Rodin’s Monument to Balzac: The First Bachelor Machine
By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, SEPT, 2014
Gilles Deleuze said that the subconscious is like a machine factory of self-production. Apparently so in the subconscious secret about the terribly famous Le Monument à Balzac (The Monument to Balzac) (1898) by Auguste Rodin that greets visitors to MoMA (this version executed in 1954 and gifted in memory of the art dealer Curt Valentin) and in the garden at the Rodin Museum in Paris. Few visitors recognize the productive but sneaky/slimy onanistic act underway before them.
This somewhat repressed erudition (I had heard a lecture about it at Cornell University back in the mid-70s) struck me hard on the way home from the gym the other day, as I passed by Monument to Balzac in the light rain. Of course, it is always there, in the corner of my eye, as in 1939, twenty-two years after Rodin's death, Monument to Balzac was cast in bronze and placed at the crossing of the boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail, near my house. But it looked extra supreme that morning in that thin rain, with the water rinsing over it. So I photographed it.
But this day’s rainy conditions suggested something extra to me. The veiled background behind this monumental work: that one of France's greatest novelists, Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), is here dreamily masturbating under his bathrobe (today in the shower).
So I went back to the Mapplethorpe-Rodin show at the musée Rodin to verify and photograph the proof: Rodin’s Balzac, Second Nude Study F (1886). This is Rodin's study of Balzac fondling his penis just above the ball-sack, leaning slightly backwards with hips thrust forward.
The nine foot tall finished work at the Rodin Museum also replicates the naughty pose of the nude study. Indeed this backward lean, with crotch bulge, is the definitive posture of the Rodin monument. And it matches Rodin's objective; to show Balzac at the moment of conceiving the idea for a work through onanistic gazing - art based on imaginary sexual flights of imagination.
On the ground, Balzac was notoriously a lusty artist that followed Epicureanism, his writings filled with sexual innuendo, such as the portrait of a teenage boy in Balzac's Country Medicine that alludes to a need for him to be cured of the wanking habit.
Certainly I understand why Rodin chose to furtively depict him as an onanist. It is far from ludicrous, as it is said that Balzac used masturbation without climax to intensify his writing sessions, drinking many cups of coffee, masturbating just short of orgasm, halting, writing, repeating.
As is the case today, most of the public has no idea that Rodin has depicted Balzac in the act of masturbation. But as such Monument to Balzac is the seedbed for what would become La Machine Célibataire (The Bachelor Machines). This very useful term was first developed in a 1913 note written by Marcel Duchamp in preparation for The Large Glass: The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (1915–23).
The Large Glass has been called an imaginary sex machine, but it is actually a machine of imaginary churning masturbation. In his notes, Duchamp identifies the machine’s component parts, which include: a water paddle, scissors, a chocolate grinder (the churner), a sledge, and nine “malic moulds.” Represented in a variety of media on the lower pane of The Large Glass, the bachelor machine appears as a hodgepodge of mechanical implements and schematic diagrams, all frustrated with their inability to mate with the bride machine that hovers wasp-like in the upper pane.
Historically, this mechanamorphic (mechanonanistic) impulse behind Marcel Duchamp's work is of great significance. Some of this work, such as La Mariée and Étude pour la broyeuse de chocolat, n°2 and Le Grand Verre will be included in the Marcel Duchamp, La peinture, meme show at the Centre Pompidou (September 24th – January 5th).
That is when Duchamp started producing paintings and drawings depicting mechanized sex acts, such as Mechanics of Modesty and The Passage from the Virgin to the Bride - and the fantastic machine-body work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even - an inescapable point of reference for the avant-garde.
The elaborateness of the repeating machine, for Duchamp (and Francis Picabia, I should add) became the mark of a DIY sexual bliss. Attainable through concept connected to auto-sexual autonomy. By hypnotizing sexual attention into a form of visionary activity, Bachelor Machines freed them from troubling obsessions and personal hang-ups through the alternative model of DIY life; intimating both DIY’s rush of desperation and its ecstatic release, refracted through a web of glazed impersonality due to its coldly concerted and particularly dizzying activity.
The detached Bachelor Machine gaze (as I find it in the visionary creative stare depicted in Rodin’s self-stimulating sculpture) was a fascination Duchamp and Picabia used to balance out their age’s clumsiness, whether of the mind or flesh, in a way that Rodin’s Monument to Balzac (as cast-metal cock-beater) refigured the male body into an almost mechanized substance. In The Bride Stripped Bare by the Bachelors, Even, which positions a central bride machine over a bachelor apparatus, Duchamp (with the strictness of machinery) conducts detached mental fantasy to seductive masturbation - creating a vehicle for self-transcendence into a kind of dream world of nonsense sex. This machine-like sex-logic provided art with the seemingly pure spectacle of endless variety of visual games and combinations, describing and foreseeing the arrival of computer-robotic technology and it's application to visual art. Thus it is through Bachelor Machines where we might start to map (from the middle) that certain lineage in the avant-garde; passing through the fantastic machines envisioned by writers like Franz Kafka, Raymond Roussel, and Alfred Jarry into the Futurists, Duchamp and the New York Dadists, the Productivits, Andy Warhol’s Factory, etc.
What strikes me as relevant to today, is that this Rodin meets Bachelor Machine theme and procedure involves imprisonment and secret liberation - a form of expanding self-torture - formally reflected in inextricable plays of hidden images, repetitions and impediments; giving the impression of an art (and art market) that is running on automatic through the dreamy usage of self-pleasure. Is that not the post-Snowden NSA surveillance (and self-surveillance) condition? Is that not the condition of painting as flip art? But this theme and procedure may also lend to art the means of creation of dreamy unforeseen automatic and spontaneously inventive movements. Those that give the feeling of prolonging art action into eternity through the ceaseless, eccentric constructions of the work itself, transmitting an altered, exalted and orgasmic state of mind. Which after the initial dazzling creates one predominant overall effect; that of creating doubt.
The image of hidden enclosure is common with Bachelor Machines, as it is with Rodin’s Monument to Balzac, where a secret to a secret is held back, systematically imposing anxiety on us through its extensions and disguises and duplications. Yet perhaps Rodin’s Bachelor Machine presents to us the model of an eternally repetitive mechanical machine which functions independently of time and space; pulling the artist into an electronic logic of an infinite conceptual (sex) machine; the machine which contains and repeats within its mechanism all machine activity, making evident the machine code which produced the juice for every machine: the mastermachine: or, that is, the masturbatormachine. A machine that codes and maps out a space that is both inner and outer. That is circular in nature - and thus an abstract attempt at eliminating time. Thus Rodin’s Monument to Balzac can be said to reproduce concepts of the old myths of departure, of loss and of return. It constructs a crisscrossed mechanical map of the two great mythic spaces so often explored by Western imagination: space that is rigid and forbidden, containing the quest, the return and the treasure (for example the geography of the Argonauts and the labyrinth) - and the other space of polymorphosis, the visible transformation of instantly crossed frontiers and borders, of strange affiliations, of spells and of symbolic replacements (the space of the Minotaur).
Rodin’s Bachelor Machine (and its mechanical sex imagination) of course opens up a scene of anti-procreation. Once inside this non-spatial non-procreational space (this imagined world poised against reproduction itself) a plethora of possibilities imposes itself like a dark machine creating stupid repetitions, hollowing out the void with accumulated repetitive movements without stop. Hence in 1972 the Bachelor Machine was already there, humming away, just waiting for Deleuze and Guattari to hook it up to the body-without-organs, to plug it into the arithmetic logic of the desiring art machine, to achieve the global noisy interconnectivity of the info-world. Now running wild on schizo-capitalist juice, greasing the self-seduction that is today’s market masturbation.
Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. He exhibited in Noise, a show based on his book, as part of the Venice Biennale 55, and is artistic director of the Minóy Punctum Book/CD project.view all articles from this author