By DONALD KUSPIT February, 2022
Vaginal intercourse is more customary, not to say socially acceptable, than anal intercourse, which is perhaps why so many male artists seem drawn to the front of the naked female body, and with that to the vagina, rather than to the back of the naked female body, and with that to the buttocks, where one finds the anus. One only has to think of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, 1483-1485 and Titian’s Venus of Urbino, 1538, the hand of the goddess calling attention to her vagina by discreetly hiding it, ingeniously reminding us of its importance, the reason it is front-and-center in her body, for by penetrating it the penis gives it the opportunity to confirm its purpose, realize its raison d’etre: serve as the pathway for sperm, and with that, hopefully, its merger with the egg in the womb, and with that the creation of new life. It is what makes the front of the female body attractive, certainly in comparison to its backside.
Goya’s Nude Maja, 1800 makes the point explicitly: she is not a sacred being, with a sleek, smooth body worshipped, not to say idolized, for its innate beauty, as Botticelli’s and Titian’s Venus is, but an all too human being, a profane, real person, with a fleshy, not to say fulsome body, ready and willing for sexual intercourse, dare one say with the artist painting her. Her hands folded behind her head, her body relaxed on a soft couch, the Maja—a pretty lower class woman (in contrast to the goddess, a beautiful upper class woman)-- waits for his penis to penetrate her vagina. It is not hidden by her hand—no false modesty for the shameless Maja. Dare one say that the hand that hides Venus’s vagina has less to do with shame than with the fact that she’s frigid? Goya’s Maja is as full of desire as his handling of her body suggests he is.
Even when Venus has become a plain-faced whore rather than a beautiful goddess, as she is in Manet’s Olympia, 1863, perversely modelled on Titian’s masterpiece, she is all front, that is, in no need of a backside to round her out. The ruthless realism of Courbet’s The Origin of the World, 1866 completes the de-idealization and de-mythologization of the female body that began with Manet’s banalization of it, but like Manet and the Renaissance painters he remains focused on the front of the female body, the vagina even more front and center, not to say confrontational, than in any of the other paintings. The painting is a portrait of the vagina, the vagina has become the face, and for Courbet it is clearly more important than any woman’s face, however beautiful. He paints the narrow slit of the vagina as though hypnotized by it, as though determined to get to the bottom of it, even as the furry dark hair around it suggests that it is an impenetrable mystery.
For Courbet the unadorned vagina is the truth about woman compared to her cosmeticized face, and as such at once more enticing and intimidating: one wonders if Courbet preferred cunnilingus (isn’t the paint brush a kind of tongue?) to copulation. But then one wonders if Courbet saw himself as another Perseus cutting off the head of the Medusa, for, as Freud wrote, a hairy vagina—a sort of raw thing in itself compared to the refined face of a goddess—may seem like a Medusa in unconscious fantasy. The Medusa’s hair was a tangle of snakes, and the terrifying sight of her instantly turned one into stone. Courbet, ever the fearless artist, dares confront the Medusa-like vagina and live to tell the tale, because he saw her in the mirror of art, as Perseus did when he saw her reflection in his shield, suggesting that art is a kind of shield or defense against the emotional truth as well as a way of facing and acknowledging it. Courbet may de-idealize the vagina by rendering it with empirical precision rather than making it more mysterious than it is by veiling it with a hand as the Renaissance masters did, but for both woman is all upfront, suggesting that they regard her, however unconsciously, as a kind of Potemkin’s Village facade, there being nothing—no substance--behind her face or vagina (her “true” face, as Courbet suggests).
But many artists have paid serious, dare one say devoted, attention to the female buttocks, emphasizing their lushness, plumpness, fullness, suggesting they are more appealing, engaging, and attractive than the female vagina—the vagina Courbet paints is more repulsive than attractive, and Venus’s vagina attracts (and limits) our attention only because it is hidden by her hand (otherwise it is an incidental and imperfect part of her perfect body). Thus the female buttocks are on emphatic and beautiful display in Rubens’ Venus at the Mirror, 1613-1614, Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus, 1647-1651, Fragonard’s The Shirt Removed, 1750, Boucher’s Girl Reclining (Louise O’Murphy), 1751, Ingres’ La Grand Odalisque, 1814, Corot’s The Roman Odalisque (Marietta), 1843, Renoir’s Reclining Nude From the Back, After The Bath, ca. 1909, and, with particularly striking in-your-face immediacy, the nymph with her luminous, prominent buttocks in the foreground of Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyrs, 1893. For me the subtlest renderings of the female buttocks in 20th century art are the seemingly endless numbers of Weibliche Rückenakt drawings--female nudes seen from the back--that George Grosz made in the 1920s. His painting Self-Portrait With Nude (seen from the back), 1937 is the climatic statement of his obsession with and glorification of female buttocks.
Why are all these artists—and there are more—so taken with the female buttocks, hypnotically drawn to them? I suggest the answer is deceptively simple: they are fuller than male buttocks, and with that more a reservoir of the fat—animal fat--necessary for life. Fat is a symbol of life at its fullest, more particularly of plenty and wealth—all that is good in life, necessary to sustain life. But the physical fact that woman’s buttocks have more animal fat than man’s buttocks suggest that she is more of an animal than he is, however human she obviously is. The idea that woman is as much—perhaps more—animal than human is implicit in the biblical myth that associates the first woman with a snake, and in the Greek myth of Artemis, the goddess of animals, identified with them because she knew their ways, for she was implicitly as wild and wily as they are. These associations may be derogatory, for they suggest that woman is not entirely human, and that man is suspicious or at least ambivalent about her—unconsciously afraid of her, as the psychoanalyst Wolfgang Lederer argues--but her animal fat clearly gives her an advantage over man, and makes her buttocks seductive to him, indeed, more seductive than her vagina and her breasts, which are smaller than them. WM
Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.view all articles from this author