Von Bayros



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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 Palin’s 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, yesterday’s pornography is today’s 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 Bayros (1866-1924).

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 it’s 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, isn’t art supposed to make one feel?

Leonor Fini

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 Fini’s illustrations for the Marquis de Sade’s “Juliette” and Pauline Réage’s “Histoire d’O” (“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 Sade’s ornate prose. And if the vilest perversions are made palatable by the elegance of the Marquis’ writing, Fini’s transcendent illustrations elevate the hellish to the level of the heavenly.

Felecien Rops
By contrast, for “Histoire d’O,” 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 novel’s masochistic heroine willingly submits. Indeed, one gets the sense that Fini’s own androgynous sensibility (she seems to have relished girlishly beautiful boys almost as much as boyishly beautiful girls) enabled her to inhabit each author’s 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 Dali’s 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, Dali’s own sexuality remains shrouded in mystery. Among the gossipy denizens of Andy Warhol’s 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 mainly metaphysical.

So one might be forgiven for assuming at a quick glance that the devilish looking bearded gent in Dali’s “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 Bonwit’s 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 Dali’s “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 it’s 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 his heels.

Over the years, Neil Zukerman has amassed the largest collection of Rops’ works outside of the artist’s 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 bluenose.

“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 there’s 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 a bed.

Although he also illustrated Dante’s “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 later.

Salvador Dali

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.

–– Ed McCormack,
Gallery & Studio Magazine.
September-October 2009

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