Vagina Monologue | The Nation


Vagina Monologue

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

In his essay for the catalogue that accompanies
"Picasso Érotique," beautifully installed in the Montreal
Museum of Fine Arts until September 16, Jean-Jacques Lebel reproduces
an extraordinary drawing that is not included in the exhibition
itself. On the right is a vagina, sparsely surrounded by pubic hairs.
It dwarfs the homuncular male figure, moving open-eyed and
stubble-cheeked into the dark night of death, emblematized by a sweep
of black wash. The date of execution is inscribed in large and
ornamental numerals--25.7.72. It was perhaps the last of the goaty
old master's drawings of a woman's sexe--he was to die, aged
91, the following April. The figure, of course, is Picasso himself.
In his middle 70s, after he was abandoned by his young and beautiful
mistress, Françoise Gilot, he represented himself as some
figure of contempt--an old man, a monkey, a clown, a grotesquely fat
caricature of an infantile male personage, often an
artist--juxtaposed with an inward-dwelling woman, a model, usually
nude, indifferent to his presence. The male will often be shown
draped and ornamented with the paraphernalia of worldly
recognition--armor, for example, or robes too large by far for his
shrunken physique. The woman needs no external mark of power. Her
youth and nakedness, which at times is accentuated by a circlet of
flowers worn in her hair, is emblem enough. In this small, scary
masterpiece, Picasso is taking leave at once of life and of sex.
Eros c'est la vie was the punning pronunciation of Rrose
Sélavy--the pseudonym that his fellow eroticist, Marcel
Duchamp, took for himself when he assumed his periodic female
identity. The same disproportion of this farewell drawing is embodied
in Duchamp's monumental Large Glass, in which the Bride sits
aloof and alone in an upper chamber while her various Bachelors are
segregated in a limbo of desire below.

The disengaged
vagina is a universal symbol. What Picasso has scrawled in the 1972
drawing could have been incised in plaster outside a doorway in India
or brushed in red pigment on a wall in Rome at any moment of its
history--or scribbled with ballpoint in lavatory booths or drawn with
a pencil stub wherever lonesome men languish. On the other hand, it
belongs to its meaning to be furtive and hidden. The female nude is
omnipresent in Western art, but the representation of a woman with
her genital orifice displayed is exceedingly rare. There are two
celebrated exceptions. The first is the somewhat presumptuously
titled The Origin of the World, by Gustave Courbet, painted in
1866--roughly the moment when the term pornography entered the
language. It shows a reclining woman, her legs spread apart, her
garment lifted to the level of her breasts and her luxuriant pubic
thatch exposed to the viewer. The woman's head, lower legs and arms
are cropped by the edges of the canvas, which was evidently kept
covered by a green veil after the painting was done. It was
commissioned by a Turkish diplomat, Khalil Bey, and was later
acquired by the celebrated French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who
was, incidentally, Picasso's consultant on most medical questions.
Lacan too kept it hidden--like the portrait of La Belle
in Balzac's Chef d'oeuvre inconnu. It was
concealed behind a painting by Lacan's brother-in-law, the Surrealist
André Masson, and shown only to favored visitors. Courbet's
painting became the property of the French state after Lacan died,
and I first saw it at--naturally--the Brooklyn Museum. It was shown
in the 1988 "Courbet Reconsidered" exhibition in the days predating
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, when it aroused neither outcry nor outrage
but only a certain curiosity. Later it went on view at the
Musée d'Orsay, surrounded with enough art history almost to
neutralize it. I once discussed it in a lecture at Yale but was
hesitant to show a slide--though I was told afterward that
avant-garde feminists have adopted it as a symbol of female power. In
certain African societies it is considered lethal to behold a woman's
genitals, which are kept safely out of view by means of the myth of
their dangerousness.

The other example is Duchamp's
mysterious Étant donnés... in the Philadelphia
Museum of Art, where, peering through a peephole, one finds oneself
looking at the shaven cleft, between her spread legs, of a woman
lying on her back. Duchamp designed the installation in such a way
that the hole through which we see her will not allow the viewer to
see her head or even if she has a head. It was Duchamp's last work,
done in secrecy during the last twenty years of his life, when the
received opinion was that he had given up art for chess. There is a
wall in "Picasso Érotique" with small apertures through which
one can see backlit transparencies both of the Courbet and the
Duchamp as Picasso's predecessors in the representation of a woman's
open sexe. It is a distinguished but not a particularly
extensive artistic genealogy, considering the wide distribution of
this particular organ, and the extraordinary interest it generates in
most of our lives. A visitor from outer space could acquire a wide
knowledge from the history of art of what human females look like
undressed, but have not a clue as to the vagina's existence or visual

There are two main aesthetic reasons for its
absence from art. The first is enunciated by Freud: The genitals
themselves, the sight of which is always exciting, are hardly ever
regarded as beautiful. When a New York gallerist was shown some
examples from a work by the French Surrealist Henri Maccheroni,
titled 2000 photographies du sexe d'une femme, she said she
realized why, by contrast with breasts and buttocks, this particular
attribute played no part in the stereotype of feminine beauty. The
second reason is this: The difference between male and female nudes
is that the male's genitals are visible unless they are covered but
the female's are invisible unless uncovered, which requires that the
woman assume an awkward posture in which they are displayed. There
are two circumstances in which this routinely takes place. The first
is the gynecological examination. The second is where they are
flashed by sex workers for the enticement and arousal of clients. In
a superb review of a book on a brothel in a recent issue of this
magazine, Leah Platt quoted the author's interview of a working woman
on her job, performed behind a window before a paying male: "make eye
contact, pout, wink, swivel your hips a little, put a stiletto-clad
foot up on the window sill to reveal an eye-full of your two most
marketable orifices, fondle your tits, smack your ass, stroke
whatever pubic hair you haven't shaven off...until the customer
comes, then move on to the next window." The segregation of the Bride
from the Bachelors in Duchamp's Large Glass could be an
allegory of this transaction.

In her legendary early film Fuses, the great performance artist Carolee Schneemann
undertook to discover whether showing how sexual love looked
corresponded to the pleasure of experiencing it, and this involved
her in finding a way of exhibiting herself that was neither
gynecological nor pornographic. I have never seen Fuses, but
in her forthcoming book, Imaging Her Erotics, Schneemann
describes how the film landed her in hot water with audiences from
the art world, from which she had supposed she could count on a
measure of support. Since there are a certain number of opened
vaginas in "Picasso Érotique," the exhibition's
organizers--Jean-Jacques Lebel and Jean Clair, director of the
Musée national Picasso in Paris--prudently decided against
seeking a New York venue for their show, thinking, with the
European's affecting ignorance of North American geography, that New
Yorkers need but slip across the border to see it. So unless you're
prepared to take an hour's flight on Air Canada--or do the thing
properly by postponing your trip to Barcelona until the show is
installed in the Museu Picasso, near where it all began--you'll have
to make do with consulting the catalogue and writing a letter of
indignation to Giuliani's Panel on Decency.

Just inside
the entrance to "Picasso Érotique," the exhibition's designer
has re-created an imagined bordello bedroom as one might have existed
in the red-light district of Barcelona in the era of Picasso's youth.
Projected on its wall is a clip from what I take to be a vintage
film, in which a generously proportioned woman, sitting on the edge
of the bed, lifts her breasts in the time-honored way, and then
stands, with her wrapper open, to give us a view of her nakedness.
The action is pretty fast. We get a shot of a man administering
cunnilingus while a frustrated customer peers through a keyhole until
he evidently can't hold himself in any longer and falls to the floor,
clutching his front, like one of Duchamp's bachelors. It certainly
beats an acousta-guide in setting the somewhat merry tone the early
drawings and watercolors carry out. The pictures are really scraps,
pages from a sketchbook, graphic souvenirs of the artist's erotic
encounters in the kinds of bedrooms we have just seen, with the kinds
of women we have just been shown. A lot of the pictures are on the
border between cartoons and life drawings. There is a certain amount
of cunnilingus, some lively sketches of an ecstatic woman in high
sockings fingering herself, some scenes of women sitting around
half-dressed, a few quite tender scenes of lesbian caress and a
fairly ambitious painting of the artist himself, looking as innocent
as a choirboy and wearing a striped jersey, being treated to
fellatio. It is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but I'll
lay odds that though it was painted in 1903, in the middle of
Picasso's extravagantly admired Blue Period, you won't see it proudly
displayed there when the Montreal show is over.

interest of these mostly ephemeral works lies as much in what they
tell us about the male sexual imagination as about what Picasso saw.
Men visited the brothels of the so-called barrio chino--the
Chinese Quarter of old Barcelona--as they visit brothels everywhere:
in part to see, in part to enact, what life otherwise only allows
them to imagine. That is why the displayed vagina belongs so
centrally to pornography--the much-debated male gaze is not readily
gratified, due to its object's hiddenness. There are relatively few
depictions in the early parts of the show of the way men and women in
love express that condition sexually.

But there is a great
deal of that in Picasso's art, beginning with when he fell profoundly
in love with Fernande Olivier in 1904, and began to see life en
couleur de rose
: The so-called Rose Period is not merely a change
of palette. Pictures titled Le Baiser (The Kiss) or
L'Étreinte (Embrace) outnumber by a significant factor
those showing special couplings of the kind advertised in
Pompei--though there is a gouache from 1917 that could easily have
been copied from the kinds of souvenir postcards that are probably
still hawked outside the excavations. Its chief pictorial function is
to display the man's enormous penis in a state of futile erection,
since the couple has assumed a position too athletic for actual
intercourse to take place: She is standing on her head, with one foot
braced against his chin. In the main, except when he is being
satirical, Picasso has no use for the caricaturely gross penis. He
shows himself as normally proportioned in an awkward, scowling 1902
Self Portrait With Nude.

The kisses are intensely
felt and at the same time comically shown: In a painting dated
January 12, 1931, the couple dart their triangular tongues into each
other's mouths; the woman's nose is draped affectionately over the
man's, her eyes closed and his rolled upward. In Figures at the
, it is impossible to determine to which of the two
kissers the breasts belong, as if the difference between two
individuals has been transcended, and they are one being, with
tangled legs and arms. One cannot but think, in these wonderful
middle-period works, of Aristophanes' vivid thesis in The
, that each of us was once part of a single being, now
split into two, each part seeking to be reunited with the other. So
many of the Baisers and Étreintes are ingenious,
imperfect reassemblages of bodily parts into helpless erotic wholes,
destined to fall apart despite the great passion that brought them
together. The overall mood is one of tenderness and comedy.

So I was not surprised to learn from the museum's
publicist that there have been very few complaints about the show in
Montreal, though attendance so far has greatly exceeded expectations.
But there has been a spontaneous show of affection on the part of
those who visit the show together. Basically the show is about love.
She told me that she had been alerted by one of the guards that
couples often begin to hold hands while looking at the work, to
whisper in each other's ear, to embrace lightly, even to kiss. I
found that a very touching discovery, and really something of a
vindication for mounting such a show. It is evidence that there is
more to experiencing art than allowing one's eyes to be flooded with
form. This is the power of erotic representation: We respond with
affection. But sex has another strand as well, a raucousness and
comedy that the ancients appreciated when they rocked with laughter
at the sight of satyrs capering across the stage with leather
phalluses. For all his tenderness, Picasso was a fierce satirist,
aware that we can look pretty ridiculous in the grip of sexual
passion. There is a delicious suite of etchings done in 1968, showing
the painter Raphael making endless love to his mistress, La
Fornarina, never so overcome by passion that he has to put down his
brushes and palette and use both arms. In all of these images,
Picasso shows the couple's genitals fitted together like bolt and
bolt-hole, but each wears the calm smile of Hindu deities in cosmic
fornication, as if butter would not melt in their mouths. Most of
these etchings contain observers as well as the lovers themselves.
The Pope, for example, often drops into a picture to observe the
action--and in some of them Michelangelo gets an eyeful while hiding
under the bed.

Raphael, painter of sweet madonnas and
charming infants, was not above doing a bit of pornography himself
now and then. His notorious 1516 frescoes of the history of Venus,
commissioned for Cardinal Bibbiena's bathroom in the Vatican, were
whitewashed over in the nineteenth century as inconsistent with what
was felt to be spiritually fitting for the artist of the Acts of
the Apostles
. The nineteenth century was a bad time for the
erotica of the masters. Ruskin had no hesitation in ordering the
destruction of Turner's horny drawings on the grounds that he was
obviously insane when he drew them. But the depiction of sex was one
of the main reasons that drawing was invented. Even the misogynous
Degas executed a series of monoprints in the Maison Tellier, one of
Paris's best-known brothels of the 1880s. They show the prostitutes
lounging about, waiting for clients or engaged in lesbian sex with
one another. Picasso owned some of these quite compassionate images,
and as he approached the age of 90, he devoted a rowdy suite of
etchings to the somewhat implausible episode of Degas observing the
whores. There are a good many exceedingly open, exceedingly juicy
vaginas in these pictures, I would say lovingly drawn, in which it is
indeterminate whether the women are mocking or tempting the voyeur.
In one, Picasso shows lines of sight from Degas's eyes to the hairy
juncture of vaginal lips spread open for his uncertain

There are no open vaginas in Picasso's own
celebrated brothel scene, the famous Demoiselles d'Avignon,
one of the canonical works of Modernism and by all accounts his
masterpiece. It could in one way almost be a Cubist paraphrase of one
of Degas's monoprints, in which the women are gathered to greet the
visitor, who will hopefully select one of them for whatever he is
into. Here are five women in all--three classical figures to the
viewer's left, two masked women to the right, one of them, her back
to us, squatting. The masks could be African, could be Oceanic, but
hardly belong to any European tradition other than that of the
ethnographic museum, where Picasso first saw them. Whatever they are
up to, the women hardly look as if they are out to tempt us. If we
did not know from scholarship that it was a brothel scene, it is hard
to know how we would read the work. It is easy to sympathize with
Alfred Barr, who acquired the painting for the Museum of Modern Art,
when he described this as a purely formal figure composition, which
as it develops becomes more and more dehumanized and abstract. Leo
Steinberg quotes this in a great essay, together with a 1912
interpretation by the poet André Salmon, of Picasso's own
inner circle: The women "'are naked problems, white numbers on a
blackboard.' Can we be looking at the same canvas?" Steinberg asks
with incredulity. I shall always be grateful for this "Can we be
looking at the same canvas?" It definitively erased from my aesthetic
whatever inclination I had toward formalism in art. On the other
hand, I am not ready to be included in the "us" to whom Steinberg
says this picture looks like a tidal wave of female aggression. I
cannot get female aggression to fit with the overall feeling toward
women conveyed in this wonderful exhibition in Montreal, not even in
the period when Picasso was painting Salome dancing for the price of
John the Baptist's head. The Demoiselles d'Avignon is not in
the show, and that's a good thing. Nobody really understands it;
nobody is even able to say whether it is a success or a failure. It
may not be white numbers on a blackboard, but it falls outside the
range of the human--all too human--to which eroticism, as behavior
and imagination, belongs.

Subscriber Log In:

Subscribe Now!
The only way to read this article and the full contents of each week's issue of The Nation online on the day the print magazine is published is by subscribing. Subscribe now and read this article—and every article published since 1865 in our 148 year digital archive—right now.
There's no obligation—try The Nation for four weeks free.


  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size