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art museum can fail to notice all those bare breasted women - in almost every room – tits galore. Coming to London from the Muslim world where the veil is increasingly in fashion, this public bearing of breasts set me to thinking. Is not tit-illation in British art history a fascinating subject in and of itself? What I mean to say is that while it is all too obvious why rich and powerful British men would have wanted such breasts upon their gracious walls, does the presentation of mythical women and their nipples in these paintings and in classic cold white marble not deserve some close attention? In any event, I would never have entertained such trivial art historical observations as explored below had I not have come to live in a context in which these paintings would be deemed utterly pornographic. Let us begin then in Manchester, that grimy city and faded textile production Mecca which plunged so many Indians into poverty. In the Manchester Art Gallery there is one wall in one gallery where this exposé of bare breasted maidens in oil on canvas began through the combination of an accidental observation and an overheard comment. In Manchester Early spring I found myself standing in front of “The Waterlilly” by Ruben Sayers (18151888) painted in 1850. It is a painting of a Naiad which apparently was a female deity in classical mythology. Pausing there, I learnt from the printed text besides the painting that in ancient times, Naiads were virgins who lived in wet and wild places and were presented with sacrifices and gifts of wine, oil and honey. Now what interested me about Sayers was that he usually painted portraits but that here he was inspired by William Etty (1787-1849), the leading painter of nudes in the late eighteenth and early to midnineteenth century. Perhaps alluding to emulation and inspiration in art, to Turner’s “Dido Building Carthage” hung across from Claude’s “Seaport with the Embarkation of Sheba” 1648 in The National Gallery in London, one of Etty’s paintings is hung on the far left hand side of the same white wall as Sayer’s “Water Lily”. “Andromeda and Perseus,” painted sometime after 1840, depicts a voluptuous nude. It is Andromeda, daughter of Cepheus and Cassiope - the King and Queen of Ethiopia. She is chained to a rock and terrorized by Neptune’s sea monster to which she has been offered as a sacrifice. Her crime? Cassiope, her mother, had declared her to be more beautiful than the Nereids - Neptune’s sea nymphs.Fortunately for Andromeda, Perseus, the son of the Greek God Jupiter has come to her rescue. Having just killed the Medussa, and holding its bleeding bearded head in one hand and waving a triumphant sword in the other, he hangs above her in mid-air having turned the monster into stone. Naturally, he then marries the damsel in distress. According to the accompanying explanation, Etty and others seized upon the erotic potential of the myth, so much so that he was compelled to paint two versions of this study. The first version was shown at the Royal Academy in 1840 and affronted the sensibilities of the time. While the Victorians saw it as “vulgar,” ten years later, Sayers
would sensualize and re-contextualize the luscious female nude, painting a vastly more erotic and sensitively painted evocation of beauty and desire. Would you not agree that Etty’s nipples do not provoke desire? Do they impel you to reach out and touch them? I think not. Worse-still, is not the painting somewhat obvious and crude? Andromeda’s pelvic region is completely exposed rather than slightly elusive and inviting as is Sayer’s Naiad with her wet see through cloth hugging her skin and flowing in the stream. Andromeda’s legs and hips are somewhat awkward and manly. The painting left me cold. Etty’s monster arches upward, an obviously vulgar symbol of desire it lacks all the subtlety of Sawyer’s virgin inspecting her water lily. And Perseus, does he not hang there like an afterthought or stage prop? Is he not painted in the most horribly amateur fashion as the comically anguished women huddled in a vapid sea? In contrast to Sayer’s harmoniously balanced composition, surely Etty’s painting is structural calalloo. Sayer’s is a sensitive erotic symbolism, his luminescent white water lily glowing against a dark background, his full frontal nude in flowing water. “Andromeda and Perseus” is a circus of symbols and metaphors while Sayer’s Naiad is alive. She sways upwards and against the water’s flow with a curious expression as she examines the lotus she holds above her head. Does it not make you wonder about her virgin muse? Having exhausted my comparison of Sayer and Etty’s nudes, I turned and crossed the room, attracted to the giant dead lion in “The Desert” by Sir Edwin Landseer (18021873). In fact, in 1849, a lion died in the London zoo and Landseer took the opportunity to study it. As we also learn there, it was the start of great things. In 1859, he went on to sculpt the four lions for Trafalgar square. A favorite of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, his lions were cast in bronze, huge and guard for time to come the statue of Lord Nelson way up on high in Trafalgar Square in front of The National Gallery. But first, back to forbidden fruit in Manchester should you be visiting from Muslim lands or The American Bible Belt. As I was reading the brief printed explanation about “The Desert,” and learning that this was the lion on Lyle’s syrup tin, domesticated in 1885 and roaming thereafter pantry shelves from the Rhodesias to the British East Indies, from Wellington, New Zealand to Toronto and all across the British colonial dominion, a hand phone rang. A white man with a piggy tail answered it immediately and explained to the women on the other end that he was waiting for her upstairs. But what really caught my ear was what he said to her: “I am in the gallery looking at the most amazing nipples!” Being so busy going back and forth between the smaller Sayer and Etty’s, I had not paid any attention to the enormous painting “Samson Betrayed” which dominated the wall between them. Frederick Pickergill (1820-1900) painted this biblical story of Samson and the treacherous Delila in 1850 inspired by Rubens’ 17th Century depiction to be found in the The National Gallery in London. In Pickergill’s stranger version, Delila’s full bared breasts look accusingly down upon the sleeping Samson. Her brow is furrowed with fear and determination and two petrified attendants stare fixedly at the scene while another turns away overcome by fear. The fearful attendant’s voluptuous body in luscious pinks and greens and whites is twisted in a classical pose. It serves as a gender mirror, working
in soft and pliant contrast to the powerful and strangely androgynous body of the black slave behind Delila. The black man, colluding with the Philistine, is shearing Samson’s source of power, his curly Jewish locks. And the nipples? Well, thanks to the white man with the pony tail, I knew I was definitely on to something. Or am I not? In the Victorian era, the “Femme Fatale” was a symbol of deception and destruction. According to the curator, this “fatal woman” may have been a reflection of the fears of Victorian males in the face of the suffragist campaigns in which women were militating for new roles in society and for being accorded equal rights. Perhaps. Let’s take a walk and see. The theme of the Femme Fatale is timeless as can be seen nearby in John William Waterhouse’s painting “Hylas and the Nymphs” executed in 1896. Waterhouse (18491917) returns us to classical Greek mythology where we learn that Hylas was an Argonaut who sailed in search of the Golden Fleece with Jason. On finding land, Hylas was bid to go in search of fresh water. He discovered a “gladed spring” or as Thomas Hardy in Far from the Maddening Crowd was to famously describe it - a ferny hollow. While filling his pitcher to slake his thirst, Hylas was encircled by a group of nymphs who drew him into their watery depths, never to be seen again. Standing there, you will read that the painting with its sensuous, interested virgin maidens with coy water-lilies inviting one to part their petals is “an evocation of sensual female flesh, an immersion into the deadly allure of the femme fatale.” And then there was “Sappho.” “Sappho” was painted in 1877 by Charles-August Mengin (1853-1933). She was a Greek poet who lived circa 600 BC and who taught her female students about love, reflection and yearning on the island of Lesbos. Educated upper class patrons of the arts in Britain would have known of her through reading Thomas Moore’s Evenings in Greece published in 1826. Apparently this paintings “intense sexual charge” appealed to the male viewers who saw it at the Paris Salon exhibition that same year where its greatness was officially endorsed for its meticulous finish and scholarly historical references. But if you look closely at Sappho’s nipples, you will see that there is more to the art historical story at hand. The charge in the painting is a function of its realism. It stands out as starkly different to the simple idealization of that which came before. This charge is also due to the intense contrast of color values, the brooding intensity of her eyes and the symbolic treatment of the seascape. It is heightened by the forceful way in which Sappho dominates and yet looks past you. It is a psychologically complex rather than simple painting and it is for all these reasons, as well as its finish and the classical references that attracted attention to it in 1877 - as still is the case today. Sappho’s exposed skin is a luminous white vision set starkly out against her black robes and the sheer black wrap through which we see her naked body in the standard classical Greek contrapuntal pose. Those breasts are real. They are asymmetrical and of different sizes. The right breast is fuller and lower and the left breast is smaller and tighter, pert. The nipples are likewise realistic. Rather than aroused, flush and idealized as succulent and rosy, designed to
stimulate that most primitive infantile desire to suck, they are brown and poised between limpidity and anticipation. Neither is she a classical beauty. She is an individual, not an ideal. If she were to walk by, you would recognize her immediately. Though her head is tilted slightly downwards, her dark eyes heavily shadowed with endurance and suffering, stare fixedly up and past you - over your right shoulder. It is a most unusual painting. The painting is dark, mainly grey and black. It broods between the weight and cold mass of the rock on her left and the lightness of the two pigeons hovering over a slightly fitful sickly grey green sea. The scene is made all the more oppressive by the storm clouds which come right down to the horizon which is highlight by a thin band of pale yet bright sunlight. The ominous clouds come down to the lower third of the painting just above her knee and weigh down the entire painting out of which Sapphos’s luminous body shines forth. The painting is structured along classical conventions of the pyramid, the central axis and thirds. Then there is the contrapuntal stance and the utterly relaxed body, limp left and right hand with the lyre hanging resigned by her side. The symbols, the lyre, the pair of birds and the female body itself are subtly and masterfully employed within a compelling and carefully psychologically loaded landscape. It is little wonder that the painting caused a sensation. Perhaps the significance of the work has less to do with its sexual charge than with the triumph of realism and the combined power of all these aesthetic devices to generate tension and mood. Hanging to its left is a sign of the times, or at least of where things had gone by 1923. “Montagna Mia” is by the first female painter admitted to the Royal Academy – Annie Swynnerton (1844-1933). In this painting, Swynnerton transforms the female nude into a mountainous landscape. The curator asks us whether “Montagna Mia,” a symbol of the female, wants to be captured? But read up against the brooding Sappho, the Naiads and the Neirieds, Delila and the Femme Fatale, might we not prefer a more complex and heterogenous interpretation which would balance subjugation with the enduring domination of men by the seductive powers of the Femme Fatale? In London In London, one should not miss the Tate or The National Gallery in the shadow of Lord Nelson’s sky high imperial phallism flanked by Sir Edward Landseer’s huge tame lions. There you may learn that the only large-scale nude Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) ever painted was “Musidora.” It was executed between 1780 and 1788 and remained unfinished, never shown in his lifetime in public. The title of this painting of this nymph who represented languid summer after the quickening of spring was inspired by The Seasons by James Thompson. The title was given posthumously to the work. The figure of Musidora, the amorous nymph, was based upon a classical marble sculpture in the Uffizi gallery in Florence. As we see time and time again, references to classicism were de-rigeur in Victorian art. And in classical Greek art, breasts and nipples are altogether idealized. Yet, as Gainsborough never finished the job, interrupted before completion as it were, we will never know what he would have or could have done with this maiden looking demurely downwards and to the side her breasts exposed to our
desire or mere disinterested observation. A question comes up, forgive the allusion. Did Gainsborough not finish the painting because it was too risqué for the times? Fifty years later, breaking with tradition, the pre-Raephilites re-fertilized the scene. The leading figure in this movement was John Everett Millais (1829-1896). In “Ophelia”, painted in 1851-2, he created a timelessly beautiful painting considered to be the most realistic painting of its day. Millais’ pre-Raphaelite depiction of nature, of ferns and flowers and water, never mind the lovely frigid maiden, over one hundred and fifty years later still takes one’s breath away. In the Tate today, you will sometimes see groups of young girls playing beneath it, enacting the painting, one lying there pretending to be the dying maiden while her companions place plastic flowers, from the education department, on and around her. “Ophelia” lives. She is not so much an object of desire as a metaphor for beauty and the fragility of life. This painting is not about nipples. But come to think about it - are nipples not essentially about fragility and life? And so we come to “Eve” and “The Kiss.” “Eve” was made in 1900. She was first shown at the Royal Academy in 1898 prior to being sculpted in marble and presented in the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1899. Critics praised her creator, Thomas Brick (1847-1922), for his combination of naturalism and spirituality, for the work’s combination of subtlety and depth of feeling. “Eve” is no temptress but a woman self absorbed in shame, one arm protecting a single breast. Her nipples, in the Classical tradition, are idealized but barely suggested. In contrast, the Manchester paintings are downright rude. “The Kiss”, a marble sculpture, was made in 1916 by Harno Thornycroft (1850-1925). For myself, it is the penultimate aesthetic expression of the universal theme of the mother and child. During its time, particularly when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy that same year, it was the subject of great admiration. The Tate curator relates how it both opened up new possibilities for the physical experience of sculpture and how the mother’s distracted look may have reflected the collective pain experienced over the loss of life in the 1914-1918 war. Does not the fine grained expression of emotion and sensitive contextual interpretation take us well beyond Rubens? “The Kiss” is naturalism at its limit. The child’s cherub-like body reaches upwards for its mother. Her gentle hand cradles his head and his left hand holds onto hers while he whispers into her ear. Her flesh is not completely idealized but is yet entirely beautiful. Her contrapuntal pose is made real in its weightiness and in the way her one virtually real and large foot weighs down upon the other. In the base and the supporting plinth upon which the child sits, the marble is partly unfinished leaving in places the trace and direction of the impact of the chisel. It is an altogether extraordinary work in which Frederick Pickergill’s (1820-1900) painterly skills in rendering the human body in “Samson Betrayed” in 1850 are taken into new dimensions and to vastly new heights of sensitive and incompletely idealized naturalistic expression in stone.
On Tits and Titian at The National Gallery There are literally and figuratively speaking miles and miles between these works, at Manchester and in the Tate and in The National Gallery. Yet across the distance of time and place, Harno Thornycroft’s triumph of subtle naturalism in “The Kiss” speaks to his predecessors’ works in the National Gallery, namely to Bordone, Bronzino, Titian and Rubens, and to make a final point, a shrinking end - to Quinten Massy’s “Grotesque Old Woman,” 1525-1530. Let us start with Longus. Paris Bordone (1500-1571) painted “Pair of Lovers” between 1535 and 1550. There, Bordone depicts the story of Longus, the Greek lover from the 3rd Century AD. He reveals the anxiety and desire of Daphne and Chloe seated on a bench in the proverbial garden of desire. In her right hand Daphne holds a pan pipe while with her left, she prevents Chloe from putting his hand inside her skirt. Her pale bare shoulders and chest are flushed with sun burn and her soft breasts look sensuously out and up at us. As in this case, and in many of these paintings, the bared breasts are just left of center and just above the mid-point. Does it not seem that they are focal points for male painters working fixedly at their desire with their right hands? Bronzino (1503-1572) takes us from Longus to Cupid. “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid” was painted between 1540 and 1550. It was commissioned by Duke Cosimo de Medici of Tuscany for King Francis I of France. Its meaning and Cosimo’s intended message remain a riddle but there must have been a woman involved. Here Venus disarms Cupid with a kiss. Figures representing Pleasure and Fraud, Jealousy, Jest and Time surround them. An anguished man, clutching his head in shouting pain collapses to his knees behind the naked beauty. Old Man Time warily looks over at the Angel of Death. In the center, blissfully unaware, Cupid cups and fiddles with Venus’ breast, her aroused nipple peeking out between his little pink fingers. I did run into a femme fatale in The National Gallery. Unfortunately she was not real but painted by Titian or Tiziano (about 1490-1576). In The Death of Actaeon painted between 1559 and 1576, the hunter Actaeon has accidentally surprised the Godess Diana while bathing. Transformed into a stag, he is killed by his own hounds. Though it was intended for Phillip II of Spain, Titian kept working on it for seventeen years and never presented it to the king. Diana’s one breast is bared and a small brown nipple stares at you in the face. To me, it seemed so obvious a device as to be like a headlight shining out from the painting. Or was I beginning to too easily find what I was looking for. Now for Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), a diplomat and a painter. Did he not definitely have a thing for breasts. Take for example, “The Judgment of Paris” (about 1600), that favored theme – “Samson and Delila” (about 1609-10), “Minerva protects Pax from Mars: Peace and War” (1629-30) and “The Rape of the Sabines” (probably 1635-40). Rubens’ “The Judgment of Paris” is not just notable for its small pert breasts with their ruby red erect nipples but especially for the central female figure’s rosy red butt cheeks as if she has just been soundly slapped. But here at last for the women reader and viewer, and perhaps for those men not big on breasts or soft and ferny female hollows, the nude
male with his rippling muscular back and potent ass to us is surely as studly as they come. In contrast, the child clutching at Venus is a fine example of how in those times artists did not paint what they actually saw, and struggled only partially successfully with realist representation while focusing on idealization through classical models. And though it is masterfully filled with classical forms, I am not big on “The Rape of the Sabines.” Besides, Rubens, surprisingly enough considering the topic, did not give the Sabine’s breasts any close attention. In contrast, in1609, in “Samson and Delila”, Ruben’s dramatically captured the moment of betrayal of Samson by the Philistine Delila. Her grotesque breasts, with the weird right nipple, stare out victorious and accusingly, symbols of her domination and his defeat through their huge bulging presence emphasized by the tight black cloth strap. Samson’s supple sensuous yet greenish prostate body lies heavy and drugged upon her lap. The tentative cutting of his locks, snip snip, and the flaring of the candle just over Delila’s shoulder make one cringe a little at the danger of the sharp scissors and hot wax in their proximity to her nipples, never mind Samson’s rage should he awake. While Frederick Pickergill, in 1850 in “Samson Betrayed” far away in Manchester, would recast the abetting servant as a huge black and strangely sexualized man, here the attendant is an ancient witch-like hag. The nipples, the sharp metal scissors, the flame and the hot dripping wax, the figure of the witch and the plotting soldiers guarding the half-open door all add tension and a certain horrible density to the artful combination of the perils of desire. The mastery of the femme fatale, the certain loss of power and beauty in time and the biblical theme make this an unusually important painting. It is a particularly interesting painting because next year it will return to Antwerp and be hung again over the fire place in the house of Nicolaas Rockox who commissioned the painting. The fact that “Samson Betrayed” was to return to the exact setting for which it was originally designed, as Maev Kennedy informed us out East in The Jakarta Post on October 16, 2005, was a fascinating event in the history of art. I found it most peculiar to return to Indonesia and find that those breasts had followed me home into a context where far lesser displays of flesh are about to be outlawed if the conservatives win the day. Posting this six years later in 2011, the laws have indeed changed. Today, the public display of anything verging on the sexual, that is, on billboards and in the media, is so toned down as to have to make one laugh. But still in London, of all these paintings of fertility and desire, it is “Minerva Protects Pax From Mars: Peace and War” which deserves a special place in history. Why? Rubens had presented it to King Charles I while negotiating the peace treaty between England and Spain between 1629 and 1630. And yet you might ask, what does that now obscure historical fact have to do with the subject of this discussion? There is indeed a link between the history of peace treaties and nipples for in this painting Peace (Pax) is squeezing out a jet of milk to feed her child Plutus, the God of Wealth. At the same time, a satyr offers succulent fruit to a group of children representing the future.
Time Waits for No-One - Excluding Michelangelo and Dolly Parton There is an unfinished Michelangelo in The National Gallery called The Manchester Madonna. It suits my purposes most admirably here not just because she has such a fine breast and nipple revealed, but because it is most unusual if not unheard of for the holy Madonna to be depicted in this way. Perhaps it is for this reason that it has been universally rejected as a Michelangelo. In fact, it distinctly looks to me as if a preRaphaelite has been up to no good. And so, should you go to England this summer, you might find yourself roaming from Rosetti’s necrophylous maiden in the Tate to Saphho’s affront in Manchester, to see for yourself if Sayer was indeed better at breasts than Etty, and wander about Delila and the Femme Fatal. Thanks to yours truly, perhaps you will look a little more closely at their nipples – or at least at paintings that you might otherwise have merely passed by without any great interest. In closing, on the subject of Time and beauty and the satyr (read satire), Quentin Massy’s “Grotesque Old Woman” (about 1525-30) is surely the appropriate painting to end this essay. This bizarre and shocking painting satirizes old women who will “inappropriately” try to hang on to their youth and prevent the sagging and wrinkling of time. Indeed, an elder lady came up behind me as I stood there in gobsmacked surprise. The old lady said it all s clearly. She sighed heavily and loudly exclaimed before quickly turning away “Oh Dear!” But if Dolly Parton ever goes to The National Gallery in London and happens to see this, she will love it and laugh, for she is the penultimate icon of the modern woman using cosmetic surgery to resist Massy and fight Old Man Time. With her facelifts and her recent teeny bopper hairstyle, and her bounteous and powerful tits, she looks younger every year, never older. As she cheerfully revealed to us here in Asia on E-Television in October: “If I see something wagging, sagging, dragging or bagging, I’m gonna get it nipped, tucked, sucked or whatever.” i It seems then that from Delila to Dolly, British art museums have much to teach us about things like the history of the representation of tits and nipples and the white women’s burden.
See “Yes Its True: Zimbabweans Love Dolly Parton.” First published in Journal of Popular Culture. Special Issue: Anthropology and Popular Culture 29(1)2:111-125. Reprinted in Readings from the Disciplines: Reasearch Models for Writers, !e. Ed. Christine Hult. New York: Allyn and Bacon. Also see “The Indonesian Playboy Debacle” here on scribd.
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