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 Noiseuse 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 appearance.