Nostalgic for sleaze, part II: Nazis, nuns, and wicked prison wardens.

In my previous blog post, I waxed nostalgic over the print advertisements for grindhouse theatres that appeared in the newspapers back in the 1970’s, the heyday of exploitation cinema. I felt the need to establish my long-term relationship with these films, in order to provide context for the discussion that follows. As you’ll soon read, the relationship I have with exploitation cinema is a conflicted one. It’s highly reminiscent of those teenage Bad Boys I yearned for in high school: appealing in their dangerous good-looks and rule-breaking nonconformity, but essentially all abusive jerks. Simply put, exploitation cinema isn’t always kind in its treatment of women.

But before we delve too much further, let’s trot out the standard definition of ‘exploitation film‘ as offered up by Wikipedia:

Exploitation film is a type of film that is promoted by “exploiting” often lurid subject matter. The term exploitation is common in film marketing, used for all types of films to mean promotion or advertising. These films then need something to exploit, such as a big star, special effects, sex, violence, romance, etc. […] The audiences of art and exploitation film are both considered to have tastes that reject the mainstream Hollywood offerings. […] Exploitation films may adopt the subject matter and styling of regular film genres, particularly horror films and documentary films, and their themes are sometimes influenced by other so-called exploitative media, such as pulp magazines.

Typically, the exploitation film was a low-budget B-movie, created as cheap, double-feature fodder for drive-in theatres. In order to attract audiences, they promised risqué content not offered by mainstream Hollywood productions. Sex and violence frequently intermingled, and were served up as an intoxicating cocktail of naughtiness. Hence, many of the exploitation subgenres — including the three I’ll examine here — contain copious amounts of nudity and sexualized violence.

As mentioned in my previous post, I shall focus my discussion on three subgenres of exploitation cinema: nunsploitation, WIP (Women in Prison) films, and Naziploitation. Apart from the fact that I typically write about depictions of gender in film, I wanted to address these particular subgenres for the simple reason that they are variations on the exact same narrative. And this narrative runs as follows:

A sadistic lesbian [Mother Superior/prison warden/Nazi Stalag Commandant] oversees the naked torture and general abuse of her attractive female wards. A young ingénue enters the [convent/prison/concentration camp] and must overcome great obstacles. She ultimately escapes, and her tormentor/s receive their final comeuppance.

Now, let’s parse this narrative. The variable same-sex settings — convent, prison or concentration camp (essentially another form of prison) — provide the excuse and opportunity for lesbian sex. This is the same sort of lipstick-lesbian fantasy that frequents pornography produced for heterosexual men. Presumably, the buxom women that populate these films are (mostly) lesbian by circumstance, rather than true sexual preference. This detail maintains the fantasy element for its predominantly male audience, who can enjoy the lesbian spectacle onscreen, while their belief in the inherent heterosexuality of these female characters remains intact.

The same-sex settings also provide opportunity for a second, considerably more sinister element: violence perpetrated on women by other women. Given the context of the various scenarios, this violence takes the form of ritualized or systematic abuse and torture. The cruel prison warden portrayed by Pam Grier in Women in Cages (1971) derives sadistic pleasure from the physical punishment of her female wards. Similarly, the Mother Superior from Joe D’Amato’s Images in a Convent (1979) vents her sexual frustration on one of her nuns through ritualistic flogging. The Nazi Stalag Commandant from Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974) tortures her female prisoners with the curiously-misguided goal of proving female superiority over men. Is all this girl-on-girl violence merely the cinematic equivalent of a catfight, or is there something more menacing at play here?

Flogging constitutes a form of foreplay in Joe D’Amato’s raunchy “Images in a Convent” (1979).

One possible theory I have is that girl-on-girl violence seems less sinister and realistic than violence perpetrated on women by men, and thus more palatable to an audience in the context of an exploitation film. It can argued that the poorly-written scripts, implausible scenarios and less-than-stellar acting commonly found in these films tends to undercut any convincing menace in a torture scene. When you also factor in the high camp of a Nazi Commandant whose ample bosom threatens to burst out from her fetishistic SS uniform — well, it all seems more absurd than truly sinister.

But none of this answers the question “why is sex and violence so often paired together in these films?” I’ll attempt to tackle this big question in my next blog post.

My Demon Lover: the mythology of the incubus.

“Inkubus” (photograph, 2005) by contemporary German visual artist Michael Hutter.

The incubus is a demon in male form — the female equivalent is called a succubus — who, according to different mythologies and legends throughout the world, lies upon women whilst they sleep in order to have sexual intercourse with them. In the Middle Ages, belief in demons who sexually preyed on humans assuaged a sleeping person’s shame and guilt over nocturnal emissions and other physical evidence of erotic dreams. Primarily, however, the incubus legend functioned as a convenient means to conceal incest and other types of sexual assault upon girls and women who had no unchaperoned access to men outside the home, but had nonetheless become inexplicably pregnant.

In contrast to the sleeping rape victims of medieval yore, the women that populate the photographic work of contemporary visual artist Michael Hutter are both wide awake and engaged in consensual coupling with their respective incubi. In the sepia-coloured photo-collage entitled Inkubus, a nude woman sporting a 1920’s flapper-style bob receives an amorous lick from the tiny demon lover perched on her shoulder. In The Alien Nurse, the erotic-grotesque combines with Victorian fetishism as a blindfolded “wet-nurse” offers up her breast to a curious intestinal/tentacled alien blob. In subsequent photo-collages, the wet-nurse discovers new and even more intimate uses for the alien tentacle, recalling shokushu goukan or ‘tentacle erotica’ of contemporary Japanese hentai.

“Die Alienamme (The alien nurse)”, photograph, 2006 by Michael Hutter.

The work of German artist Michael Hutter ranges from ink drawings on paper reminiscent of the Victorian kinkiness of Aubrey Beardsley’s Lysistrata, to the retro-inspired photo-collages you see here.  Visit his online gallery to see for yourself, though perhaps not whilst at the office.

A Diabolical Decadence: Charles Baudelaire, Félicien Rops and the “Flowers of Evil.”

Come on my heart, cruel and insensible soul,
My darling tiger, beast with indolent airs;
I want to plunge for hours my trembling fingers
In your thick and heavy mane;

In your petticoats filled with your perfume
To bury my aching head,
And breathe, like a faded flower,
The sweet taste of my dead love.

I want to sleep, to sleep and not to live,
In a sleep as soft as death,
I shall cover with remorseless kisses
Your body beautifully polished as copper.

To swallow my appeased sobbing
I need only the abyss of your bed;
A powerful oblivion lives on your lips,
And all Lethe flows in your kisses.

I shall obey, as though predestined,
My destiny, that is now my delight;
Submissive martyr, innocent damned one,
My ardor inflames my torture,

And I shall suck, to drown my bitterness
The nepenthe and the good hemlock,
On the lovely tips of those jutting breasts
Which have never imprisoned love.

— Geoffrey Wagner, Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (NY: Grove Press, 1974). English translation of the poem Le Léthé by Charles Baudelaire from Fleurs du mal (1857).

Mysterious occult rituals, orgiastic parties and experiments with hallucinatory drugs: sounds like one of the notorious “acid test” road trips by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, right? While this does neatly summarize the wild merry-making of the Pranksters and the 1960’s hippie counterculture, what I’m describing above is instead the naughty behaviour of a much earlier group of non-conformists and bohemians: the Decadents of the late 19th-century.

Etching & aquatint by Félicien Rops (1896).

The Decadence Movement was a fin de siècle artistic and literary style of Western Europe, primarily France. Fin de siècle or “end of the century” refers to the latter two decades of the 19th-century that were characterized by boredom, cynicism, and pessimism as well as an anxiety over the change that is inevitable in the ending of a century. While the term “decadent” was originally applied as a pejorative by critics of the style, writers and artists such as Charles Baudelaire and Félicien Rops eagerly adopted this label as a further act of defiance against the restrictive social mores they perceived in contemporary European society. For the most part, the Decadents were influenced by the tradition of Gothic novels and by the poetry and fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, and were associated with (but distinct from) Symbolism. The progenitor of Decadence was Baudelaire, and his poetry collection Les Fleurs du mal (‘The Flowers of Evil’, 1857) is considered by literary historians as a seminal work of Decadent writing. Steeped in a fashionably brooding melancholia and an almost morbid eroticism, Baudelaire’s poetry was targeted by French censors for its bold lasciviousness:

 

The author and the publisher were prosecuted under the regime of the Second Empire as an outrage aux bonnes mœurs (trans. “an insult to public decency”). As a consequence of this prosecution, Baudelaire was fined 300 francs. Six poems from the work were suppressed and the ban on their publication was not lifted in France until 1949. These poems were “Lesbos”, “Femmes damnés (À la pâle clarté)” (or “Women Doomed (In the pale glimmer…)”), “Le Léthé” (or “Lethe”), “À celle qui est trop gaie” (or “To Her Who Is Too Gay”), “Les Bijoux” (or “The Jewels”), and ” Les “Métamorphoses du Vampire” (or “The Vampire’s Metamorphoses”). These were later published in Brussels in a small volume entitled Les Épaves (Jetsam). — from Wikipedia.

Lithograph known alternately as “Black Mass” or “Calvary”, by Félicien Rops.

The Belgian visual artist Félicien Rops met Baudelaire towards the end of the poet’s life, and this meeting had a great impact on the career of the young artist. An accomplished printmaker, Rops illustrated many literary works including Baudelaire’s Les Épaves, a selection of poems for which he created the frontispiece. Like the works of the authors whose poetry he illustrated, Rops work tends to mingle sex, death, and Satanic images. He held a lifelong fascination with the femme fatale, an image of womankind that served as a dark and sinister Muse to that generation of Decadent artists. Of his views of Woman, Félicien Rops wrote: “Therefore it is his era, the end of the 19th century, that he [the artist] expresses through his graphic work, structured mainly around the themes of love, suffering and death, with the central unifying theme of the woman, la femme fatale in the full meaning of the word. Through her he portrays his vision of his era. Woman is Satan’s accomplice, and becomes the supreme attraction which provokes the most extreme vices and torments in Man, a mere puppet.” (an English translation of a quote taken from the Museum of Félicien Rops web site.)

Counting myself amongst the legion of “Satan’s accomplices”, I can easily admire the lewd and grotesque aspects of Rops, even as he does occasionally verge on a kind of vulgar kitsch. The unabashed sexuality of Rops lends a quality of surprising modernity to the work and gives it a contemporary feel, even as it dates from well over 100 years ago.

Horror Films 101: Harry Kümel’s “Daughters of Darkness” (1971)

Delphine Seyrig channels Marlene Dietrich in her portrayal of the infamous Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you are already familiar with my admiration — one might even say, obsession — for European horror films from the 1960’s and 70’s. What these films often lacked in budget, they more than made up for with stunning visuals and style. Of course, when you have a 1000+ years of art and culture sitting at your doorstep, it’s difficult not to look fabulous. Such is the case for Harry Kümel’s highly stylized erotic vampire film Daughters of Darkness (1971). From the architecture of the grand hotel on the Belgian seafront, to the shimmering sequins of Delphine Seyrig’s evening gown and the blonde waves of her 1930’s bob hairstyle, everything and everyone looks beautiful.

Author David Chute wrote an elegant summary of Daughters of Darkness for the recent Blu-Ray release of the Kümel classic which accurately captures the mood of the film:

Art-movie goddess Delphine Seyrig (Last Year at Marienbad) slinks through the plush Eurotrash settings as the deathless Elizabeth Bathory, Vampire Countess, in Harry Kümel’s minor Dutch classic of lesbian erotic-gothic. Blood mingles with water during the languorous shower scenes. Set at an upper-crust seaside resort, the 1971 film recounts Bathory’s plot to replace her current consort (Andrea Rau) with a fresher specimen, an abused newlywed whose brutal young husband is an inconvenience waiting to be eliminated. Although both the bi-sex and the neck-biting violence are tame by today’s standards, the film has a graceful, gliding sense of pace that gets under your skin; something unspeakably kinky always seems to be just about to happen. It never quite does, but the mood lingers. See it with someone you love–or would like to. –David Chute

Stefan (John Karlen) gets all hot and bothered as he and Elizabeth recount the many tortures inflicted upon the victims of the bloodthirsty Countess Báthory.

The phrase “…something unspeakably kinky always seems to be just about to happen…” instantly leapt out at me when I first read Chute’s summary, as this echoes my own experience with the film. If David Lynch had been making Eurotrash vampire films in the 1970’s, he’d probably make a film much like this one. From our first glimpse of the Countess, as she glides out from the backseat of her Bentley and up to the desk of the hotel concierge, there is an unmistakable atmosphere of kink. The camera tightly focuses on the gleaming patent leather of her high black boots as she steps from the car, an image that says fetish more than it does vampire. It is quickly apparent that the relationship between Elizabeth and her “secretary” Ilona has little to do with typing memos, and the scene in which Ilona crouches obediently at Elizabeth’s feet clearly establishes their dominant/submissive lifestyle arrangement. Of course, a bisexual female vampire with a taste for BDSM isn’t an entirely uncommon entity in the realms of horror fiction. The true wild card in Kümel’s film lies in the character of Stefan, the secretive husband prone to fits of violent rage. His rather prurient interest in sexual sadism becomes apparent when he recounts the legend of the bloodthirsty Countess Báthory, writhing with erotic pleasure as he describes the tortures inflicted upon her victims. Later in the film, he savagely beats his wife Valerie with his belt. And then there’s the whole matter of his “mother,” whom he’s mysteriously reluctant to introduce to his new bride. The scene below, where Stefan gives his ol’ Mum a call, is gloriously creepy:

My favourite moment of that scene is when the butler kneels down before Mother, and “Mother” reaches out to pet his bald head in the way one would a family dog. The butler reacts, but only mildly, before he walks away in silence. Kink abounds, but its only ever hinted at.

As the film nears its finale, the body count predictably rises. Ilona slips in the shower and falls upon a straight razor. The abusive Stefan gets his final comeuppance by way of a glass fruit bowl. Yes, fruit bowl. The Countess herself meets her end impaled on an unfortunately located tree branch as she is pitched from her crashing car. The sole survivor Valerie keeps the Báthory legend alive by donning Elizabeth’s fetching black PVC cape — complete with bat-wing trim and campy-vamp high collar — and seductively sidling up to a young couple.

Walerian Borowczyk’s “La bête” (‘The Beast’)

Horror at the discovery of the slaughtered lamb and bear-like Beast in the surrealistic dream sequence.

I wanted to revisit a film I’d mentioned in the previous post on Walerian Borowczyk. This blog entry introduced the work of Polish filmmaker Borowczyk and offered a brief analysis of his softcore films created in the mid-1970s. His most notorious and controversial film La bête (‘The Beast’, 1975) was released shortly after Contes immoraux (‘Immoral Tales’, 1974) and was, in fact, an expansion of a sequence originally shot for the earlier anthology. This sequence consisted of a rather cheeky retelling of the Beauty & The Beast fairytale as only Borowczyk’s ribald imagination could envision. An aristocratic woman in a powdered wig is roused from her harpsichord by the sudden disappearance of a lamb outside the window of her country manor. She ventures into the nearby forest in search of the lamb, only to discover its carcass being gnawed on by an enormous, bear-like creature. Presumably fearing for her life, the woman screams and runs through the forest in a frenzied manner that quite effectively removes all of her clothing save for her corset and stockings. In close pursuit, the Beast appears visibly aroused by the semi-nude woman, as evidenced by the absurdly large phallus it sports. The woman is eventually captured by the creature, who performs oral sex on her whilst she hangs from a tree branch in a futile attempt at escape. Her wild protestations soon vanish and she surrenders to the erotic attentions of the Beast in one of cinema’s most bizarre, and hilarious, sex scenes.

Sweet, sweet loving between Beauty and her Beast. Walt Disney, this ain’t.

If the text on the DVD package is accurate, La bête was banned for the past 25 years in the UK on the grounds of its depictions of bestiality. If true, this would strongly suggest that the British censors possessed neither imagination nor a sense of humour. The sex depicted in this sequence lacks any sense of realism and is clearly meant as a darkly comedic farce of the romantic relationship typically found in the traditional Beauty & the Beast fairytale. Borowczyk’s penchant for the grotesque also shapes the scene. A man in a bear suit touting an enormous prosthetic penis is grotesque, ridiculous and not-so-vaguely perverted, but it’s certainly not bestiality.

Now that La bête is available on DVD, my advice to the British censors is to slip a copy into the player, decant the wine, plant themselves on the couch and enjoy this sexy and thoroughly absurd film. Heck, I’m willing to bet that they were doing this in secret, all along.

Walerian Borowczyk’s “Contes immoraux”: The bloodthirsty Countess meets European softcore cinema.

A bevy of naked beauties in Walerian Borowczyk's "Contes immoraux" (1974).

Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006) was a Polish filmmaker who was, in the early years of his career, the creator of astounding stop-motion animations. Nightmarish and surreal in nature, animated short films such as Renaissance (1963) and Jeux des anges (1964) brought Borowczyk critical acclaim in the rarefied world of avant-garde filmmaking. Commercial success, however, eluded him until his venture into live-action cinema with his infamous art-house-meets-softcore films of the 1970’s. A consummate provocateur, Borowczyk challenged his audience with Contes immoraux (‘Immoral Tales’, 1974) and La bête (‘The Beast’, 1975) — films which some critics derided as “contentless pornography” due to their wholesale preoccupation with nudity and sexuality. While the charge of “pornography” is not entirely unwarranted, I would maintain that Borowczyk’s meticulously-detailed set design, careful art direction and signature surreal style elevate films such as Contes immoraux from mere “sexploitation” to softcore cinema with considerable artistic merit.

Now, don’t get me wrong — from a straightforward “is this movie good or not?” perspective, Borowczyk’s Contes immoraux is not an especially good film. What dialogue there is — and there’s mercifully little — is completely inane. The action is glacially slow, due in part to a camera that lingers incessantly over the bushy nether regions of naked girls. It is ironic, then, that as a purely softcore film Contes immoraux also falters. By the standards of contemporary pornography, Borowczyk’s film is rather too tame to satisfy current erotic appetites. It’s all breasts, bums and bush, and precious little sex. Thus, we are left with a paradoxical film that is neither artful enough for the art-house, nor raunchy enough to function as pornography.

Film still from "Contes immoraux". Paloma Picasso stars as Erzsébet Báthory, the notorious 15th-century Hungarian countess who allegedly bathed in the blood of young women as a means to preserve her youthful appearance.

What the films of Borowczyk do possess, however, are stunning visuals that perfectly synthesize elements of the erotic with the grotesque. Given his early animations, which were bizarre and nightmarish, it is not at all surprising that Borowczyk would continue his exploration of the grotesque in later work like Contes immoraux and La bête. A primary example of this is the Erzsébet Báthory segment of Contes immoraux, the third and most accomplished segment of his four-part erotic anthology. Set in 1610, this segment stars Paloma Picasso (the daughter of Pablo) in the role of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, the notorious 15th-century Hungarian noblewoman legendary for her cruelty and sadism. Amongst her many reputed atrocities were the infamous ‘bloodbaths’, in which the Countess would soak in her victim’s blood in order to retain her youth and beauty. Borowczyk downplays the savagery of the Báthory legend, and instead offers up a positively demure Countess. The segment opens with the round-up of the nearby village girls by the Countess’s henchmen. The next several minutes are dedicated to extended scenes of the girls bathing and generally frolicking in the shower stalls of the Báthory castle. There’s virtually no dialogue, focusing all of our attention on the sumptuous colour palette and beautifully-composed camera shots. After the frivolity of the showers, the naked girls are lead en masse into a large bedchamber. Elizabeth Báthory reappears, wearing a gossamer white dressing-gown, adorned with lace and pearls. The crowd of girls approach the Countess and stroke her pearl-encrusted gown admiringly. Rapidly, however, the scene transforms from sultry to savage, as the girls begin to violently tear at the dress, ripping it to shreds. They fight amongst each other over the pearls that fall, and the once sexy scene of nubile young girls turns into a bloody, animal rampage.

The 'bloodbath' of the Countess.

The scene quickly cuts to a close-up of the bloodbath of the Countess. The white limbs of Paloma Picasso fill the screen as she luxuriates in her bath, twisting back and forth in the frothy red. The heightened aestheticism, with the rich, vibrant red blood against white skin, cleverly undercuts the grotesque/horror aspects of the ‘bloodbath’ and the mass-murder that occurred (off-screen) in the previous scene.

The films of Walerian Borowczyk are not widely available, but cinephiles and film geeks can likely find these in the better “alternative” video stores or at midnight screenings in rep cinemas.

The art of Hannah Wilke: ‘Feminist Narcissism’ and the reclamation of the erotic body.

I wrote the following essay on American visual artist Hannah Wilke for an art history class in graduate school. I include the full text and images, excluding citations. If you’re a student who discovers this via search engine, then I have every confidence in your research abilities to track down the scholarly sources. Wilke was a seminal Second Wave feminist artist whose work has received renewed interest from scholars since her death in 1993.

The politics of inclusion that shaped feminist discourse in the 1960s and 1970s spawned a legacy of body-based performance art, much of which was associated with women artists who used their own face as a subject of continual exploration. The self- imaging of women artists such as the provocative American artist Hannah Wilke was frequently attacked and dismissed by art critics as being indulgent exercises in narcissism that only served to reinforce the objectification of the female body. The charge of narcissism leveled on Wilke and her work may have been warranted, however, this should not be considered as a pejorative. Rather, the narcissism of Wilke can be viewed as a shrewd feminist tactic of self-objectification aimed at reclaiming the eroticized female body from the exclusive domain of male sexual desire. The ‘self-love’ of narcissism is a necessary component to this reclaiming of the body and the assertion of a female erotic will as being distinct from that of the male artist. Wilke wielded her narcissistic self-love as a powerful tool of critique, defiantly placing her own image into the hallowed halls of the male-dominated art institution.

The term “narcissism” derives from the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, a beautiful but arrogant youth who cruelly spurned the love of his admirers. For his cruelty, he was cursed by the goddess Nemesis and fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. The doomed Narcissus pined away for his unattainable lover – the image of his own self – and literally died as a result of his amorous longing.

Sigmund Freud bestowed the name of this mythic Greek youth upon his psychoanalytic theory of narcissism, a theory that describes normal personality development. According to Freud, the self-love of narcissism is a normal complement to the development of a healthy ego. Whereas a certain amount of narcissism is desirable, an excess of self-love is considered dysfunctional and indicative of pathology. This latter definition of narcissism, the one of pathological self-absorption, has cast our current understanding of narcissism in a negative light and reinforced the use of the term as a pejorative.

The psychoanalytic theories of Freud suggest that negative or pathological narcissism is a specifically female perversion. Art critic Amelia Jones writes that “[d]rawing loosely on Freud’s definitions – which connect narcissism to both a stage of development and to a form of homosexual neurosis – narcissism has come in everyday parlance to mean simply a kind of “self-love” epitomized through woman’s obsession with her own appearance.” Hence, the charges of narcissism leveled on Hannah Wilke were attempts by the critics to summarily dismiss her work as mere manifestations of a woman’s obsessive self-love and infer, according to Jones, that Wilke’s art was not “successfully feminist.”

Critics such as Amelia Jones and Joanna Frueh have championed Wilke and proposed, through their respective writings, a new and positive view of narcissism as a legitimately feminist, subversive tactic in the making of art. In her catalogue essay entitled “Intra-Venus and Hannah Wilke’s Feminist Narcissism”, Jones contextualized Wilke’s work within the framework of her “radical narcissism” and argued that the use of her own image throughout her art is far from the conventional or passively ‘feminine’ depiction of women as seen in advertising and other forms of mass media. Joanna Frueh, in her essay that accompanied the 1989 Wilke retrospective in Missouri, equated Wilke’s “positive narcissism” with a form of feminist self-exploration and an assertion of a female erotic will. Both Frueh and Jones cogently argue for a “positive narcissism” that expunges itself of the negative connotations of Freudian psychoanalytic theory and, in contrast, actively and unapologetically engages in self-love. Wilke enacts an aggressive form of narcissistic self-imaging that defiantly solicits the patriarchal gaze which she then, as Jones writes, “graft[s] onto and into her body/self, taking hold of it and reflecting it back to expose and exacerbate its reciprocity.”

Fig. #1. Hannah Wilke. "S.O.S. Starification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastication". Mixed media (artist's multiple). 1974-75.

Wilke’s active solicitation of the “male gaze” as a method of feminist critique is best exemplified in her photographic series entitled S.O.S. Starification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastication (figs. 1-2), a series which had been originally produced as a box-set artist’s multiple for the 1975 exhibition “Artists Make Toys” at the Clocktower in New York. Wilke commissioned a commercial photographer to capture her semi-nude self-portraits in which she adopts the exaggerated postures of the celebrity and fashion industries. In one such photograph, a sunglass-wearing Wilke clutches her Mickey Mouse toy tight to her partly naked torso as she gazes off-camera at an imaginary paparazzi. She assumed the role of the celebrity art “star” suggested by the witty wordplay of her title S.O.S. Starification Object Series. As with many of Wilke’s titles – for she was fond of linguistic games and frequently engaged in puns – there is a double meaning to be found in the titular pun “starification.” Wilke dotted her own skin with several tiny vaginal sculptures that she had shaped from chewing gum. These small sculptures decorated her body in a manner recalling the practice of ritual scarification employed by certain African cultures as a means of beautification. Given the presence of the vaginal “scars” in combination with the sexy, glamourous black and white photographs of Wilke, it is not difficult to locate the artist’s critical stance on the occasionally painful regimens Western women inflict upon themselves in their conformity to accepted conventions of beauty. Wilke willfully submitted her own body to this ritualized, albeit pretend, self-abuse in order to address this “tyranny of Venus” which, as Susan Brownmiller writes in Femininity, “…a woman feels whenever she criticizes her appearance for not conforming to prevailing erotic standards.” The fact that Wilke herself was, by these same erotic standards, a beautiful and sexually desirable woman does not confuse her aim of critique but rather serves to strengthen her commentary on women’s roles and gender stereotypes. Her overstated, sultry expressions and postures of sexual display invite scrutiny. Wilke was keenly aware of her status as a celebrity art-star as well as a beautiful, eroticized object of desire and she capitalized on both with the S.O.S. Starification Object Series. The original dissemination of this photographic series in a packaged box set, complete with sticks of chewing gum, preformed gum vaginas and phalluses, and the semi-nude artist self- portraits, simultaneously commented on both the artist-celebrity as a commodity as well as the erotic consumption of the female body. Cleverly, Wilke underscored the erotic self-objectification of her image in the extended title for this box set multiple: S.O.S. Starification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastication. We are reminded that this is an adult game, and Wilke’s use of the word mastication in reference to chewing (gum) is likely a pun on masturbation, a suggestion that locates her eroticized self-portraits on the parameters of pornography.

Fig. #2. Hannah Wilke. "S.O.S. Starification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastication". Detail. Mixed media (artist's multiple). 1974-75.

Assimilating the visual language of the objectified female body, Wilke employed her own eroticized body as a metaphorical mirror that she then held up to reflect back the sexual projections of male desire. This act of reflection enabled Wilke to sever her passive (and traditionally female) receptiveness of this male projection and assert her own erotic will. In her collection of essays entitled Erotic Faculties, Joanna Freuh used the phrase “autoerotic autonomy” in reference to Wilke’s images and suggested that her “…self-exhibition may demonstrate the positive narcissism – self- love – that masculinist eros has all but erased.” The empty vessel that is the celebrity or the fashion model – devoid of a personal will as she functions as a receptacle for our projected desires – has been adopted and systematically absorbed by Wilke’s exaggerated poses. For her part, Wilke then engaged her narcissistic self-love as a means to fill these empty vessels with her aggressive sexuality. The sites of female erotic pleasure, namely the mouth and the vagina, are conjured in her chewing gum sculptures while, at the same moment, they hint at the violent aggression of the folkloric vagina dentata.

The consciously sexualized self-objectification of Wilke and the use of her own body as a “professional currency” often elicited harsh criticism from the ranks of feminism, an ideology to which she actively subscribed. Lucy Lippard, the champion of 1970s feminist art, famously wrote that Wilke’s “confusion of her roles as beautiful woman and artist, as flirt and feminist, has resulted at times in politically ambiguous manifestations that have exposed her to criticism on a personal as well as on an artistic level.” Art critics Judith Barry and Sandy Flitterman dismiss Wilke’s self-portraits: “In objectifying herself as she does, in assuming the conventions associated with a stripper, …Wilke…does not make her own position clear…It seems her work ends up by reinforcing what it intends to subvert…” The tense political climate and rapid social change of America during the decades of the 1960s and 70s fueled a radical activism amongst Second Wave feminists. The urgency felt by these activists to affect social change in relation to gender equality frequently generated a feminism that was fervent, even orthodox, in its ideology. This strict orthodoxy was shaped by anti- essentialism – a philosophical stance that rejected the representation of the female body as it was believed too imbued with a history of objectification by male artists – and therefore unable and unwilling to accommodate the sexualized body-based art of Hannah Wilke. The negative reception of Wilke by critics like Lippard, Barry and Flitterman may have been prompted by an adherence to this strict orthodoxy. The complex and ambiguous views of the body and female sexuality that Wilke presented, at times even contradictory to the aims of feminism, generated rancor in this inflexible climate of anti-essentialism.

In her 1978 interview “Artist Hannah Wilke Talks with Ernst” the artist unapologetically spoke of the “ethics of ambiguity” that characterized both her work and life. She addressed, in her honest and unmediated manner, the conflicted views of a woman who, though conscious of feminism, still felt concerned with her appearance and desirability to men. Rather than deny this impulse, Wilke embraced her feminine narcissism and brandished it as a weapon. Such a bold act of defiance and deliberate provocation against the anti-essentialist feminism that dominated the 1960s and 70s later established Wilke as the “…spiritual parent to postfeminist artists such as Tracey Emin…” and anticipated the self-imaging of Janine Antoni and Cindy Sherman.

Fig. #3. Film still from Carolee Schneemann’s ‘Fuses’, 1965.

Wilke was not the only woman artist of her generation to use her own body in a consciously sexualized manner, nor was she the only artist to engage with narcissism as a feminist tactic. Carolee Schneeman’s canonical 1965 Fuses (fig. 3), a film that included photographic footage of the artist having sex with her then-partner James Tenny, was greeted with outrage from the feminist audience who, as film theorist Shana MacDonald writes, “…[were] uncertain how to incorporate the sexualized, erotic and self-produced image provided by Schneemann” Similar to the harsh criticisms leveled on the photographs of Wilke, the erotic self-portraiture of Schneemann’s Fuses was frequently attacked as being “obscene and narcissistic.” According to MacDonald, it was her sexually graphic imagery – imagery that feminist theorists found indistinguishable from the objectified female image being resisted – that caused Schneemann to be misunderstood by her peers and ultimately marginalized.

As the coquettish semi-nudes of Wilke’s S.O.S. Starification Object Series made reference to imagery generated for pornographic use, so too does Schneemann’s Fuses address pornography in order to critique its traditional objectification of women. The repeated, non-linear narrative of Fuses interrupts the pornographic convention that the film necessarily terminate in the obligatory “cum shot” of male ejaculation. The sexuality communicated by Schneemann’s film is highly subjective and anchored in the banal reality of the everyday, including shots of the artist’s cat and the domestic surroundings of her home. The subjectivity of Fuses was further heightened by the literal mark of the artist, evidenced in Schneemann’s use of hand-processing techniques such as collage, painting and scratching directly onto the celluloid. Her infusion of a personal subjectivity performed as a feminist resistance against the sexual- objectification of the female body as seen in conventional pornography. By simultaneously inhabiting the roles of both the image and the image-maker, she positioned herself “not as sex object, but as willed and erotic subject, commanding her own image.” Schneemann’s urge to see her own sexualized image is a manifestation of self-love and the hypothesized “positive narcissism” of Jones and Freuh. As Narcissus romantically yearned for his own image, Schneemann desires to view her own erotic image, not reflected in a pool of water, but projected larger-than-life on the theatre screen. This act is a bold assertion of her narcissism and erotic will.

Fig. #4. Video still from Hannah Wilke’s ‘Gestures’, 1974.

At first glance Wilke’s S.O.S. Starification Object Series, much like Schneemann’s Fuses, appeared to reinforce the visual language of the objectified female body. The sultry eyes, seductively parted lips and naked breasts of Wilke read as cultural signifiers of female sexual invitation and availability. Lippard may have been correct in her observation that Wilke played both the “feminist and flirt” but her assessment that this polarity stemmed from her confusion over these two roles was essentially wrong. Wilke’s narcissistic self-imaging was not, as Elizabeth Hess charged, an impulse to “…wallow in cultural obsessions with the female body,” but a pointed feminist critique of these same obsessions. In contrast to fashion models and pin-up girls, who passively offer their flesh to be inscribed by male desire, Wilke interrupted this erotic exchange by the presence of her chewing gum “scar” sculptures. Recalling the artistic intervention of Schneemann’s hand-processing techniques in Fuses, Wilke’s sculptures mark the otherwise unblemished surface of her skin and disrupt the easy consumption of her body as an erotic object. She declared the canvas of her skin as the terrain of her own erotic expression, and marked it accordingly. Whereas the youth Narcissus failed to possess his own beloved self-image, Schneemann and Wilke are too shrewd in the deployment of their narcissism to suffer this same fate.
Women artists of the late 1960s and 1970s, such as Schneemann and Wilke, often engaged in the feminist project of reclaiming the female body from previous male privilege. Centuries of depiction by exclusively male artists had rendered the female nude a dehumanized, neutral object. Wilke and her feminist contemporaries sought to rectify this situation by seizing creative control over one’s own body. Performative works such as Wilke’s 1974 Gestures (fig. 4) – a video that featured the artist sculpting her flesh – enact this reclamation by proposing the artist’s own body as an artistic medium.

The thirty-minute black-and-white video Gestures showcases Wilke, her head and shoulders tightly framed, performing a series of repeated, often exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. These gestures are often absurd and comical in nature, while others verge on sexual seduction. A silent Wilke gently pulls and kneads her own face, manipulating her youthful, elastic skin much like the soft, putty-like material of her chewing gum sculptures. Saundra Goldman observed that Gestures “…signaled [Wilke’s] transition from sculpture to performance,” and there is a cyclical component to this transition: the soft, pliable chewing gum that Wilke employed to approximate flesh was now being mimicked by the artist’s own skin.

Fig. #5. Hannah Wilke. ‘I OBJECT: Memoirs of a Sugargiver, 1977-78.

The reclamation of the female body from the privileged control by male artists was the primary motivation behind Wilke’s photographic diptych entitled I OBJECT: Memoirs of a Sugargiver (fig. 5). Wilke’s strong objection was directly aimed at the father of the avant-garde, Marcel Duchamp. While the box set of S.O.S. Starification Object Series offered a critical view of consumerism, the fashion industry and pornography, and Gestures a declaration of control over one’s own body, the faux book jacket of I OBJECT was a direct response to Duchamp’s static rape victim of his infamous diorama Etant donnès (fig. 6). In her 1988 conversation with Joanna Freuh, Wilke stated: “I find Etant donnès repulsive, which is perhaps its message. She has a distorted vagina.” The pun contained in the title I OBJECT, with the play on the word “object” as both noun and verb, laid the foundation for the critical feminist dialogue Wilke embarked upon with this heavy-weight of art history.

Fig. #6. Marcel Duchamp. ‘Etant donnès’. View of installation (left) and detail (right). 1946-66.

The sculptural diorama Etant donnès confronts the viewer with a rustic wooden door, riddled with small holes. A light source shines through these holes, enticing the viewer to peek through and witness a scene hitherto concealed. A pastoral, natural landscape is suddenly revealed, in the foreground of which an alarmingly pale, naked female torso lies inert amongst a bramble of dried twigs and leaves. Her legs are splayed open to reveal her strangely misshapen vagina. The exposed nakedness of the woman, her corpse-like stillness and her derelict location amongst the bramble imply violation and victimhood. As if in a final gesture of violence, Duchamp has chosen to frame the woman’s image within the peepholes of the door in such a manner as to visually decapitate her. The mechanism of display – namely the peepholes through which the scene is revealed – forces the viewer to assume the role of voyeur, further compounding the violation of the woman.

Wilke’s I OBJECT functions as both homage and a critical response to Duchamp: she believed that “to honor Duchamp is to oppose him.” Taken while on a family vacation in Spain, the glossy colour photographs of Wilke show the artist, fully nude, lying atop some discarded clothing on a large, craggy rock. One of the photographs that comprise this diptych approximates the pose of Duchamp’s female torso, with Wilke’s body foreshortened in the camera lens so that her pubic region dominates the picture plane. In stark contrast to the deathly paleness of the woman in Etant donnès, Wilke appears whole-limbed, healthy and tanned. The clothing upon which she lies may have been voluntarily shed in a moment of spontaneous sexual activity, or simply in the act of sunbathing. A bottle of suntan lotion that lies nearby seems to support the latter. The second photograph of the diptych shows Wilke staring upwards at the camera, and directly at the viewer, her face partly concealed by a rocky outcropping. A small but satisfied smile adorns her face. The superimposed text reads “I OBJECT: Memoirs of a Sugargiver” across the upper left portion of the image and then “Hannah Wilke” on the lower left, in close juxtaposition to her smiling face. The presence of her written name paired with her direct, outward gaze reads like a radical declaration of personhood, as if to say I am Hannah Wilke, and here is my body. The feminist gesture of “positive narcissism” comes strongly into play in this particular context. Wilke’s feminist response to the faceless victim of Etant donnès is a bold affirmation of both her personhood and her female sexuality.

As previously mentioned, the close association of women to narcissism partly derives from a loose interpretation of Freudian theory that linked a “woman’s obsession with her own appearance” with a form of psychoanalytic pathology. This association is highly relevant in the critical reception of a work of art; a crucial factor to consider is the gender of the artist. Lucy Lippard, the same art critic who, ironically, dismissed Wilke for being a “feminist and flirt”, denounced the gender divide that existed between the reception of body-based performance work created by male artists against similar work produced by women. “She is a narcissist,” Lippard wrote of women artists, “and Vito Acconci with his less romantic image and pimply back, is an artist.” The crucial distinction between the narcissism of Vito Acconci and Hannah Wilke – for as Rosalind Krauss effectively argues in her essay “Video: the Aesthetics of Narcissism”, Acconci was most assuredly a narcissist – lies in the feminist agenda that fuelled the narcissism of Wilke.

Fig. #7. Video still from Vito Acconci's ‘Undertone’, 1972.

Vito Acconci’s performance-based work often contains ambiguous narratives that frequently wander into the territory of the absurd and contradictory. Much like his contemporary Hannah Wilke, Acconci primarily used his own body as an artistic medium. In his 1972 video entitled Undertone (fig. 7), Acconci is as conspicuously aware of performing as Wilke was of posing in her multitudinous self-images. Undertone begins with Acconci seating himself at a table, the opposite end of which extends in the direction of the camera. This arrangement immediately implicates the camera/viewer into the scene. Acconci closes his eyes, placing his hands on his thighs, and repeatedly mumbles an awkwardly confessional sexual fantasy involving an imagined woman who lurks beneath the table: I want to believe there’s a girl here under the table…who’s resting her hands on my knees…she’s resting her forearms on my thighs…slowly, slowly rubbing my thighs… After several repetitions of this fantasy, Acconci suddenly pauses, straightens his body and stares directly out at the camera/viewer. His hands, now resting on the table top, are clasped together in a pleading gesture while he repeatedly intones: I need you to be sitting there…facing me…because I have to have someone to talk to…so I know there’s someone there to address this to… Acconci proceeds to again close his eyes and place his hands beneath the table. Resuming his mumbled confession, he contradicts his original narrative by stating: I want to believe there’s no one under the table…I want to believe…it’s me that’s rubbing my thighs… The video concludes with a final plea to the viewer to witness the revelation of his fantasy.

Comparable to the revealing titles of Wilke, the layered meanings behind Acconci’s title Undertone provides an important clue to its interpretation. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word undertone as an “underlying quality; undercurrent of feeling.” The underlying theme of Acconci’s video is not found in his repeated sexual fantasy of the imaginary woman under the table – a fiction that his monologue later negates – but rather in his urgent plea directed at the viewer. Acconci compels the viewer to witness his confessional fantasy and thus, by acting in this capacity, participate. A necessary reciprocity exists between Acconci’s performance and the viewer’s reception of this fictitious fantasy. A fruitful comparison can be drawn between Acconci’s Undertone and Wilke’s Gestures video. The performance of Acconci is validated by an exchange with the viewer in the same manner as the poses of Wilke require an onlooker. Equally, both artists achieve a form of sexual power through their performative actions. The crucial difference lies in gender. Even as the awkward disclosure of the fantasy ostensibly renders him vulnerable, Acconci nonetheless seizes sexual control. He punctuates the revelation of his fantasy by a vigorous and masturbatory rubbing of his own thighs, a gesture that creates an uncomfortable tension in the viewer who has been manoeuvred into the place of the voyeur. His repeated pleas to the viewer to witness recall the dynamic of the sexual exhibitionist who requires an onlooker to fulfill his perversion. Acconci enacts his narcissism by forcing his passive-aggressive sexuality upon the viewer.

In the video Gestures, Wilke systematically performs the postures of female display. She seductively rubs her finger across her upper lip. With the practiced smile of a fashion model, she repeatedly tosses her long hair in simulation of a shampoo commercial. Isolated from their usual context of seduction or advertising, these gestures appear absurd – which is entirely Wilke’s point. By repeatedly and methodically performing these gestures, she empties them of meaning. As a young, desirable woman Wilke understands that sexual display is the currency of her power. As a feminist, she acknowledges that these same gestures reduce her to a mere sex object. There is an implicit solicitation of the viewer to witness Wilke’s repetitive actions in much the same manner as Acconci’s Undertone requests participation with his narrative. Their respective sexual power – Wilke as the female sex object and Acconci as the male sexual exhibitionist – require the gaze of the viewer to activate this power exchange.

The deliberate self-objectification of Hannah Wilke seems, in the context of contemporary art practice, very prescient indeed. A consummate agitator and provocateur, her legacy of complex and eroticized body-based art anticipated the work of numerous future women artists whose creative point-of-departure was their own visage. While her work may have been devalued by feminist critics of her generation, a renewed interest from the ranks of feminist scholarship has emerged since her untimely death from lymphoma in 1993. Wilke and her feminist colleague Carolee Schneemann, who worked similarly with erotic self-portraiture, shrewdly engaged with the self-love of positive narcissism to reclaim the erotic female body from the objectification of the male gaze. Fully comfortable within her own skin and embracing all of her very human contradictions – as an artist, a feminist and a woman – she skillfully commanded her own image, both in front of and behind the camera.

Calamari Love: the curious tradition of Japanese ‘tentacle erotica.’

Katsushika Hokusai, "The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife," 1814.

Tentacle…what? Yes, indeed. In the realm of sexual fantasy, any and all things that can be imagined are possible. Like, for instance, receiving cunnilingus from an obliging octopus, as depicted in the above image by renowned artist Katsushika Hokusai. Known in the West by the title The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, Hokusai’s print is one of the most celebrated examples of shunga (erotic art) from the Edo Period in Japan. According to a scholarly paper written by Danielle Talerico, the Edo audience would have clearly recognized Hokusai’s woman as a depiction of the female abalone diver Tamatori. In the legend, Tamatori steals a jewel from the Dragon King. However, during her egress, the Dragon King and his sea-life minions — including octopodes — pursue her. Evidently, once the minions successfully capture Tamatori, some sexy-time ensues.

The more contemporary version of Japanese ‘tentacle erotica’, known as shokushu goukan, is a darker, violent and sadistic cousin of the gentler, Edo-period erotica. In 1986, manga artist Toshio Maeda created his infamous series Demon Beast Invasion, which featured malevolent tentacled aliens who embark upon a cross-breeding campaign with human females in a bid to rule the Earth. Essentially, Maeda’s rather thin plot-device afforded him the excuse to stuff a large number of phallic ‘tentacles’ into a great many female orifices. The reason for the reliance on tentacles was simple. Until 1993, Japanese law prohibited straightforward depictions of penises and intercourse. So Maeda was obliged to come up with a substitute: tentacles.

So, there you have it. I bet you’ll never look at a plate of deep-fried calamari in quite the same way again.

The macabre eroticism of the ‘Anatomical Angel’

Sex and Death. An alluring, if frequently controversial, coupling. The symbolically potent pairing of eroticism with the macabre has a long, well-established tradition across many different cultures. The artists of the Northern Renaissance in Europe gave us the now familiar Death and the Maiden motif with its inherently erotic subtext. In 1920-30s Japan, there was the emergence of ero guro — a literary and visual art form that combined eroticism with elements of the grotesque. The focus of this blog post, however, shall be on the curious convergence of the erotic with the grotesque/macabre in anatomical art produced during the Age of Enlightenment.

L'ange Anatomique by Jacques-Fabien Gautier d'Agoty, coloured mezzotint, 1746.

One of the best known of the 18th-century anatomical artists was Jacques Fabian Gautier D’Agoty. Renowned as a printmaker of exceptional technical skill, his image of a flayed woman entitled Anatomical Angel was viewed as highly controversial even during his lifetime. D’Agoty dubbed his image Anatomical Angel due to the flaps of skin pulled away from the cadaver’s back in a manner that suggests angel wings. Great attention has been devoted to the elegantly coiffed hair on her half-turned head. Her rosy cheek appears flush with life. D’Agoty’s aptly-titled Angel exists on a plane somewhere outside of death, rendering her an otherworldly creature.

Personally, I find D’Agoty’s Angel less erotic than she is aesthetic. One cannot, however, quickly dismiss the artist’s decision to depict a young, conventionally beautiful and, yes, sexually attractive woman. Of course, D’Agoty knew his audience: scientists and people in the medical field, all of whom would’ve been men.

Wax model with human hair and pearls in rosewood and Venetian glass case; Probably modeled by Clemente Susini (around 1790)

Let’s leave the Angel of D’Agoty and examine a comparable Italian wax anatomical sculpture entitled Anatomical Venus, dating from the last decade of the 18th-century. This exquisitely detailed sculpture, attributed to Clemente Susini, extracts the erotic elements that were merely a subtext in D’Agoty’s Angel and places them in the forefront. The languorous expression on the face of Susini’s Venus seems to evoke the petite mort of orgasm more than the morbidity of actual death. Similar to the aestheticism of D’Agoty, Susini styles his Venus with elaborately braided hair and an elegant pearl necklace. (Even in death, a girl must accessorize).

Anatomical Venus, wax model; probably modeled by Clemente Susini (around 1790)

For more views of Susini’s Anatomical Venus, as well as other examples of anatomical sculptures, visit Anatomical Theatre. Highly recommended, if predictably macabre.