In his essay “The Duce’s Portraits,” Italo Calvino tells us that he “spent the first 20 years of his life with Mussolini’s face always in view, in the sense that his portrait was hung in every classroom as well as in every public building or office.” The invasion of public spaces by dictators’ likenesses in all kinds of media was nothing new in Mussolini’s time but, with mechanical reproduction and the photographic medium in full bloom, a leader’s face could imprint itself on memory as it had never done before. With a friendly if humorous wink at the semiological analyses of his contemporary Umberto Eco, Calvino in his article revisits his quasi-photographic childhood memories of Mussolini. And, what Calvino remembers most acutely is that from the start of his leadership, Mussolini struck an odd note amid his contemporaries by having neither a mustache nor a beard.
Now, the mustaches and beards that Calvino remembered are not what we today associate with current men’s facial fashion, be it an unshaved shadow of a beard or a small tuft of hair above or below the mouth. No, unlike the archetypal elder statesman figure in Calvino’s mind, what Mussolini did not have was an abundance of erotically placed silky hair adorning his lips. For Calvino, this clean-shaven look was a sign of modernity, a sign needing interpretation by historians. “I don’t think that there are historians who emphasize the facial hair dimension in various epochs,” he wrote in Hermit in Paris (2004), “and yet those are certainly messages that have a meaning, especially in periods of transition.”
Taking up Calvino’s challenge, this essay probes the message of modernity implied in the clean-shaven look of the 1920s and searches for a connection between signs of a new masculinity and its manifestation in the erotic art of the period. Was the new masculinity forged in response to the discovery of Sigmund Freud and the writings of the Marquis de Sade, or did it come out of life in the trenches of World War I? While scholars disagree about the sources of the new masculinity, they do seem to concur that with modernity, death becomes inseparable from eroticism.
The signs of modernity that Calvino sees in a clean-shaven man’s face suggest several interpretations. Put in the context of Italy in the 1920s, a country that had recently become a dictatorship, the new facial look speaks of modernity as “efficiency, and a reassuring continuity and all that with authoritarian severity,” according to Calvino. A face without a mustache or a beard connotes the classical look of Roman emperors and of return to order in artistic practice. It also connotes loss of adornment, and the moral transparency of utopianism that several abstract art movements in the ‘20s embodied. But, devolved of their masculine singularity, be it a beard or a mustache, men’s looks are metaphorically emasculated and feminized. It is this last interpretation that I will pursue by consulting Eroticism & Art (2005) by Alyce Mahon, a feminist art historian, Surrealist Masculinities (2007) by Amy Lyford, a California scholar, and in the pages of L’Erotisme dans l’art contemporain, a 1920s publication with reproductions of artworks selected by the well-known critic André Salmon.
For Mahon, “as the 20th century began, sexual transgression in art became an increasingly common motif. Artists turned to the erotic body as a means of addressing a whole gamut of personal and political questions. . . . A burgeoning avant-garde defied bourgeois conservatism between the two world wars by using sexual obscenity as a metaphor for political obscenity” (Eroticism & Art, p. 36). By the ‘20s, according to this rhetoric, the male gaze was deprived of idealized female representations, and a female body in transgressive activities was offered to the gaze of both men and women. From a feminist point of view, the new eroticism was positive not only in disempowering the man’s gaze and lifting sexual taboos, but in turning the female body into a political sign.
There is no denying that in the 1920s a number of sexual taboos were discarded, and amorous relations between women appeared in art. That is certainly the visual theme of L’Erotisme et l’art contemporain, a display of varied typologies of female nudes drawn in styles ranging from classical to Cubist and shown indulging in erotic behavior alone or a deux. Signed by a cast of artists including Picasso, Van Dongen, Pascin, Foujita and lesser known figures of the Paris art world, the illustrated works are what the French would call coquins [naughty], but hardly feminist and certainly not “political.” Lesbian subject matter rarely displeases the male gaze, as pointed out by the editor of the book, André Salmon, a right-wing literary figure who explains his selections by defining eroticism as “relative to love making.”
It is also true that in the period between the two World Wars, or more specifically the 1920s, New Objectivity artists in Germany and the Surrealists in France show a more perverse sexuality in their art than in earlier periods. The question I ask is whether these representations necessarily translate into a metaphor for “political obscenity,” and when they do, what alternative politics these images suggest.
One German artist whose work is pertinent on the subject of the new eroticism in art is Christian Schad, whose erotic drawings of fornication with corpses are said to have been enjoyed by Adolf Hitler. Not withstanding this anecdote, Schad painted a number of works with an erotic subtext of a new kind. In his 1927 portrait of Count St. Genois d’Anneaucourt with two companions, the main subject, an aristocrat in formal dress, is seen between two creatures of indeterminate sex, wearing long transparent gowns that show off the beautiful buttocks of one and the deep décolletage of the other. The cause these individuals are promoting in their womanly disguise is the transvestite’s right to exist. But it is hard to read in this portrait of a handsome trio any sort of social critique or radical politics.
As for Three Women, the 1926 painting by another German artist of the New Objectivity, Otto Dix, it is indeed an un-tender representation of female bodies suggesting, as Mahon writes, “[the artist’s] assault on the warped values of a society by exposing in scathing detail the spaces and activities of seedy urban brothels.” But the easy analogy between a sick society and prostitutes smacks of propaganda in favor of purification, a longing for a cleaner and healthier nation. Small wonder Dix could not understand why he was cast as “degenerate” by the Nazi regime.
On the French side, among the Surrealist works from the 1920s discussed in Eroticism & Art and in Surrealist Masculinities figures the photograph of Rrose Selavy, a 1920s surrealist portrait of Marcel Duchamp in drag by Man Ray. For Lyford, this portrait is a metaphor of the new masculinity, as it was in the eyes of Man Ray’s lover, Lee Miller, writing in Men before the Mirror, a text for an album of photos of Rrose Selavy in various poses. “They collect themselves. Carefully as if tying a cravat, they compose their features. Insolent, serious and conscious of their looks they turn around to face the world.”
For Mahon, the same image is about the new female. “Rrose is a mannish woman who challenges the erotic ‘norm’, perhaps, and pays homage to the rise of the new independent woman in the 1920s, the garconne, or the flapper, who cropped her hair, wore trousers and hats, smoked cigarettes with flair, and frequented jazz clubs.” To me, Rrose Selavy, with painted lips, powdered cheeks and heavy eye makeup, delicate fingers framing a face half hidden by a low-brimmed felt hat and fur collar, is both woman and man, an image of the perfect spy, a femme fatale and a security risk in time of war.
These examples from 1920s art in Germany and in France confirm the view that sex roles change and ideas of eroticism in art are transgressed in that era, but the meaning of this transgression for the culture at large is far from clear. For Salmon, the artworks reproduced in L’Erotisme dans l’art contemporain “show the place of eroticism in contemporary mores” and the key change is “nudity,” man’s ready access to the nude body. Salmon contrasts today’s nudity with the years (probably coinciding with the era of beards and mustaches) “when the tumultuous abundance of undergarments added a ‘sentiment of postponement’ to a particular pleasure.” Or, as he further explains, when “the mystery was on the way up the stairs.” For that 1920s cultural figure, the new eroticism with its accent on speed and efficiency eliminates foreplay and diminishes pleasure for both men and women.
Mahon, on the other hand, sees in the new eroticism the fulfillment of Sade’s “total liberation of sexual desire,” a freedom that transcends sexual norms, allows for sexual experimentation and perverse sexual games that can end in death for one or more of the players. No matter. Sade’s “importance to the modern history of eroticism lies in his total liberation of sexual desire, his exploration of male and female sexual fantasies, his furious dialogue between desire and death,” Mahon writes. “In Sade’s world, the greatest pleasure is derived from the violation of taboos and laws, the greatest logic is thus to remove mortality and law and allow man to follow his nature.” (p. 32)
As for Lyford, she observes that the Marquis de Sade was more important to Surrealist eroticism in the 1930s, and points to a number of rarely seen “pornographic” photographs by Man Ray such as The Fantasies of Mr. Seabrook, Lee Miller and William Seabrook and Homage to D. A. F. Sade, all with Lee Miller as protagonist. In the 1920s, more contemporary figures fascinated the Surrealists, she contends, citing Freud and his naturalizing views of bisexuality of course, but also a music hall performer named Barbette whose anatomy passed for that of a woman though he was endowed with a male sex organ. The point here is that when Man Ray photographs this creature wearing a girdle to compress his maleness, he “depicts Barbette’s manhood at the moment of conversion, a spectacular moment of self-inflicted if symbolic castration” (Lyford, p.171). In Lyford’s analysis, Barbette becomes a living metaphor of the new masculinity not only in being bisexual, but in giving the impression of being emasculated. Thus the erotic spectacle enacted by Barbette cannot be separated from the physical traumas engendered by World War I.
Emasculation, feminization and even images of necrophilia could well remain in the minds of men after the violence that many of them had witnessed and experienced in the trenches. One need only read or reread the epilogue of Les Thibaud by Roger Martin du Gard (the French classic novel about World War I) to understand that neither sexuality nor desire nor the erotic gaze would be the same for men who had fought in World War I. Even those artists who did not see the war up close, like Marcel Duchamp, could not escape its presence in the press. The epic adventures of women spies in World War I, from Mata Hari to Marthe Richard and Edith Cavell, made headlines in the newspapers during and after the war. The exotic dancer Mata Hari, who seduced men and women on both sides of the conflict and was condemned to death for passing secret documents to the Germans, remains to this day an emblem of desire and death in wartime.
What the new representations of eroticism in the ‘20s say to me is that the heterosexual sensualist, the ideal sexual performer who lived to give pleasure to women, and fed the imagination of frustrated wives, is tired. The gaze of the emasculated man is of necessity that of a voyeur looking for vicarious pleasure in whatever form it is offered, as in Salmon’s book. The survivor of trench warfare is open to heterosexual and homosexual advances with equal (lack of) enthusiasm. A beautiful man’s body in a Schad painting, a choice of female sex professional in one by Otto Dix, are equal food for the new male gaze. And in Duchamp’s Rrose Selavy, a constructed femininity taunts androgynous desire. The overall metaphor for erotic relations in the 1920s may well be a painting by Magritte from 1928, entitled The Lovers, showing the heads of an embracing couple wrapped in a veil that prevents their mouths and tongues from touching. Far from evoking the Surrealist notion of l’amour fou, this image strikes me as an expression of utter frustration.
It seems that Calvino was onto something when he asked his readers to ponder the meaning of Mussolini’s clean-shaven face, an image that had once struck him as so unusual and so “modern.” Read as a sign of emasculation and feminization, modernity appears to have destroyed the old fashioned heterosexual sensualist stereotype and to have expanded the meaning of eroticism in art and in life beyond heterosexual love making. Beyond the writings of Freud, and Sade, the traumas of World War I seem to have had a powerful impact on erotic behavior and erotic representations in the interwar era.
It is tempting to apply Calvino’s model to our own postmodern era, another transitional period. But when in the midst of a postmodern free-for-all, it becomes problematic to link signs of masculinity to the rest of the culture, as standards of male and female appearance change too fast. Eros discovers the uncanny, a body that plastic surgery can transform (Orlan), and that science can cause to mutate (Jeff Koons, Jake and Dino Chapman). Putti messengers deliver love arrows by computer, contributing to the chaos of sexual identity, and to an eroticism ever more haunted by death.
this was published here