I don’t recall ever having erotic musings at a museum. Until today.
But I also don’t recall seeing a posting at the entry of an exhibit, a warning that explicit content lay ahead, possibly unsuitable for children.
But there it was. And there I was in front of Felicien Rops’ “For You, General.” A mild flush on my face – Artist’s Date 29.
I returned to the Art Institute of Chicago for “Undressed: The Fashion of Privacy,” an adjunct exhibit to the newly opened “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity,” which I saw last week – Artist Date 28.
I liked the name. It reminded me of my strong belief in really good underwear – or none at all, which my friend Clover reminded me of when she was visiting last week. She came out of the bathroom smiling.
“Right…really good underwear,” she said, referring to the lacy bits drying over the shower rod and towel bars. We giggled knowingly.
There is very little underwear in “Undressed” – but a lot of vulnerable nakedness.
Sketches and paintings in all array of medium. Women bathing. Dressing. Masturbating. Breast feeding.
Mothers. Prostitutes. Children. Defined spines. Soft lines and folds of skin.
They remind me of something Geneen Roth wrote in her book When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair or 50 Ways to Feel Gorgeous and Happy (When You Feel Anything But). Suggestion 25: Stare at Normal Women’s Bodies (Normal Does Not Include Models, Actresses, and Elite Athletes).
I’ve done this at women’s spas. Sitting in the dry sauna, noticing dimpled thighs and buttocks. Six-pack abs and round bellies – some large and pendulous, obscuring any hint of pubic hair. Breast implants perched nearly at shoulder height. Mastectomies. Single and double, with and without reconstruction.
Pierced nipples. Pierced navels. C-section scars. My own scars. Two faded purple lines running vertically from my areolas to the folds under my breasts.
Sometimes I forget what real bodies look like. How they move in the world. I am reminded.
Degas’ “The Tub.” A bronze sculpture of a woman submerged in water, her leg outstretched, washing her foot.
Klimt’s “Seated Woman from The Front with Hat, Face Hooded.” Wispy lines of pastel pencil. Her legs are spread and her hands are between them. A large hat lazily tilted over her face.
Lautrec’s ”Woman in Bed – Waking.” She is turned toward me, one sleepy eye just opening. Sexy. Soft. So different from his prostitute in “Debauchery” –a hazy, colored drawing of a woman being groped from behind. His hands over her breasts. Her arm extended, a martini-shaped glass dangling from her hand.
There are men too.
Delacroix’s “Standing Academic Male Nude.” Chiseled. Holding a stick, he appears to be rapping it onto his flat hand –a threatening gesture. As if preparing to punish some innocent, or not so innocent.
As if HE is the general Rops’ alludes to in “For You, General” – an old woman holding a younger one over her knee, her buttocks exposed, an offering. The girl’s bunched up skirt covers her face. The old woman is smiling.
Munch’s “Boys Bathing 1896.” Like tadpoles. “Boys Bathing 1899.” Like many letter X’s, like many little frogs. “Men Bathing.” Like figures from a Hatch Show Print poster –iconic wood-block images made in Nashville, announcing the Grand Ole Opry and Johnny Cash.
There are children. Rafaelli’s “Germaine At Her Toilette.” A young girl in a white dressing gown, her black tights wrinkled and baggy at the knees. Even religious icons. Munch’s “Madonna,” like an album cover or t-shirt from a 70’s rock band. Bands of colors tracing her image. And who is the small character in the bottom left corner, seemingly questioning all of this?
I notice the few pieces by women. Just a few — always. Suzanne Valadon sketches. Mary Cassatt paintings. Her style is bright. Animated.
I peer deeply into black and white woodcuts. I love their simplicity, their precision. And yet, I am not quite sure what I see.
I come close and step away and come close again. It reminds me of the drawings on the back page of children’s magazines. The ones that ask “Do you see the old woman or the young woman?” Where once you see one, it is impossible to see the other.
It is the same with Vuillard’s “The Birth of Annette.” Finally, after many minutes, I see the baby’s head.
Perhaps that is the point. The experience of “Undressed,” of being undressed, is so intimate, so private. I am an invited voyeur. It is not mine to fully know.