By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, DEC. 2014
The BREYER P-ORRIDGE & Pierre Molinier erotic art show at Invisible-Exports Gallery got me thinking and remembering an extraordinary art show I saw in the spring of 1996 in Paris: Henri Maccheroni’s photographic series called “2000 Photos du Sexe d'une Femme” (2000 Photos of the Sex of a Woman) (1969-1974) at Galerie A l'Enseigne des Oudin (where I had discovered Pierre Molinier the same year).
Photographs of one woman’s vagina were taken in two stages, from 1969 to 1971 and from 1972 to 1974, at the rate of one or two sessions per week. An unusual (and unnamed) bold woman obviously volunteered for the regular studio sittings in various states, shaved or hairy. I imagine her task of exposure must have been exhausting. My dream was to find her and interview her, but alas - I was not able to even contact Maccheroni.
Depending on one’s sexual orientation and taste in decency, 2000 close-up photographs of a woman’s vagina, even in arty black and white, can be quite daunting. But then I was informed that the 2000 photographs on view had been edited down from 6000, the number which makes up the complete series called “Photos du Sexe d'une Femme” (1969-1974), but that 6000 were too many to mount in the gallery at one time (the walls were covered). This excess information added greatly to my already feelings of overpowering stupefaction. I have never forgotten the power of this work or the way it has influenced.
I cannot however dismiss a hint of cold brutality in these visions of intimacy. I don’t know why, exactly. Are they cold because the pictures are quite factual? Are they cold because of the number of them - the determined repetition evident here? Are they cold because of the severe cropping by the camera that depersonalizes the image? I don’t think so, as I don’t have the same feeling with similarly constructed works, like Yoko Ono’s film “Four (Bottoms)” (1966), a five-and-a-half-minute film consisting of a series of close-ups of human buttocks, as the subjects walk on a treadmill.
And are they really too factual? No. In fact they are not all that realistic, as the artist chose to work in black-and-white film, yet these tightly cropped close-ups of a sometimes bushy vagina made me and my straight female companion squirm, for some reason. It was not that I found them indecent, even as I was astonished they could be exhibited in broad daylight in public (even in Paris). No. That the exhibit undermined any simple standards of temperament and decency was made evident by the fact that my man-friendly lesbian friend, who saw the show on my suggestion, was quite offended with it (and hence me). Was it because I did not tell her in advance that the photos had been taken by a man? Or was it because of the fact that these photographs were not all particularly lovely visions? In fact they were something of a difficult task to visually take in. Even if there were only 2000 of them!
I am still a bit mystified at this exceptional work and it’s passing into oblivion. Yet I still hold that one aspect of good art is forever going to be libertine, in someway, even if tempered by our understanding that gender is socially (and not naturally) constructed. Granted that the dominance of the western male posture is no longer unquestioned - and that identity and gender are now recognized as fluid concepts that defy easy definition.
Forty years ago there was yet to be in art the unspoken contemporary veto of the straight masculine libido. The late-surrealist panache (I am thinking of Hans Bellmer - specifically his photo of a spread vagina and a plate of milk, “Untitled” (1946) that permitted and sanctioned the creation of this body of work is intensely foreign to today’s, rather puritanical, PC standards.
Now we see many woman artists working on the subject of heterosexual sex, and queer art, but we don’t see many men working on the perplexing vagina, as we once famously saw with Leonardo da Vinci, “The Female Sexual Organs” (circa 1510), Gustave Courbet, “L’Origine du monde” (1866) and Marcel Duchamp “Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas)” (1946–1966). Contemporary artists like Louise Bourgeois and Kiki Smith (among others) have been industriously working on the subject of the body and sex, perhaps starting back with Carolee Schneemann’s Parisian performance of “Meat Joy” (1964). Art focused explicitly on the vulva with Valie Export’s “Action Pants: Genital Panic” (1969) and the broad-spectrum vulva work of Hannah Wilke, for example with her piece “Corcoran Art Gallery” (1976). Subsequently Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” (1979) took the theme front-and-center, followed by Kembra Pfahler’s “Wall of Vagina” (2011) and Betty Tompkins’s “Cunt Painting” (2011) and probably others. Judith Bernstein’s “Birth of the Universe” paintings (2013) depicted gigantic manic vaginas just last year.
They all make no bones about taking the vagina head-on (so to speak). I wonder if today there is someplace willing to take-on Henri Maccheroni’s “2000 Photos du Sexe d'une Femme” and show it in a new light? I would be curious to see how it would be received.
In 1974, Maccheroni (post-surrealist painter, photographer, printmaker and poet influenced by Duchamp and Surrealism) concluded his monumental work on the subject of one particular vagina. Forty years later, I am wondering if this is not the time to remember Maccheroni (born 1932 in Nice), a complex artist all but forgotten today. He has collaborated with many famous writers, poets and philosophers such as Michel Butor, Jean-François Lyotard, Béatrice Bonhomme, Bernard Noël, Jean-Pierre Faye, Jean Raymond, Alain Borer, Pierre Bourgeade and Claude Louis-Combet. In addition, Maccheroni co-founded in 1982 the National Center of Contemporary Art Villa Arson, where he was president until 1985. He also contributed to several important journals, including International Opus (founded in 1967 and vanished in 1995) and Oblique, a French literary magazine from 1971 to 1981 that was founded by writer and editor Roger Borderie and the director Henri Ronse.
Given Maccheroni’s combination of verve, stature and current invisibility, I thought that it might be interesting to re-look at his obsessive work on the vagina, now that talented artists of both sexes are capable of unscrambling sexiness from sexism. I think it might be time to reconsider his “2000 Photos du Sexe d'une Femme” now that feminism has happily challenged the given of the privileged male in relationship to the female model and forced a re-evaluation of a visual culture that viewed the world from a white heterosexual male perspective.
Needless to say, nothing is less certain than desire. But after seeing “2000 Photos du Sexe d'une Femme” I could never again understand why for the most part, images of the vagina have been left to pornographers. Of course female genitalia has long been a resource for occasional artistic curiosity, celebration, controversy and/or confusion, as cited above. Understandably, some might find the specific details of female genitalia effrayable (frightful). Some of my male gay friends certainly do. But it is a subject at the very heart of life. Not to be shied away from.
Joseph Nechvatal is an American artist currently living in Paris. His The Viral Tempest double LP has recently been released on Pentiments. His book Immersion Into Noise was recently published in a second edition by Open Humanities Press and Styling Sagaciousness: Oh Great No!, his new book of poetry, will be published by punctum books this Fall.view all articles from this author