Subverting the Subversive

One of the images below is considered ‘high art’ while the other’s called smut. That is to say, one image is infamous while the other’s obscure.

Bernard Montorgueil - femdomme art
Title Unknown ~Montorgueil, 1934(ish)

The first image is the work of ‘probably’ a french artist known as Bernard Montorgueil. The exact date this was drawn is unknown, but most educated guesses place its creation in the 1930’s.

Looking at this drawing, I’m pretty damn sure it was created after 1934. How can I be so certain? Because 1934 is when Balthus’ first exhibition set off a firestorm of controversy and made an impression on a great many painters, especially those in the business of depicting sex.

Balthus’ work is marked by two constants: the inclusion of prepubescent girls and cats. Okay, most people don’t really notice whether cats have been incorporated, but that’s not important. The salient point is there was one piece in particular at the Balthus exhibition, which shocked Parisian sensibilities and made the artist famous: “The Guitar Lesson.”

Balthus - 1934
“The Guitar Lesson” ~ Balthus,  1934

Surely, the first thing you noticed about “The Guitar Lesson” is the absence of a cat.

All jokes aside, looking at both pieces, it’s glaringly obvious Balthus inspired Montorgueil to depict a young(ish) man in the midst of a ‘tiny death’ while being ravished by two women. The exhibition of “The Guitar Lesson” caused a tremendous amount of controversy, and any artist worth their salt – especially a French artist interested in depicting erotic acts – would be familiar with it.

Why all the controversy? The age of the girl depicted is the most obvious point of contention, but Balthus has taken a lot of heat for something else – the way some of his subjects look to be dead or near death.

Looking at Montorgueil’s work, it’s clear ‘he’ (The artist’s actual name and gender are unknown…I’m just going with ‘he.’) found a similar effect to be arousing, effective, or both. Of course, it’s an artist’s nature to steal, but It’s how Montorgueil utilizes what’s stolen that I find fascinating.

Because Montorgueil doesn’t just copy Balthus whole cloth, nor does he simply invert the gender of the subjects. Instead, he transforms the violence and transgression explicitly evoked in “Guitar Lesson” to depict  a dynamic of surrender and vulnerability in a scene that was a complete anathema to the social order. This transformation makes Montorgueil’s art an act of subversion.

But what of Balthus? Isn’t the painting above subversive?

No – while Balthus is both perverse and provocative, I would argue his work isn’t subversive. If anything, his work props up the established order of things. For example, Balthus transposes his face onto the woman in his piece, and in doing so, Balthus makes a coded nod (albeit a perverse one) to bourgeois cultural norms. Specifically, cinq à sept, is the idiom for the time an older, married man sets aside to visit his younger mistress. Long celebrated by the middle-class as a time set aside for a certain kind of love, this kind of sexual education’s a well-established, albeit covert, French cultural norm. And the fact older, married women also take young male lovers is not in question. However, Montorgueil depicts an entirely different situation than these covert norms.

Instead, Montorgueil imagines the surrender of a slender and ‘pretty’ young man to the not-so-tender mercies of two older women who remain clothed. The women are depicted as using, objectifying and humiliating the young man. He is enjoying pleasure, but it’s clearly on their terms. Furthermore, looking at his posture, one cannot help but be struck by two things: first, one can clearly see the way Montorgueil’s young man’s countenance and position is nearly identical Balthus’s subject; second, there’s the ‘womanish’ way the young man succumbs to the bliss of orgasm. I use the word womanish for a specific reason as the man appears to have fainted into the arms of the woma holding him up. Indeed, the woman behind both supports him and encourages his surrender. The submissive subject isn’t a young man being groomed to properly ‘take a wife.’ He’s just being taken.

So then, back to the question of ‘high art’ versus smut?

This point’s a sticky one: high art will get your work displayed in a gallery, smut will be kept behind the book store’s counter. And, of course, if the subject is ‘clearly underage’ – you’ll go to jail.

Of course, Balthus is famous enough to warrant discussion as a ‘serious artist.’ How famous is he? So famous he rates a Wikipedia entry, major exhibitions, and articles in countless publications, which means enough ink has been spilled by hyper-educated jerk offs to consider the subject to be duly elevated.

In contrast, Montorgueil produced art – explicitly and exclusively – for jerking off.

That said, I’ll punt on my verdict because I’d have to actually see both the original painting and drawing to properly spout my ill-informed opinion regarding artistic merits. Sure, it’s a cop-out, but I don’t much care.

Artistic merits aside, Montorgueil’s piece is erotic where Balthus most certainly is not. While I’m opining, let me conclude with a final point: while Montorgueil clearly stole the pose and visage of abandon Balthus made famous, at least he had the class to make the erotic focal point of his images ‘youngish men,’ sexually mature enough to have developed pubic hair, and – arguably – old enough to consent.

No way Balthus could make the same claim.


Attribution & Fair Use:
– The Montorgueil piece is from tumblr (There’s no such website as ‘Porns of yore.’ However,when you try Googling it, amusingly, a butcher shop named ‘Pork of York’ comes up .)
– “The Guitar Lesson” came from Wikipedia and it’s fair use because this post is about the artist and his work. This image of the artist’s work significantly increases readers’ understanding of the topic, and its omission would be detrimental to that understanding.

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