News & Politics » Year In Review

Hanging Out at the Art Institute

Before It's Too Late: A Tour of Picturesque Penises

by

comment

"In July, the Senate voted to bar the National Endowment for the Arts [NEA] from using Federal funds to 'promote, disseminate or produce obscene or indecent materials, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts, or material which denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or nonreligion.' The bill, sponsored by Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, would also bar grants for artwork that "denigrates, debases, or reviles a person, group or class of citizens on the basis of race, creed, sex, handicap, age or national origin."'--New York Times, August 11, 1989: "Caution: This Art May Offend."

We'd better get over to the Art Institute while there's still something offensive to look at; soon there won't be anything on the walls but still lifes and landscapes and wimpy abstract stuff.

Given the current homophobia in Congress, penises will probably be the first to go. So here's a guide to penises at the Art Institute of Chicago; if you walk fast you can see them all on your lunch hour.

Africa and the Americas: Galleries 102-105

Western artists try to ignore or hide the genitalia; in "primitive" art the genitalia are often the main point. These galleries feature a variety of explicit and stylized sex organs, both male and female. Even the animals have genitals--a wooden antelope from Mali has a huge curved penis that touches the ground like a fifth leg.

Greek Art: Gallery 101A

Apparently men and gods in fifth- and sixth-century BC Greece never wore clothes. Warriors and Theseus Roping the Marathonian Bull (ca 500 BC) is typical: a number of nude male figures chasing each other around in circles, their penises in varying degrees of erection; also a bull with lovingly rendered genitals. One bas-relief shows a Giant with nice testes and pubic hair; the penis is missing. Most sculptures are missing parts or all of the genitals--clearly the penis is a most vulnerable appendage.

Small Bronzes

In a painting you can fudge the sex organs with a pose or a shadow, but in a three-dimensional sculpture you have to come to terms with them. Some of the best genitalia in the Art Institute can be found on small bronze sculptures and other 3-D artifacts; these can be found in various areas.

Gunsaulus Hall (gallery 140): see especially a spectacular door knocker showing Neptune (penis intact) and two hippocampi (ca 1575).

European Decorative Arts and Sculpture: On the 20th-century side (gallery 50) is a sleek art deco archer with legs spread wide and genitals dangling; on the 1600-1900 side (gallery 71), among a number of mythical subjects, is a nude Hercules throwing his servant Lichas into the sea (ca 1810).

European Art: A number of explicit, detailed sculptures of naked men wrestling other naked men (and sometimes animals); in gallery 213 Hercules is wrestling Lichas again (A); in gallery 222 Theseus is killing a centaur (B)--nice genitals on both man and beast.

American Art

Men keep their pants on in most American art. Have a look, however, at Philip Pearlstein's Male and Female With Carpet (ca 1970) in gallery 263 (C).

Rodin's Bronzes

See Adam in gallery 201; other male nudes in gallery 206, including a larger-than-life rendering of Honore de Balzac: a fine figure of a middle-aged man, arms folded over an assertive belly. We are spared the sight of the great writer's genitals, which are merged into a treelike structure that rises between his legs. This piece is certified offensive: the people who commissioned the statue rejected it, and so did the French public when it was displayed in 1898.

Photography (Galleries 14-17)

Some things here will make you swallow your gum. You'll be studying what looks like an abstract or a land formation and suddenly you'll realize you're staring at somebody's scrotum. This is where the notorious Mapplethorpe photographs might go if they were ever let back in town.

(In April, when the Mapplethorpe exhibit was at the MCA and everyone in town was exercised about the flag-on-the-floor exhibit at the School of the Art Institute, this gallery showed giant Polaroids by Chuck Close of full-frontal male and female nudes. One diptych showed a male torso from navel to midthigh; the whole piece was six feet by nine feet; you can imagine the size of the penis.)

The photography retrospective "On the Art of Fixing a Shadow" closed a few weeks ago, but the catalog is still available in the Museum Shop. A few artsy nudes (here's your chance to see Georgia O'Keeffe naked in 1918) and at least one noteworthy penis: Joel-Peter Witkin's Canova's Venus (ca 1982), an androgynous male posed as an odalisque: chest hair showing, erect penis peeking up out of his lap.

The McKinlock Court Garden

Check out the fountain: four greenish anatomically correct mermen wrestling with fish. While a mermaid has a single fish tail that covers her lower body all the way to the waist like a 50s bathing suit, mermen have tails that bifurcate at the inguino-scrotal region, allowing for nicely formed genitals and well-rounded behinds.

European Art 1500-1900

This is no place for the timid: big flashy paintings full of breasts, bellies, bottoms, rape, incest, adultery, martyrdom, beheading, bestiality, sadomasochism, crucifixion, and questionable practices with children--but most of these shocking activities are accomplished without revealing the lingam.

The "A" Galleries

Prints and drawings and smaller works are displayed in the hallways that connect the larger rooms--and here, in the "A" galleries, is where you will find the really perverted art: all varieties of naked men and women and children, nymphs and satyrs, bacchanalia and saturnalia, Cupids and Venuses, Adams and Eves, wise and foolish virgins, Greek and Roman myths, allegories, idol worship, and unpleasant stories from the Bible, all played out shamelessly in the nude.

Gallery 209A displays Lucas van Leyden's engraving (ca 1530) of Lot nuzzling one of his daughters (a hefty lass) while another plump daughter looks on (after the Sodom and Gomorrah firestorm, Lot's daughters, in order to perpetuate the human race, got their father drunk, seduced him, and bore his children).

In gallery 208A is Silenus, a Satyr, and a Goat (D) by Giorgio Ghisi, ca 1540: Silenus is reclining at table, exhausted and drunk, his ample penis and testicles limp and spent and resting on his thigh; a satyr leans over him threateningly; a seductive she-goat with fat udders rests her elbows on the table. Also in this gallery: a bacchanalia featuring Silenus (again) and a fat drunken naked woman; a flagellation; a Judgment of Paris (Raimondi, ca 1517) with 20 naked figures; and other assorted unclothed children, lovers, and putti, all with carefully delineated genitals.

The Body of Christ

The Art Institute shows many pictures of the Baby Jesus's penis--for example in gallery 209, where, in a painting by Joos van Cleve, ca 1525 (E), the infants Christ and John the Baptist, their baby genitals rendered in exquisite detail, embrace and kiss one another on the lips.

But once we get to the Crucifixion, Christ's penis has disappeared. The Bible hints that Christ was crucified in the nude but most paintings show him modestly diapered, sometimes with a diaphanous cloth that reveals only a shadow. In one German triptych (F) in gallery 207A (ca 1400) the holy pudendum is devoid of even a shadow--Christ looks like a teenage girl. Very disturbing.

(Note to SAIC students: Want to get your picture in the paper, want to be the next David "Harold-in-Undies" Nelson or Scott "Flag-on-the-Floor" Tyler? For the next student exhibit, paint a picture of Jesus with a penis. Just a suggestion. You're welcome.)

There is a good collection of penises in 20th-Century European Art (Picasso, German expressionists, Dali, etc) but these galleries are closed for renovation.

Museum Shop

The Art Institute has a good selection of offensive art books and prints for browsing or buying, no questions asked.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

Add a comment