I'm always interested in the Franco-American popcult attraction, because we seem endlessly inspired by each other, in ways that neither would recognize in the original. It's this glorious misunderstanding that intrigues me so.
Take The Story of O, for example. From the American standpoint, L'Histoire d'O, is perhaps the most famous "erotic novel" ever written, the epitome of the S/M fantasy. It was written by a middle-aged woman, Anne Declos, to woo her lover back to her, when he appeared to be straying.
If you're American, and haven't read the book, thumbed the (French) graphic novel version, or watched the movie, you've missed a milestone. Not only was the title the subject of famous censorship, but decades later, it became an inspiration for the devoutly political lesbian feminist S/M movement. It's safe to say that a radical manifesto like Coming to Power owes a lot of juice to Little Ms. O.
I couldn't tell you what "O" signifies in French culture, but it certainly isn't part of a grassroots feminist radical-sex movement! That's hilarious. Americans imbue erotic liberation with gay and feminist fundamentals, but that's just not the case across the globe.
I've nearly given up telling acquaintances in France I'm a "feminist," because the word is understood so loftily there, I might as well say I'm a devotee of derivative string theory. Feminism in France doesn't signify all the "practical" things I think it means, even though they have a notorious history of feminist rebels from the French Revolution to today.
The disconnect between charismatic figures like Simone Beauvoir, versus the ordinary Frenchwoman going to work, minding her home— I don't get it. The country is as macho a society as any other classic Latin culture you might name. Even though women privately cluck over men's follies, men are so routinely deferred to, and groomed for superiority at every occasion, that it would make a typical working class American woman blow milk through her nose.
I'll give you another interesting example of recent note, that my expatriate friend Maxine explained to me.
Juno is a popular movie here right now, advertised in subways, and of great controversy. But the steam isn't about the abortion dilemma. No, the taboo in Juno is that the lead, played by Ellen Page, is a pretty young woman in her basic assets, yet she doesn't dress up as a "jolie jeune fille" ought to. She does not "adorn" herself, a key to French femininity. Juno's ragamuffin clothes and indifference to her external appearance, is a real shockeroo to their society. French audiences find Page endearing, and they are blown away that her beauty is "internal."
In Paris, I also stopped introducing myself as an "erotic" critic, or editor, because I think people imagined I was using a euphemism to express the fact that I was dealing in naughty postcards to fetishistic gentlemen, or... who knows what. I got odd looks.
In France, so much erotic inspiration is mainstream, it must seem extreme to make a point out of it. A new book, a movie, a painting, may examine a sexual relationship, but that's not "erotic," that's just life. It's more realistic to introduce myself by saying, "I'm a writer."
With this background, I was pleased to be given an introduction to the well-known artist, 1960s "Happenings" auteur, and self-described sexual liberation defender, Jean-Jacques Lebel.
Lebel had a new video he showed at the Pompidieu Center last week, called The Avatars of Venus. My partner and I were excited to go, and accepted his suggestion to attend.
Venus uses the technique of morphing— that classic Star Trekkie, music-video sensation, to view a vast erotica collection, all female nudes or pinups, melting from one to another, from every century, every style. It morphs from Willendorf to Jayne Mansfield to an unnamed 70s porn model. The screen is split in two; you watch dueling morph-Venuses in tandem.
Of course it was entertaining. My response was even more acute, since I'm sure I was the only person in the room besides Mr. Lebel to be deeply familiar with all of his images. I've gazed upon each one of these female portraits so many times, with so many questions.
Mr. Lebel's collection displayed women as fetching, fecund, curvy babes who pose to display and invite. They will fuck you and they will cherish you; they will adore you and open their legs. Gotta love'em!
Not present onscreen were prepubescents, androgynes, nor the slightly, or terribly, older. It wasn't diverse in that respect— and no one stipulated he needed it to be— but what "wasn't there" was as interesting to me as what was.
His video had no women's point of view about her sexual self interest. Every woman was posed as one would pose an eager pet. Now, this is nothing new; this IS the mainstream of female portraiture— I'm not daft. A lot of people outside the art or political world would look at this collection, and think, "Yeah, that's the sum-total of girlie pictures." It's the canon of celebrity and blockbuster entertainment.
But I can't imagine a contemporary American artist discussing or displaying the female body where the question of female POV wouldn't be addressed. It'd be as if you'd been locked in a bubble for the past thirty years.
It reminded me of the spectacle last year when the Republicans unveiled all their nominees for the next Presidential election, and each one of them was an aged white man. It went beyond quaint, and into the realm of "fuck-you."
Women artists transformed "cunt consciousness" in the late 60s, blew up the Madonna/whore pedestals— and fine art has never looked at female nudes the same way again. You don't have to be a cult fan of Nothing But the Girl to know this.
I puzzled over the girlie spectacle in silence. There was no soundtrack to Lebel's film. At one point, there was a pause, and an image of a veiled Muslim woman appeared, staring out at us with big eyes. I took that to mean, "Women are oppressed when they have to cover up and hide like this!" But I found myself contrarily endeared to this model, because she was the only one not broadcasting, "Hey there, sailor, new in town?"
The last film Lebel showed was a lengthy discourse between him and a critic about his documentation on the "Happenings" scene of the 1960s. The tone elevated each archival photograph of Lebel's events to a totemic level of modern artistic and political action.
True, it was a fond historical document, but it seemed Laugh-In-like chauvinistic to be so grave and unreflective about the nature of these performances... Cuban missile crisis? Show a nude chick. Vietnam tragedy? Parade a nude chick. Stop the bomb? Two nude chicks! Male nudity?— Mais non! The nude hippie girl models were swarmed with men with cameras, reminiscent of Paris Hilton and her paparazzi camp.
Since Lebel didn't take questions at the conclusion of his show, and departed with his companions, we didn't get to ask him, "Are we missing something? Are we blind with ethnocentrism? Has anyone mentioned to you...?"
But by chance, a week later, when we traveled to the South, we visited an old friend who knew Jean-Jacques back in the day. She said, "Oh god, what a hoot. Of course, he's been screamed at by everyone. He doesn't care. It's his 'e-rot-ic-a,'" she said, her lips arching each syllable.
Her laughter, as if to say, "Well, what do you expect?" made me to decide to never again use the word "erotic," in France, with a straight face.
The one I could follow was Yoko Ono's film, Bottoms, from 1966. Five and a half minutes. It's a continuous footage of oscillating derrieres, the crucifix of flesh between the buttocks, crossed by the fold where our thighs begin. I loved it.
Yoko and her friends are the anonymous models: men, women, young people, elderly. In many cases, you couldn't figure out, "Is it a boy or a girl?" The audience burst into nervous giggles as the fat bottoms, the saggy ones, made their appearance. No one had made A SOUND in the theater until these images appeared, so that caught my attention.
It wasn't embarrassing that they were nude, but it was embarrassing that they weren't firm, or lovely? Rather than puritanical nerves jangling, it was the upset of the un-cute.
Lebel introduced Yoko as being a dear friend of his. They both blossomed during the avant garde of the 1960s. He is a "fellow traveler" in the derring-do, the unfettered celebration of the body, but they sure have different exposures to gender politics!
I couldn't get enough of this stimulation. I had to return to the upstairs galleries at the Pompidieu. It is all Modern art, with piles of thrilling masterpieces crammed onto one white wall after another. Your stomach flip-flops because any one of them could transform your life— and yet the presentation of hundreds of them, in box-shaped rooms, like a demented force-feeding, makes you numb. You have to put on blinders.
Obviously, it's not just a problem at the Pompidieu... this is a sickness of many tourist-packed public spaces. As a museum-whore, fascinated with collections and obsessions, I suffer greatly.
One of them is Balthus. All of his paintings portray a psycho-sexual story that puts you on the cliff of your own id.
Balthus was controversial in his day, but perhaps even more so today, for his depiction of female sexual urges and frightening childhood bitterness.
Distressed critics said of him, "What a perverted voyeur!" But when you look at the years he painted, you have to wonder what it meant back then, and the way he projected his own life into his characters. If you understand, say, that homoerotic Slash fiction is the invention of mature heterosexual women, it makes all the sense to me that Balthus was, in his imagination, as much one of his girls as he was their observer, or longing admirer.
One of his more straightforward portraits at the Pompidieu is of a woman combing her hair, with her slip falling off, one leg on a chair. It's called "Alice," 1934, after Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.
Like all Balthus' work, it places Alice's sexual confrontation, as well as her body, in full view. She's arresting, a little spooky, the kind of work new observers might question, "Why does it feel 'pornographic,' when it's simply a female nude like a thousand others in here?"
She's not demure. Her sex is not hidden. Balthus was unusual among modern artists to provoke these reactions from the very beginning.
Because I was in France, I thought that the descriptive index card next to the painting would offer a dull blurb on the artist. Most of these "cards" are unfailingly boring.
But instead, this description, and this description ALONE— among the entire third and fourth floor of artwork— was in a state of hysteria. To wit:
This nude is all the more disturbing for its having been painted from a clearly identifiable model, a friend of the painters called Betty Holland. Entirely recognizable then, Betty/Alice's charming face and blond hair are contradictorily strange and disturbing. As are the outsize breast, the too-narrow waist, the thick legs, the small childish feet, and above all, the distinctly adult vulva on view in the middle of the painting to which ones gaze always returns with the same disquiet.
What on earth is a "distinctly adult vulva?" The model was a 23-year-old woman! Are vulvas supposed to be discreet slits that never dare take the center of a portrait? Narrow waists, thick legs, unmatched pendulous breasts— guess what? That's normal variety in female physique!
After all, it's apparently Bettie, and everyone knew it was Bettie, because of those darn thick legs! What on earth is shocking about recognizing a master painter's model? Many were notorious in their own right.
I was so taken aback by this guilty little apology of a rat-card, that I stupidly asked one of the museum "minders" if they had anyone in charge, to whom I could protest! In my worst French, I said, "Why do you show the painting if you're ashamed of it, and sickened by women's sexuality?" (Pourquoi montrez cette peinture si vous ont horrifiés d'elle?)
So, I put it to you... since I have a scattershot knowledge of art history. The one thing I know well is sexual representation. I expected the French museum world to be old-school, but not the least puritanical about a Polish/French legend of modern (or actually anti-modernist) art. What am I missing?
Obviously, you aren't going to get any kind of decent reproduction, but what one discovers instead, is that YOU get to interact with the work by capturing it with various people relating to the artwork, or focusing on some detail, that makes it personal to you. I had a ball posing with paintings and sculptures, or finding perfect expressions of other visitors in action.
I would've given anything to be quick enough to capture the gaggle of twelve-year-old girls who walked up to "Alice," as part of their school field trip. They screamed with laughter and surprise, some half-covering their eyes. The little queen bee among them, braces flashing, pointed her finger right at the center of the painting, at that "large" vulva, and yelled, "There! Look! At! That!"
Photos: Brigitte Bardot, Venus of Willendorf, Bettie Page, Yoko Ono at screening of her "Bottoms," Balthus' "Alice" at the Pompidieu, a man viewing the same, and me with Cy Twombly.