|The term erotic, when applied
to art, generally infers an aesthetic ghetto of under-the-counter
materials to be ogled behind closed doors. Or else it is employed
as euphemistic Vaseline to lubricate the passage of art that might
be construed as dirty through the back door of High Culture.
Thus the word, which has come through overuse to seem as vulgarly
insinuating as one of Sarah Palins sly campaign winks, is underplayed
in the press release for Liaisons: The Fine Art of Love, Lust
& Romance (1870-1970), on view at CFM Gallery, 112 Greene Street,
from October 9th through November 7th. Instead, a boldface blurb for
the show declares, At CFM Gallery, in SoHo, yesterdays
pornography is todays Fine Art!
Neil Zukerman, the owner of CFM and curator of the exhibition is not
a man to mince words. Nor is he a man to undermine sensuality, which
runs unfettered throughout the Surrealist and Symbolist schools of
art for which he has long been our most vociferous contemporary champion.
And nowhere is this more evident than in the work of the four artists
that he has chosen to feature in this exhibition: Leonor Fini (1907-1996),
Salvador Dali (1904-1989), Felician Rops (1833-1898), and Franz von
Over the years Fini, the sole female artist in the group, has shocked
some with the strong sapphic content in her paintings and prints,
although its difficult to fathom how any person of sensibility
could fail to appreciate her nubile vixens, since they are so much
more fetching than the pubescent frumps upon whom the jaded voyeur
Balthus fastens his leering male gaze. And if Fini depicts their wicked
little games and ardent schoolgirl caresses with such exquisite empathy
that the viewer, too, is titillated well, isnt
art supposed to make one feel?
No artist ever celebrated the female body with more unabashed
passion than Fini, who is presently being honored with a major museum
retrospective in Trieste, France, the city of her childhood. And her lissome
figures are never more poignant than when they are being subjected to
sadomasochistic sexual initiations by tumescent males, as seen in the
two selections of her work featured most prominently in this exhibition.
Taken together, what Finis illustrations for the Marquis de Sades
Juliette and Pauline Réages Histoire dO
(The Story of O) demonstrate so beautifully is her ability
to tailor her visual interpretation of the text to the mood of each particular
book without sacrificing the integrity of her distinctive style. Thus
for Juliette (which Neil Zukerman delights in pointing out
was actually printed on the presses of the Vatican!) she chose
a delicate, one might even say lacy, linear manner which complements
auspiciously the verbal filigree of de Sades ornate prose. And if
the vilest perversions are made palatable by the elegance of the Marquis
writing, Finis transcendent illustrations elevate the hellish to
the level of the heavenly.
|By contrast, for Histoire dO,
Fini took a much starker approach, with a stabbing line drawn over
dark wet-into-wet washes that spread the ink over the paper like tendrils
or nerve-endings frayed by the multiple humiliations to which the
novels masochistic heroine willingly submits. Indeed, one gets
the sense that Finis own androgynous sensibility (she seems
to have relished girlishly beautiful boys almost as much as boyishly
beautiful girls) enabled her to inhabit each authors psyche,
identifying in turn with sadist and masochist, tormentor and victim,
and making the pleasure and pain of each manifest in her drawings.
The only constant is that each end of the S&M spectrum is made
sublimely sensual in its own way, allowing the reader to experience
vicariously the shudder of sensation that attends such liaisons, as
foreign as they may seem to his or her own usual inclinations.
As with Fini, to consign any aspect of Salvador Dalis work to
the category of so-called erotic art would seem redundant, if not
simply silly, since sexuality in all its many guises is integral to
his oeuvre. Despite his long marriage to Gala, Dalis own sexuality
remains shrouded in mystery. Among the gossipy denizens of Andy Warhols
Factory, with whom he was known to fraternize when in New York City
in the early 1970s, he was generally assumed to be voyeuristically
bisexual, although there is no evidence of his ever having participated
in any of the orgiastic activities that he liked to stage and watch,
which would put his private life in harmony with his work as something
So one might be forgiven for assuming at a quick glance that the devilish
looking bearded gent in Dalis Homme baisant la chaussure
is salivating on a large penis with a long, drooping foreskin, when
it is in fact a fancifully distorted high heeled shoe (much like the
ones Warhol drew for Bonwits during his early years as an illustrator)
that he is licking. And in Sphinx, the pretty profile
of the lissome male nude blowing a kiss to the winged creature with
large female breasts and features almost identical to his own at very
least suggests a fascination with androgyny.
Yet, the clearly female nude in Dalis nu
aux deux nombries, although evoked with just a few spare, swift
strokes, is possessed of such unambiguous Playboy centerfold voluptuousness
that one can almost feel the palpable, slappable weight of her womanly
warmth. But while its always fun to speculate on the degree of subjective
delectation revealed in the nude figures of any artist, all bets are off
when it comes to the transcendent draftsman Dali!
The Belgian engraver, lithographer, and painter Felician Rops, on the
other hand, was an unequivocal admirer of the female form, unafraid to
reveal his gleeful lasciviousness in every line that he laid down on paper.
Yet let it never be said that Rops horniness overshadows his visual
wit or blunts the satirical edge that tempts one to call him a Daumier
of the boudoir.
One of the first prints by Rops that caught my eye many years ago was
one of a nun giving a nude novice an enema while another sister stood
by holding the irrigator as though it were a crucifix. This made quite
an impression on a lapsed Catholic youth, putting one in awe of Rops
anticlerical irreverence, particularly since he lived in a time when the
Church still had the political clout to set the hounds of civic hell on
Over the years, Neil Zukerman has amassed the largest
collection of Rops works outside of the artists native Belgium,
many rarely, if ever, exhibited in New York. One of the most spectacular
pictures culled from that collection and featured in this exhibition is
a color print of a satanic crucified satyr hanging from the cross with
an enormous erection and his hairy animal legs wrapped around the shoulders
of a magnificent standing female nude. Instead of cloven hooves he has
an extra pair of hands with which he appears to be strangling the woman
with her own long raven locks as she nestles her head on the pillow of
his bulging scrotum and stretches out her arms in mortal ecstasy, as though
she too writhes on a cross.
Franz von Bayros
By contrast, a much smaller print of a nude woman straddling
a seated satyr, while nowhere near as open to charges of blasphemy, must
also have caused quite a stir in Rops day, since she is clearly
the aggressor, ravishing him, rather than coyly fleeing the rapacious
man-beast in the classic manner.
Then again, one would not be surprised to learn that Felician Rops had
created a scandal with even his least explicit print in the exhibition.
It shows a sweetly smiling girl with a blue ribbon in her blonde hair,
leaning back on a bed wearing nothing but white elbow gloves and white
stockings, as she playfully waves an ornate Oriental fan in the air. In
fact, it is a picture so ostensibly innocent that it might have made a
lovely calendar decoration. Yet the girl is so young, so very pretty,
and so clearly, wholesomely unembarrassed by the physical bounty that
nature has bestowed upon her as to give grave offense to any life-denying
Step-children of joyous living, with no feeling
for beauty, the Austrian illustrator and painter Franz von
Bayros would later call such people.
Von Bayros is the least well known of the artists on view, and for
some his work should come as a revelation. For the intricate ornateness
of his style, the mannered gestures of his figures, and the Elysian
garden settings in which he often places his courting lovers and
their attending cupids could seem a stylistic synthesis of Fragonard
and Beardsley. The latter artist is echoed especially in von Bayros
love of the rococo and the baroque; in the garlands of roses and
other intricately wrought decorative flourishes that swirl around
his languorous female nudes, themselves as graceful as living arabesques.
At first glance, his compositions appear a bit naughty but not enough
to justify the authorities chasing the poor man from one European
capital to another every time a new picture came out. But look more
closely: Those two nude women perched atop tall Grecian columns
in a print entitled And Amely still deprives herself of it
are actually straddling severed heads with long Chinese pigtails
that the women clutch, manipulating the heads to perform supernatural
acts of cunnilingus on them. And then theres the matter of
that gigantic strap-on dildo with which a woman wearing only an
ornate feathered hat, an opera mask, and an open cloak appears to
be terrorizing a person of indeterminate gender cowering naked on
Although he also illustrated Dantes Divine Comedy,
von Bayros was best known and most reviled for his own book Tales
at the Dressing Table, which, according to Neil Zukerman,
was considered so dangerous to the morality of his time that
he was arrested and forced into exile. Driven out of Munich
in 1911, von Bayros was prosecuted once more in Budapest two years
But it was gratifying to read, in an account of the trial by Rudolf Brettschneider,
that on this occasion he was gloriously acquitted and received the
tumultuous applause of his friends.
And once again the peculiar genius of Franz von Bayros is vindicated this
time for the contemporary viewer in this courageous and exciting exhibition
at CFM Gallery. Indeed, anyone who finds nothing to enjoy in Liaisons
would be well advised to have his or her pulse taken.
& Studio Magazine.
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