Back to Archive

Discrepancies Between Art Historical and Psychoanalytic Interpretations of Avant-Garde Painting:  Fry and Greenberg contra Balint and Fairbairn by Donald Kuspit

Venus de Milo with Drawers, 1936 (Click Here to View Work) is also grotesque, and a satiric debunking  of classical form--something that Fairbairn is unlikely to appreciate, considering his remark that “it is hard to imagine any more convincing attempt to establish the integrity” of the object than Greek art, especially Greek sculpture, with its “perfection of form and purity of line.”  And why doesn’t Fairbairn note where the drawers are placed in the Greek goddess’s body?  Why doesn’t he note that that sacks of grain on the body of the Specter of Sex Appeal  substitute for her breasts, suggesting that they may be nourishing, or at least not depleted, despite the ugliness that makes her repulsive and hard to approach and look at, and certainly difficult and dangerous to relate to.  She is certainly not sexually appealing--the work is clearly ironical and ambivalent--let alone emotionally inviting.  Is she a cannibal, in need of replenishing; the sacks are ready to be taken to market and sold, suggesting she may be a prostitute, like those in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.  Does she feed on innocent young boys--she is death, as her skeletal part suggests--eager for their first sexual experience with a woman if unable to consummate it?  Is the picture about that frustration?  Young Catholic men often had their first sexual experience with prostitutes, although it has been suggested that Dali had a homosexual relationship with Lorca, also a Catalonian.         

But I am less interested in Fairbairn’s neglected observations and general indifference to the complex symbolic import of Dali’s inventive painting--inevitable when it is taken out of cultural and historical context--than in his failure to attend to its physical slickness and representation of the body.  Both establish the physical presence of the work.  The picture is about corporeality:  different bodies, each with its own unique presence and expressive quality:  the boy’s immature body, the woman’s perversely ripe if broken and angular body, and the roughhewn body of the raw terrain, ironically mirroring the woman’s--or is it the other way around?--in its barrenness and cragginess.  And, perhaps above all, the physical slickness of the picture’s surface.  From the esthetic perspective of Fry and Greenberg, Fairbairn is insensitive to its “sensational” character, more particularly, the esthetic and expressive resonance of Dali’s colors and lines:  the subtly modulated browns, inlaid with brittle colors, of the mountains, abruptly contrasting with the blue sky, and the edgy lines of the figures and landscape, all embalmed in the slick surface.  This exquisitely smooth, peculiarly ideal surface gives the picture a petrified look, confirmed by the absolute stillness of the scene.  The colors and lines, meticulously rendered, underpin the representation, giving the picture inner substance and abstract complexity.  They are the formal platform for an array of unexpected and provocative sensations--more durably provocative and stimulating than the scene itself.  Its novelty quickly wears off with familiarity. 

It is they that unconsciously disturb and unsettle the complacency of the man in the street however consciously disturbing and unsettling the female figure.  She is in fact disturbing because she is not sexual--even anti-sexual.  That is what makes her exciting, more exciting than if she was sexually appealing.  She has been stripped of her sexuality, and with that our desire for her, just as modern architecture has been stripped of stimulating ornament, and with that of emotional excitement and expressive aura.  But she is a ramshackle, jerry-built structure not a rationalistic International Style building, and blends into the landscape, as Fairbairn suggests when he notes that her head merges with the mountains.  Her hideous body is certainly a far cry from the voluptuous odalisques of traditional art.  But, as I will later argue, without the “’tearing in pieces’ tendency” evident in her figure, leading to the destruction of the man in the street common sense manner of representing the human figure--a mode of intelligibility and representation that completely collapses in Analytic Cubism at its 1911-12 peak--the intense sensations embedded in and emanating from Dali’s picture (subliminally present in the representation, as it were, yet visible to the unprejudiced pre-reflective eye, that is, the eye not completely formed and tamed by theory that tells it how to look and what to see)--would neither be evident nor experienced, certainly not as concrete ends in themselves.



Next                                   Previous

Per Contra Spring 2007