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LES ECHOS

Art History Gets Complicated For The #MeToo Era

Sexually-charged images of women (and occasionally men) being seized and abducted abound in ancient and present-day artwork alike.

Rape of Proserpina
Rape of Proserpina
Eric Biétry-Rivierre

PARIS — There's Deianira who was abducted by a centaur. And Proserpina, Persephone, Europa and Philyra, who were also snatched away by some god often advantageously metamorphosed into a bull or a stallion. Representations of these kinds of "love abductions' are abundant in painting and sculpture, from Antiquity to the present day.

Why? And what should be made of these many images? Jérôme Delaplanche, director of the art history department at the French Academy in Rome, tries to answer those very questions in a recently published essay entitled Ravissement (meaning "rapture" or "rape" in English).

Peter Paul Rubens' The Rape of Orithyia by Boreas — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Such figures of women, conquered willingly or forcefully — as well as some images of children or young men also abducted, such as Ganymedes — abound. There are numerous representations on Greek vases, and in the paintings of Cabanel or Rubens. The famous painting The Rape of Orithyia by Boreas conveys the Flemish artist's criticism of man and his desire to possess, lacking all reason in the face of fury. But it's also the occasion for an erotic uncovering that satisfied the minds of the time, for whom a naked man is obviously a heroic figure, whereas a naked woman is indecent, shameless.

These figures also appear in Picasso"s works, for instance in his Minotaur Raping a Woman. The Spanish artist — who was notoriously cynical and cruel even with his own wives and children — had chosen the mythical half-man, half-bull beast as his raping avatar.

Sophie Chauveau, an author who recently published a two-volume biography of Picasso, says that he "hated women to the point that he beat them up and locked them up." Marie-Thérèse, one of his many mistresses, "used the word rape," Chauveau notes. "Françoise Gilot, a painter who also had an affair with him had her cheek pierced by a burning cigarette. That's not to mention the sadomasochist tragedy with Dora Maar."

"They are works of art created by men, for men"

There are also the sculptures of Girardon or of Bernini, for instance in his Rape of Proserpina, in which Pluto grabs the goddess' thigh, her refusal only reinforcing the malevolent god's desire. The Bible has its female victims as well: Rebecca, Susanna, the adulterous woman, even Mary. A more recent representation is the abduction in the King Kong movie.

In his book, Jérôme Delaplanche draws up a long but admittedly incomplete list of such love abductions in Western art, from Antiquity to the present day. In doing so, he uncovers three types of scenarios.

There is, first of all, the irrepressible desire that can be likened to rape (even if the act of penetration itself is seldom represented). There is also abduction portrayed as a historical necessity. Finally, the accepted abduction, a rapture that corresponds to an apotheosis, where the figure rises herself (see for instance Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in Rome).

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini​— Photo: Napoleon Vier

All of these fabulous fictions involving beings who are either consenting or submissive to the strong constitute an entirely male system, the author notes. "They are works of art created by men, for men," he says, stressing that he doesn't think of himself as a feminist activist. In classical art, "the free man imposes the vigor of his desire .... No guilt hinders the sexuality of the dominant male."

Delaplanche then poses a question. "Is our kindly view of these works of art the pure product of our patriarchal and macho culture?" The answer depends on whether or not you believe a work of art is susceptible to moral judgment.

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