Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Revealing Too Much

It was just a momentary discomfort really. Not a big deal. In general (actually more than that...overwhelmingly), I respected and admired the professor. It was just this one little moment when he tried to explain why there's not as much lost as a class of 19-year-olds might think there is via certain societal standards of decency. In fact, he explained, there's more lost by having no limits at all.

His example was what got me, though. He was right, of course, that there's something much sexier about a woman revealing a nude thigh from beneath a silk sheet than there is about someone sprawled out like an anatomy diagram. It was simply that extra glimmer in his eye when you could see that he had imagined it. TMI, I thought; Too Much Information. (Ironic for a man whose gallery's current exhibition includes a life-size nude sculpture of him, I'll note...before someone else does...but stick with me here.)

My professor's example is a good benchmark though of where the line is between erotica and pornography, and thinking of this reminds me of a rather uncomfortable exchange I witnessed at an art fair once when an artist whose work was being shown by another gallery introduced herself to two women in our booth and explained where her work was. "Oh, yeah," said the one woman. "We saw your work...the pornography, right?" "It's erotica," shot back the artist, in a tone both weary and a bit too defensive. The two women huffed and left. At an art fair. Clearly the distinction is not as clear to everyone as it might be.

If that's the case, though, you can't blame the French. In an exhibition that's causing quite a stir (and can take up to an hour to get into), the National Library in Paris has opened its vaults and presented a show that, as The New York Times explains, "offers a peek at its secret archive of erotic art, putting on display more than 350 sexually explicit literary works, manuscripts, engravings, lithographs, photographs, film clips, even calling cards and cardboard pop-ups." Titled "Hell at the Library, Eros in Secret," the exhibition includes quite an array:
The handwritten manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s novel “Les Infortunes de la Vertu” (“The Misfortunes of Virtue”) is under glass here, as are 17th-century French engravings of “erotic postures”; English “flagellation novels” exported to France in the late 19th century; Japanese prints; Man Ray photographs; and a police report from 1900 that compiles the addresses of Paris’s houses of prostitution and what they charged.
Until this exhibition, the only visitors permitted to view this collection were legitimate researchers. For the next three months or so, though, anyone (well, anyone over 16 years old) can take a look.

The items, on display through March 22, are drawn from a permanent collection created in the 1830s when the library isolated works considered “contrary to good morals.” They were put in a locked section with its own card catalog and given the name L’Enfer — hell. Many pieces have been consigned there over the years by the police for safeguarding, perhaps, and posterity.
I have to wonder, though, what happens to the collection now? I'm sure the off-limits L'Enfer section of the library sparked the imagination of many a visitor over the past two centuries or so. Now that it's been "consumed" by the public, though, will it loom as large?

The same question occurred to me when I heard that German researchers claim to have definitively identified the subject of Leonardo's world-famous portrait "Mona Lisa." From
National Geographic:

A researcher has uncovered evidence that apparently confirms the identity of the woman behind the Mona Lisa's iconic smile, Germany's University of Heidelberg says.

She is Lisa del Giocondo, wife of Florentine businessman Francesco del Giocondo, according to book-margin notes written by a friend of Leonardo da Vinci while the artist worked on the masterpiece, the school said in a statement Monday.

The discovery by a Heidelberg University library manuscript expert appears to confirm what has long been suspected. [...]
In a copy of the works of Roman philosopher Cicero, a Florentine official and friend of Leonardo's wrote in the margins that da Vinci was working on a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. The friend, Agostino Vespucci, dated his notes October 1503, also helping to pin down the exact time Leonardo was working on the painting.

"All doubts as to the identity of the Mona Lisa are eliminated (by) one source," the university said.

The discovery was actually made in 2005, but was not widely known until a German radio station last week aired it in a report.
That's sad to me actually, that "all doubts as to the identity of the Mona Lisa are eliminted." The mystery of her identity, I'm sure, is part of the painting's widespread appeal. Sure, it's still an extrordinary work of art, but knowing it's the wife of a Florentine businessman does take just a bit of the glamour out of it for me. By revealing her identity, these researchers have lessened the work's mystique to a large degree. A bit of mystery, as my professor would gleefully explain, goes a long way.

Labels: erotica, mystery in art


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your entry suggests that:

Scholarship=removal of mystery

Therefore, art objects will continue to get less and less mysterious (as long as worthwhile documentation exists), especially with regards to the physical make-up of the objects (scientific analysis of materials). Performance art or happenings or one shot installations might be able to bypass the academic microscope because they will only live on through anecdotes (not always accurate) or documentation (not always available).

1/16/2008 09:34:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Your entry suggests that:

Scholarship=removal of mystery

I think that's true and in general is a good thing. Not all work benefits in terms of public popularity because of a mystery, and so the larger equation, to my mind is does mystery=popularity? and if so does removal of mystery=less popularity?

I think the answer to that though lies in what the solution to the mystery is. If, for example, scholars had determined (as some have hypothesized) that Mona Lisa was a portrait of Da Vinci himself in drag, I suspect its popularity would have benefited. I'm merely disappointed that the solution to the mystery turned out to be so "normal."

1/16/2008 09:57:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That makes more sense. Unfortunately once you go down that road (intense scholarly interest) it is hard to turn back because new scholarlship builds upon old (more specifically, students get higher grades if they get involved in their professor's line of study). I really wonder if Hirst's shark (which has been written about a lot but not by scholars) will be as intensely analyzed in the future as a masterpiece like the Mona Lisa has been. I suspect that people are most interested in people so most likely this won't happen. If Hirst had pickled a person in a tank things might be different. If Da Vinci's self portraits were as accurate as his anatomical drawings were (for the time) it should be obvious to all observers that the Mona Lisa is not the artist in drag. The bone structures are very different.

1/16/2008 10:12:00 AM  
Blogger cralbert said...

I understand your sense of loss, Ed. This knowledge does add a bit of the quotidian to the painting, which I think is a good thing overall. Unfortunately, or very interestingly, the mystery surrounding this painting morphed into an amazingly salient global phenomena of attributions of the cryptic and conspiratorial. I wouldn't mind if some of that was swept away.
Do you think your status as an international man of mystery will be negatively effected by the sculpture?

1/16/2008 10:26:00 AM  
Anonymous -j. said...

I think it's less of a case of the specific, i.e. mystery=popularity, than the general act of closure. Not just aesthetic closure, completing the suggested circle, but the unconscious cerebral fulfillment of ideals in terms of content, subject, narrative. There's cognitive research out there that suggests the mind only hears about 20% of each sentence in a conversation--the rest is filled in. I think this is related closely to erotica. And I think this sort of erotica is closely related to the myth of the artist and maybe beyond that, romantic myths of art itself. This is about the fertility of poiesis. If the artwork can't easily achieve it alone, perhaps the residue of its aura can...

1/16/2008 10:35:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...


Your post reminds me of the mystery that used to surround the erotic collection at the Museo Archeologico in Naples. I visit Napoli more or less regularly, and for years the word was that the museum has a fabulous collection of erotic art for which a) you had to bribe your way in via a guard who had a key to the gallery add b) you hade to be male to get in.
I tried. I'm not. I didn't.

So you can imagine my delight when, finally, in the 21st century, the gallery was opened to the public. It wasn't the erotic so much as the wanting to see what I hadn't been able to. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but the images--many mosaics, some sculptures and drawings--were tame and, truth be told, kind of adolescent in their longings. I mean, a penis as large as some of the the ones depicted would need a wheelbarrow.

As for La Gioconda, the image remains compelling whatever back story has been revealed.

1/16/2008 11:07:00 AM  
Blogger highlowbetween said...

oh well, so much for the Leonardo in drag theory...

1/16/2008 11:49:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Do you think your status as an international man of mystery will be negatively effected by the sculpture?

LOL...I have no idea how my status is being affected by the sculpture. I hope folks see it as part of the wonderfully insightful and humorous analysis that it is, quite frankly. Just so long as my Mom doesn't visit until it's over ... {{shudder}} ...

1/16/2008 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

Ironic for a man whose gallery's current exhibition includes a life-size nude sculpture of him...

Edward, you could have maintained your "man of mystery" status by just allowing the sculptor to create a thigh.

1/16/2008 12:58:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Ed sez:
Just so long as my Mom doesn't visit until it's over ... {{shudder}} ...

Perhaps this is forward of me to mention, Edward, but I'm pretty sure your mom's seen your penis.

1/16/2008 02:17:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Arghhh!!!!!!!, no, no, no. Make it go away!!!

Have a I mentioned that we're WASPs?

1/16/2008 02:25:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

What? They've only just now identified the Mona Lisa?

Then how in the world did E.L. Konigsburg write her entrancing and deeply romantic novel for young persons, The Second Mrs. Gioconda, which came out in 1975, on that very subject?

1/16/2008 02:56:00 PM  
Blogger Ben.H said...

I don't think that this discovery (if it's true) removes much mystery from the Mona Lisa at all: it's one of those phenomena whose reality has been eclipsed by mythology. There's never been any mystery over who wrote Shakespeare's poetry and plays, but that's never stopped people's feverish speculations over their authorship.

Besides, the revelation doesn't really tell us anything we didn't, deep down, suspect anyway. ("RENAISSANCE ITALIAN ARTIST IN MERCHANT CLASS PORTRAIT SHOCK!")

1/16/2008 03:18:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

P.S. I'd highly recommend that anyone suffering from a sense of loss go and read the Konigsburg book. It is poignancy incarnate.

1/16/2008 03:22:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

More like


conspiracy theorists are unstoppable but ignorable...I agree that it's still a remarkable and awe-inspiring painting, but that extra little edge of mystery is part of what I'm sure has made it among the most famous paintings in the world.

Then how in the world did E.L. Konigsburg write her entrancing and deeply romantic novel for young persons, The Second Mrs. Gioconda, which came out in 1975, on that very subject?

From what I've read, it seems that was the leading speculation for quite some time, but this recent discovery seems to provide the written proof lacking before hand. Here's another explanation.

1/16/2008 03:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh Boy!!!


Is History of Art 101,
you need to know who she was,
yes dears.

1/16/2008 04:50:00 PM  
Anonymous sharon said...

I wonder-- do you suppose it's not just that the mystery of the Mona Lisa disappears, but we also lose a piece of Leonardo's mythology as well?

I think -j. was sort of suggesting this, as well?

1/16/2008 05:20:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Ed sez:
Arghhh!!!!!!!, no, no, no. Make it go away!!!

Have a I mentioned that we're WASPs?

Good point. And one doesn't need to be a WASP to be horrified by the human body; my father is Italian and Polish and I've never seen him in anything less than his underwear. And that not often.

Still, let's try and be realistic. It's not like I'm asking you to keep in mind always that we're all naked under our clothes, which would surely make a normal life impossible.

1/16/2008 06:11:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I happen to know that Mrs. Giaconda was a priapic hermaphrodite.

Now you know.

I learned this through remote viewing time travel experiments conducted, remarkabley, in 1975 - this was before I had read anything by Edgar Cayce (which I will read in the future, according to my current studies) and well before I had sexual intercourse with that woman.

Drawing accurate anatomical models of the universe is taking up much of my time - but lest you worry that there is no mystery left to mankind, might I remind you of the limitations of consciousness and the somewhat erroneously labeled "quantum cat" and how its bag is now improbably lodged within my stomach (I'm due in six months).

beware the psychic mafia

1/16/2008 07:16:00 PM  

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