Photography reviewed in Culture Wars, 5 November 2007
“Ocultos” Fundación Canal Madrid : ended January 2008.
Dr Johnson would have loved it, and so would my eleven-year-old son. The Great Cham had Boswell & co. rolling on the floor when he absently-mindedly remarked of a certain lady that she ‘had a bottom of good sense.’ Before the laughter had a chance to die down, Johnson showed he was as deft as any talk show host at the art of split-second recovery: ‘Where’s the merriment? I say the woman was fundamentally sensible.’
It is in that frame of mind that one should visit the show at the former Madrid Water Works. ‘Ocultos’ (a pun, yes, though a strained one, culo being Spanish for bottom) brings together a cull (so much for self-restraint) of photographs in which prominent practitioners of the art depict or evoke the posterior parts of human anatomy. You should not expect anything so obvious as just having the photographer shoot a picture while the subject is shooting the moon, though. Well, all right, just one, then, by Jeanloup Sieff.
Painting, to be sure, has not exactly neglected the nether regions, as we are reminded in a text quoting Titian to his patron, Spain’s King Philip II, in which the painter slyly anticipates that his fleshy rear view of ‘Venus and Adonis’ will be ‘even more agreeable to His Majesty’. Personally, I’m a big fan of Burne-Jones’ nude cutie Andromeda, but for some reason, hers have always struck me as being unremittingly British buttocks. Flabby but unyielding, like Churchill. More in my line is the reddish-brown peach sported by the Polynesian girl in Gauguin’s ‘Spirit of the Dead Watching’.
The Madrid photos eschew the selectively idiosyncratic for the sake of wideness of range and loose entry requirements. Representations are allowed, as well as the real thing, which means we get to revisit a 1961 classic by the grand old man of Spanish photographers, Ramón Masats, of Prado museum-goers contemplating Rubens' 'Three Graces'. The tell-tale tricorne hat on one viewer (then, as now, standard issue Civil Guard gear) and tilted head of the lady sitting next to him make it clear that scandal and stupefaction are in the air. In more modern reading of the same image might have them commiserating with the three ladies’ serious cellulitis issues.
My favorite depiction of depiction is Robert Doisneau’s 'Regard oblique', in which a middle-aged couple oozing bourgeois respectability is seen through the art dealer’s front window into which they are peering, the woman intently talking up one of the pieces while the husband’s beady eyes are riveted on the buns of a Renoir-like bathing beauty over on the opposite side of the frame.
Though the contents are fundamentally sensible, I’ll admit I don’t think much of the packaging. In accordance with somebody’s idea of mock titillation, the walls have been papered with New Orleans bordello plush and doors fitted with peep holes through which can be seen a slide show of the 67 photographs hung throughout the underground galleries that used to be the distribution hub for Madrid’s incoming fresh water supply. Do they really think the lechers of yesteryear didn’t insist on full frontal? That’s what the nightclub patrons in Burt Glinn’s ‘A Stripper at the Club Samoa on 52nd Street’ from 1949 would have liked, though it’s clear the nudies are wearing body stockings.
Though humor and pornography rely equally on exaggeration, none of the pieces here strike me as terribly erotic. Herb Ritts is up to his usual, although for once Mapplethorpe is restrained in his Ken Moody gatefold of the month. Susan Meiselas gives us a rent-by-the-hour dominatrix and the red welts she has inflicted on some character’s pathetic behind, while Man Ray captures Paul Eluard’s muse, Nusch, in silhouette (but a butt with only two dimensions is not that interesting). Marilyn Monroe (with her trademark ‘Oops, excuse me!’ glance over the shoulder) appears half-draped in Eve Arnold’s photo, her emergent behind illustrating Plato’s paradigm of the whole that acquires a nominative identity in a manner ontologically distinct from its parts.
It may seem surprising that the proportion of bare to clothed (or semi-covered) is pretty close to even, but photographically it makes all kinds of sense. The same rough parity exists between male and female, depending on how you count the toddler in Robert Capa’s scene from an Israeli kibbutz. Best in show as far as I am concerned is Willy Ronis’ view from 1949 of his wife getting up after a late afternoon nap, classical in its interplay of Provençal sunlight, shadow, form and texture, the textbook definition of photographic intimism. Why isn’t there more of this man’s work on display in places where I am likely to see it?
I was also drawn to a distant nymph on a seacliff prominence by Fernando Manso, with its Maxfield Parrish overtones, and Harry Callahan’s ‘Eleanor by the Radiator’, Eleanor supplying the curves and the radiator the straight lines. Surprisingly good, though derivative, was a photo by Josep Renau, the one-time Commissar of Fine Arts for the Spanish Republic who persuaded Picasso to paint 'Guernica'. Renau spent most of his life in East Berlin, his photography underwritten by Stalinist sinecures, where he died in 1982 after deciding he didn’t much care for what democracy was doing for Spain.
In the covered culo category, kudos go to Isabel Muñoz, by far the most interesting Spanish photographer on the scene, absolutely the best. Her close-up of a Cuban dancer in a tight, tight dress evokes a spinner’s spindle and a child’s wooden top, but one that is unquestionably made out of living flesh. As usual, Muñoz‘s work has been expertly printed by the photographer herself. Nobody comes anywhere near to her when it comes to getting gelatin silver or platinum to sing.
Some (Joan Fontcuberta, Claude Fauville) highlight the plastic properties of the human rump as it is squeezed, kneaded, displaced or otherwise deformed either by human agency (hands) or by the camera (Bill Brandt, Andre Kermes, Manuel Seneca). Others, like Rafael Navarro, take us up close and personal to highlight the surface area exposed by the outward thrust of the gluteus Maximus, with all its pores, moles and cellulite dimples.
Predictably, a fair number zero in on extra-large tonnage type posteriors, starting with William Klein, who, being William Klein, makes a beeline for the obvious, in this case a crouching sumo wrestler approached from low and behind. At the opposite end is Eikoh Hosoe, who extracts essence of Brancusi from a pair of tightly compressed legs and unobtrusive hemispheric crack.
Never will there be a better chance to put to the test Kenneth Tynan’s claim that ‘the buttocks are the most aesthetically pleasing part of the body because they are non-functional. Although they conceal an essential orifice, these pointless globes are as near as the human form can ever come to abstract art’. He forgot to add that what makes it even more fascinating is that it is the major part of our bodies we never get to see, but others certainly do.