s why his pictures are a tad conventional; that’s why he admired the work of Bougereau and why his work is almost as unsatisfying in the end. But when he puts the model in poses that in those days

Edgar Degas, Morning Bath 1887-90

Edgar Degas, Morning Bath 1887-90

were considered undignified and even degrading, such as washing her back or climbing into a tub, he is pushing toward a more real sexuality, less trapped by appearances. It took Cézanne to go the distance, and he was a family man—his sexual restraint doesn’t feel like repression. And the works vibrate with energy. The waves that order their brushstrokes must have some sexual origins at least, even if they are finally much more than that. Sex as the creative energy of the universe is blocked in some way by appearances, but of course art is entirely a matter of appearances, so Cézanne’s achievement is the more astounding, and his horrific women are still a challenge. For any artist with a normally refined appreciation for elegant form and feminine beauty, it’s difficult to see the sexiness of Cézanne’s Bathers—I have to admit that it’s not clear to me, at least in the only one I’ve seen, yet I know it must be there. 

Paul Cezanne, Large Bathers c. 1900

Paul Cezanne, Large Bathers c. 1900

Picasso certainly saw it, Leger and Picabia too. Meanwhile, Degas made monoprints of women in brothels, and those ladies were definitely not pin-ups. He must have been in agony. Or maybe he gave in to temptation once in a while. Of unfulfillment, frustration, suffering and failure is great art made.

Edgar Degas, Brothel monoprint 1878-80

Edgar Degas, Brothel monoprint 1878-80

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