The Victorians were right about Rodin

Miss Fowler-Tutt was a better interpreter of `The Kiss' than we are. She saw it was arousing
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The Independent Culture
THE KISS is back in Sussex. At the beginning of the century, a gay Sussex aesthete, E P Warren, commissioned Rodin to produce a version of his famous statue. In 1914, he offered it to the town of Lewes for public display. Local opinion, however, led by one Kate Fowler-Tutt, was strongly opposed to the frankness of the statue, which, it was argued, would inflame the passions of the local soldiers. The campaign succeeded and the statue was removed in 1917, and sold after Warren's death. Only now has it returned to Lewes, lent by the Tate Gallery, which now owns it.

The history of The Kiss in Lewes was reported in a highly superior manner by the newspapers, as an amusing example of post-Victorian morals, like that old chestnut about covering up piano legs. But I must say, I see Miss Fowler-Tutt's point on this one. She was a much better interpreter of The Kiss than we are. She saw that it was intended to be erotically arousing; she saw that it was overpoweringly sexy, and she was absolutely right. Wanting to ban it, she saw a lot more of the meaning of the statue than today's art-appreciation bores who prefer, in some dubious spirit of prudery, to see a lump of marble and don't see Rodin's frank enjoyment of a gorgeous pair of bodies.

It's quite amazing how thoroughly sex has dropped out of art. It almost seems in bad taste to talk about nudes in terms of their sexual appeal. At best, it seems an unworthy and trivial response to great art.

Martin Amis, somewhere or other, has a very funny passage about a champion masturbator locked in an aesthetic house for the afternoon, and having to pleasure himself with the aid of the Rokeby Venus. But, actually, isn't that quite a good response to Velazquez? How many people have stood in front of the Rokeby Venus and mouthed the usual art-appreciation stuff about the sensuous texture of the grey silk and the rich simplicity of the design, and somehow guided their mind away from one of the reasons Velazquez painted it, the model's champion bum?

Art is sexy, of course it is. And it's important to realise that it was often produced in a spirit of sexiness, and those Victorian divisions between pornography and high art have nothing whatever to do with the original intentions of the artist.

There's something deeply weird about our refusal to acknowledge that something can be both a great work of art and sexually arousing. It is an item of faith, when we look at art, that if it is pornographic it cannot be great art, and vice versa. Greatness acts as a kind of anti-aphrodisiac; the masterly handling of the paint in Titian's nudes mean that they may be gazed upon by the most innocent and seen to be about as arousing as a still life.

I don't see it, and I don't think most artists before Ruskin would have seen it either. And certainly, now that the Victorians have instilled in us the conviction that no great art can possibly be unfit for the innocent gaze, you come across some fairly startling things on gallery walls; things which were originally meant to be locked away in private cabinets.

There's a great painting by Fragonard in Munich of a girl using a spaniel to masturbate with, and a superb bedroom scene in the Louvre, The Bolt, which makes it absolutely plain that the man has an erection. Hogarth's Before and After were always regarded as fairly innocent, it is said, until they were cleaned in the 1970s and shown to be more frank than anyone suspected. Why do you suppose Caravaggio painted the same sorts of men over and over? Quite simply, he found them sexually desirable, and meant us to see that desire.

Once, in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I saw one of those terrifying American mothers inflicting art-appreciation on her 13-year-old son, and choosing Les Demoiselles d'Avignon for the purpose. "What do you think? Is it Cubist, or is it Surrealist?" she was asking the poor boy, who, judging by his blushes, saw very well that this was not primarily an example of a school of painting, but a picture of some naked whores. Well, he will grow up, and realise that we don't talk about that sort of thing in civilised surroundings. But I bet Picasso meant us to.

Altogether, I think that Miss Fowler-Tutt's response to The Kiss is a perfectly admissible one. It isn't seeing smut where none was intended. Warren, who commissioned the sculpture, made the specific request that the man's genitals be distinctly depicted. Rodin meant it to be incredibly sexy; Miss Fowler-Tutt saw that perfectly, and didn't like it. But she was a much better reader of Rodin's intentions than those contemporaries who see only great art in it, which cannot possibly be sexually arousing.

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