Dirty pictures, mud lust, and abject desire: myths of origin and the cinematic object

Dirty pictures, mud lust, and abject desire: myths of origin and the cinematic object – art and artists in the movies

Susan Felleman

When a film undertakes the representation of art as a theme, it is more or less openly and more or less knowingly entering into a contemplation of its own nature and positing its own unwritten theory of cinema as art. Art (and by this I mean the other visual or plastic arts: painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, etc.) has been reflected and represented in, thematized by, and structured into narrative films in myriad ways throughout the history of cinema. And narrative films have in fact revealed much about them selves and their sense of their own origins through their incorporation or figuration of art, which can range from the all-encompassing theme to the still-significant marginalia or background. Examples of the former include the self-conscious artiness and reflexivity of films by, among others, Albert Lewin (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1945), Peter Greenaway (The Draughtsman’s Contract, 1982), and Derek Jarman (Caravaggio, 1986), which display an explicit and profound engagement with and are to a certain extent about fine art and art history, as well as the rather less reflexive but still intensely self-conscious identification of film and painting in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956) and other films about artists. In the other category (marginalia or background), one finds the seemingly casual but in fact highly significant use of “high art” reproductions in Godard’s sets (of works by Renoir and Picasso, for instance, in Breathless [1960] and Pierrot le fou [1965]); the key secondary role of artist or artwork (Robert Mitchum’s character in John Brahm’s The Locket [1946], or Kiki’s plastered sculpture in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, [1985]); and the insinuations of such films as Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987) or Legal Eagles (Ivan Reitman, 1986), in which contemporary art serves as literal and figurative background to the story and in which the world of art is shown to be as corrupt and venal as the world of commerce with which it is brought into real and metaphoric relations. (1)

Mainstream films that foreground art, as well as most that background it, induce a rather curious tension, as the reflexive presence of art threatens the seductive flow of the fictional world with a spasm of viewer self-consciousness. This is why we refer to such works as reflexive: it is as though a mirror had been held up to the beholder. The work of art en abyme reminds the viewer that she is viewing. It is interesting, then, to consider what is at stake in such representation. For one, status: not only does the subject of “art” confer a certain stature; the reflexive use of art en abyme is a hallmark of modernist art, and therefore a nod (albeit an ambivalent one) to the “highbrow” viewer. (2) Second, a claim: one knows that the film has a contribution to make to the ongoing, unwritten theory of the art of cinema that the movies themselves are always telling, or to the ongoing, often unwritten debate about cinema’s sometimes uncomfortable and always shifting position among the worlds of art, commerce, industry, and mass media.

And it is therefore doubly interesting to consider the representation of artist couples in film. The sexual relationship between two artists offers another permutation in cinematic self-reflection. In three fairly recent films, Artemisia (1997), Camille Claudel (1988) and Life Lessons (1989), (3) not only are art and artistic process thematized, but cinema–the one art, according to Andre Breton, with the greatest “power to make concrete the forces of love”–is shown, by extension, as the product of that love. (4) Art is shown as the progeny of sexual passion in these films–the child of the artist-parents. In each film, the nature of the artistic relationship–its romantic, psychosocial, and sexual aspects–suggests something about larger issues relating to the experience of film. It is almost as though each was telling its own personal myth of the origins of the film art, recreating a primal scene, or telling its family romance: the child’s fantasy of its parentage, its origins.

This “originary” story is expressed with various emphases in the three films, but is always articulated through a predictably racial and specifically gendered view of the erotics of artistic collaboration. Although artists’ identities in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation are in fact various, these three films rely on the construct of a prototypical artistic relationship between white, heterosexual men and women. Further, in each film a young woman artist is apprenticed to an older male, a relationship of power and gender that is at the same time entirely realistic and profoundly mythic. Two of the films, Artemisia and Camille Claudel, are based on the stories of “real” historical female artists: the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, and the fin-de-siecle French sculptor Camille Claudel. The third film, Life Lessons, represents a fictional relationship between contemporary artists in New York, but is based on Dostoevsky’s The Gambler and the real diaries of Apollinaria (Polina) Suslova, who was Dostoevsky’s mistress when she was a young aspiring writer in her twenties and he was in his forties and already establishing a reputation. (5) Thus, the three films to be analyzed as articulations of a myth of origins are in fact grounded in history, a situation that both reinforces their originary quest and entangles them with issues of historicity and fact.

Dirty Pictures

Artemisia, directed by Agnes Merlet, should not be discussed without reference to the controversy that resulted from this film’s travesty of historical justice, although it should be recognized that the historical record, like the film itself, is a construct open to analysis. The historical (as opposed to Merlet’s fictional) Artemisia Gentileschi was the gifted daughter of a prominent Roman painter, known not so much for the powerful talent displayed in her work–and her singular, almost unprecedented achievement as a woman painter–but, sadly, as a notorious figure at the center of an infamous trial. In 1611, when his daughter was still a teenager, Orazio Gentileschi, who had been instructing her himself, hired Agostino Tassi, with whom he was then working on several important commissions, to teach Artemisia perspective. Tassi, a fine painter, was also a violent rogue who had been previously implicated in murder and incest and had been imprisoned on several occasions. He raped young Artemisia, then tried to bribe his way out of the offense with empty promises of marriage. Orazio, who learned of the crime only later, finally took Tassi to court, suing him for the rape of his daughter, as well as for the theft of several pictures. During the five-month trial, Artemisia, cross-examined under torture, persisted in her testimony that Tassi had raped her and had then tried to appease her with promises of marriage. She is said to have shouted at him as the strings of the sibille (an instrument of torture similar to the thumbscrew, in which metal rings around the fingers are tightened by strings) were pulled tighter, “This is the ring you give me, and these are your promises.” (6)

As Mary Garrard, the foremost scholar of Artemisia Gentileschi’s art and career, put it in her scathing review of Merlet’s film,

There can be no doubt that the basic facts of the story are inverted in the

film. In Merlet’s narrative, Artemisia begs to study under and then falls

in love with … Tassi, is deflowered by him–an act accomplished with

tender solicitude on his part and minimal resistance on hers–and is

initiated by the older painter into the mysteries of love and art. When her

father … brings suit against Tassi for rape, Artemisia testifies

repeatedly, even when tortured by sibille, that Tassi did not rape her but

gave her pleasure, and she loves him. Pained to see Artemisia suffer

torment, Tassi magnanimously accepts the charge of rape and his own

conviction, thus ending the trial as something of a hero. (7)

A film ought not be judged by its literary or historical fidelity, but in evaluating one that touts its historical basis and its feminist heroine–and was directed by a self-professed feminist, to boot (8)–one must object strenuously to such distortions. The film’s misrepresentation of Gentileschi’s art is also appalling. It shows the juvenile Artemisia painting a self-portrait that actually dates from the artist’s maturity, some 20 years later, and reduces it to half its actual size (and, since the picture hardly resembles the young actress who is supposed to have painted it, it even impugns, although perhaps unwittingly, Gentileschi’s talent as a portraitist). The film implicitly attributes Artemisia Gentileschi’s Portrait of a Gonfaloniere to her father, portraying her as his assistant on it; and it misrepresents Gentileschi’s most famous painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes, as Garrard so bitingly observes, by incorporating this chilling image of tyrannicide, and of real and symbolic female power, into an erotic tableau. (9)

These egregious insults to art, history, and feminism, however, are less interesting than the view of art and sex Artemisia bodies forth in its scenario of artistic passion and artistic apprenticeship, its translation of these themes into images of erotic passion and involvement, and the manner in which it finally posits these as a matrix or model for cinematic origins. The film boldly sexualizes art. It constantly collapses artistic sensuality and human sexuality through scenes in which models become sexual objects, artistic compositions become sexual dramas, and visceral responses to artistic images slip into images of pornographic titillation.

One of Artemisia’s key images of artistic vision is a paradox. In the scene showing Artemisia’s second lesson, Agostino Tassi takes his new pupil outside in order to have her see the world through a perspectival grid, an apparatus that assists the artist in translating objects seen receding into depth onto the two-dimensional plane of the picture. But Artemisia has barely glanced at their putative subject, a seascape–one, significantly, that is not shown–before the lesson takes an interesting turn. He instructs her to close her eyes. Tassi teaches Artemisia to “see” through verbal seduction. He employs poetic, sensuous descriptive language to evoke a radiant image of a seascape in her mind’s eye. All the while, of course, the perspective apparatus is there before her, but she neither looks nor sees through it. Rather, we view her through it. We come to occupy what is in effect a position reciprocal to hers–in the place of the object of her study. It is not the vast inhuman vista of the sea that is situated on the other side of the perspectival divide; it is I, it is you, the viewers.

This matrix sutures the viewer to the “master’s” point of view, since Tassi soon moves from a position just behind Artemisia around the grid to occupy a position comparable to ours, looking at her–as she stands in rapture, eyes shut–thus turning her forcefully from the seer, subject of the gaze, to the seen, its object. We join the seducer in effacing the spectacle of nature–or, rather, taking its place–and taking Artemisia herself as spectacle, objectifying her, as women are so often, so typically, objectified by the gaze of the painter, or the camera. In the Renaissance and Baroque (as later, of course) there lurked behind the supposedly disinterested and objective art and science of perspective the inexorable power relations between portrayer and portrayed. This is brilliantly illustrated in Albrecht Durer’s woodcut of a draughtsman using the perspective device to apprehend a recumbent nude from his “A Course in the Art of Measurement with Compass and Ruler” (1525-1527), which might be titled” where objectivity becomes objectification,” so clearly does it explicate the sexualized dynamics of the perspectival gaze. Thus, in Merlet’s Artemisia, wherein it comes to virtually fill the frame, the grid of the perspective screen becomes an analogue to the camera frame and the cinematic screen themselves, securing our identification with Tassi, the male figure of authority, the master, the director (so to speak) who directs Artemisia’s performance. In this scene, the objective landscape and the subjective feminine disappear together and are replaced by fantasy: the fantastic, shimmering, rather cinematic (because temporal) image conjured by Tassi’s poetic utterances and the fantastic image of the objectified feminine, accessible and receptive, eyes shut and lips glistening in passive exultation.

Another scene confirms this translation of Artemisia from viewing subject into viewed object and consummates the act that was suggested by the evident excitement, bordering on sexual arousal, associated with this first introduction of the perspective mechanism. In this scene, Gentileschi employs the perspectival grid device to draw her teacher Tassi in the position familiar to us from the figure of the Old Testament villain, Holofernes, from her later painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes (1615-1620). This highly unlikely scene of a Baroque master posing, undressed, for his student, a female one moreover, is rationalized in the film by two prior scenes. In one, Tassi, plainly attracted to his young student, consents to pose for her. In the other, just prior to this, the master forces himself sexually on his seemingly willing but nonetheless much pained disciple. After the rape, Artemisia is shown at home in a reverie; in a voiceover she relates her sense of a “confused mixture of forms and dreams.”

Indeed, this subsequent scene is exactly a confused mixture of forms and dreams. In it there is a complete dissolution of boundaries between subject and object, beholder and beheld, historical practice and contemporary fantasy. Again, the perspective screen is mounted, only to be traversed. Artemisia, aroused by the spectacle she beholds, puts down her instrument and inserts herself (bodily) into the composition of her scene, not as the vengeful assassin of the tyrant that we know from the Bible and from Gentileschi’s magnificent canvas, but as a lover, literally lowering herself onto the supine figure of her master. The scene, unwittingly perhaps, literalizes the ironic distance between the linguistically parallel terms master and mistress. There is, of course, intriguing feminist potential in showing a woman artist taking a master as model, a conceit that is fraught with subversive possibility. But here this conceit not only inverts the meaning of Gentileschi’s great picture, turning it from an eloquent image of female power and a probable reaction against Tassi and the male tyranny he embodied into a premonition of desire, but it also turns her, again, from subject of the gaze, and possessor of the pencil, into sexual object and seductress.

The film conceives Artemisia as passionate looker, or voyeur: she shamelessly provokes a youthful male companion to undress for her; peeks into Tassi’s windows one night and gleefully watches the orgy she espies; and generally is shown as hungry for visual pleasure. The almost demented, eroticized gaze attributed to Artemisia in this film seems to suggest a psychosexual pathology: scopophilia, sexual pleasure in looking. Interestingly, Artemisia attributes this usually male “perversion” to its female protagonist, even as her agency is eclipsed by the film’s tendency to translate her from subject to object. The film wants to have it both ways: to imbue its heroine with (an entirely anachronistic) sexual license and visual subjectivity and at the same time to offer her up as an object of desire. Indeed, the film begins with a sequence that perfectly embodies this double project. Its credits appear over a series of striking closeups of eyes, across the retinas of which are seen the brilliant flares of reflected candlelight. Then it dwells on the ardent visage of a young, cloistered Artemisia in a state of fervent devotion before religious paintings in a Roman church. These are images of a lust for looking that reveal something of the film’s–and perhaps the cinema’s in general–view of what might be called the erotics of cinema: the basic scopophilia (“I like to watch”) (10) that may constitute a primary part of every moviegoer’s and every moviemaker’s passion.

Mud Lust

Camille Claudel, another biopic about a woman artist, also uses its story of lust and art to posit a theory of cinematic origins. The film portrays Claudel, her passion for sculpture, her relationship with Auguste Rodin, its demise, and her ultimate descent into madness. In it, scopophilia, a visual pathology, is compounded by a related, more tactile one that has in fact been called a “madness of mud.” (11) The relationship between Claudel and Rodin is seen as fueled by what you might call mud lust. Their mutual calling is a “filthy” one, as they reveal in a scene early in their acquaintance (prior to their sexual relationship), when Rodin is taking Claudel home late one night by carriage. Rodin asks Camille if she is “afraid of being scolded.” “No,” she replies, and then, “I’m no longer a child. And my mother doesn’t speak to me…. She doesn’t like sculpture–all that filth.” Rodin, smiling knowingly, responds, “Mine always said, `Get rid of them! They’re everywhere! Even under the bed! … Your mess … ‘”

Camille Claudel, the first directorial work of cinematographer-turned-director Bruno Nuytten, is a more honest film than Artemisia both in its historical fidelity and in its respect for the artistic oeuvre(s) of its subjects. Art is again shown as the product of a sexual passion. But this is more appropriate to Rodin and Claudel’s story than it was to Gentileschi’s, since the two French sculptors both, in the period of their greatest mutual achievement, took images of sexual love as their very frequent subject and employed one another consensually as sexual and artistic partners. (12) Their works from the decade in which the two were romantically and professionally involved not only share formal and stylistic affinities (to the extent of having sometimes caused attribution problems), but also deeply interpenetrating heteroerotic themes. (13)

But even as it plays up Rodin’s and Claudel’s affinities, Nuytten’s film is at pains to create an image of Claudel as young, beautiful, impetuous, and obsessive to the point of indecency, much as Merlet portrayed Artemisia. The atmospheric and mysterious opening scene shows Claudel’s furtive nighttime venture into the streets of Paris in search of clay and her return to her cold atelier and awaiting male model, Gigante, in a manner that at first suggests dirty, clandestine, criminal, or morally questionable activity. Rodin, like Tassi, is portrayed as older, wiser, more worldly than Claudel, inspired and stimulated by the joy and rejuvenation such youthful company affords. In the scene where Rodin first takes his apprentice Claudel to his private studio, he encourages her to palpably engage with his nude (female) model, whose awkward crouching pose he manipulates. Claudel then takes over, adjusting the pose in a way that finally corresponds to an actual Rodin study from the period, the caryatid-like Crouching Woman of 1880-1882. This date in fact suggests that the film’s “attribution” of this figure to Claudel is unlikely, since it is thought she first met Rodin in 1883. In the film, Claudel discovers the pose that works (although one wonders how well it worked from the model’s point of view), adjusting Rodin’s model, achieving the successful posture and an almost carnal mutual excitement, an excitement suggested by a precipitous cut from the image of the sculptors eagerly examining the three-dimensional effects of the pose at the spinning platform to that of the head of a rushing horse, always an image of erotic force.

It is rather bold of Camille Claudel to portray this and other well-known works by the master as at least in part the result of Claudel’s eye (if not hand). Where Artemisia effectively deattributed works long known to belong to Gentileschi’s oeuvre, Camille Claudel does the opposite: inspiration for poses of a number of Rodin’s major works are implicitly attributed in the film to Claudel. But, ironically, such seemingly feminist and historically generous cinematic gestures can have problematic double meanings; here they often turn Claudel herself into an erotic object.

This is the case with another scene in which Claudel visits Rodin’s private atelier. Set on the afternoon of Victor Hugo’s funeral, it moves the relationship to a more sexual plane. The model is dismissed by a dispirited Rodin, and Clandel herself adopts the pose that achieves the melancholy eroticism of Rodin’s beautiful Danaid (1885), exposing her shoulders and the nape of her neck to Rodin, who approaches and kisses her there. The historical record confirms that Claudel was the model for this piece–probably when the relationship was well underway, however–although not that she conceived it. But the moment perfectly illustrates both the strangely symbiotic process through which a work of erotic power can come into being and the ease with which the female figure slips from a position of subject to that of object. It is that slippage, as well as enduring cultural assumptions about masculine priority, that contribute to the atmosphere of madness and persecution that beset Claudel later in the film and indeed in her life.

In two rather parallel scenes in which Rodin’s and Claudel’s portrait busts of each other come into being, gender and passion become entangled in a web of prejudice. While Rodin molds her head in a blind, sensual fervor (his eyes are shut), passionately alternating between palpating her living head and the soft, giving clay, Claudel–in a later scene–has reproduced his head from memory in Rodin’s absence, a feat that the film treats with awe and not a little horror, expressed in reactions that relate it to her gender. “She did it in your absence?!” asks one of a group of (male) visitors to whom Rodin is displaying Claudel’s bust of him. “Mlle. Claudel has become a master,” Rodin admiringly exclaims. “She has the talent of a man,” replies a visitor. “She’s a witch!” pronounces another. The notion that such virtuosity is unnatural in a woman is reinforced by the strangeness of the appellation “master” when Rodin bestows it upon Claudel, his “mistress” (here again “master” and “mistress” are as close sexually as the two words are remote semantically), as well as by the charge of witchery that betrays a less admiring position. Such attitudes combined with real madness (clinical paranoia, probably) must have contributed much to the nightmare into which (the historical) Claudel descended after her relationship with Rodin came to an end in 1893. After years of struggling in an atmosphere of squalor, isolation, and increasing delusions of persecution, she was committed by her brother, the poet Paul Claudel, in 1913, and spent the last 30 years of her life institutionalized. (14)

But prior to revealing itself as something we now call psychosis, Claudel’s madness was called a madness of mud, and the film portrays it as a sculptural perversion, if you will: a passion for touching, feeling, and making that is tactile and dirty, virtually scatological, and highly eroticized. This “dirtiness” was alluded to in the dialogue between Rodin and Claudel in the carriage. It is illustrated beautifully by a scene of Claudel at work–a scene situated chronologically in the narrative at the very juncture between life with Rodin and descent into madness–in which, stripped down to her underclothes, she is shown passionately engaged with a huge mound of clay, pulling and tearing at it, embracing it and smearing herself with it, breathing heavily, indeed panting, and ending up covered in brown streaks of clay. This is a very ambivalent scene. There is no mistaking the explicit eroticism of it (if you listen without watching, it sounds exactly like a sex scene). But, at the same time, its place in the trajectory of the story and its inherently disturbing imagery place Camille Claudel’s viewers at an intersection where the allure of a dangerously passionate woman threatens to give way to the horror of madness.

Thus, from a clinical point of view, the psychosexual pathology revealed in Camille Claudel is not Artemisia’s scopophilia–love of looking. Instead, it is the more disturbing coprophilia–love of excrement, which suggests a fixation at the infantile “smearing” stage. Indeed, this film’s sense of its subject necessarily holds at a distance this very tangible, visceral, sensory engagement with the material. Even as it approximates the sculptor’s spatial and textural sensibility through imaginative use of cinematic technique–camera movement and sound especially (both of which are intensely descriptive and atmospheric in this film)–Camille Claudel finally will not go so far as to equate its own voyeurism and love of craft, even fetishism of technique, with its subject’s mud lust and madness. As a possible component of the cinematic psyche, coprophilia is certainly too threatening an explanation for the filmmaker’s interest in “making.” The shame associated with the repression of excremental pleasures infects this portrait of Claudel with ambivalence and angst.

This ambivalence contributes to the film’s oscillation between mythic images of a productive “madness of mud” and more realistic yet sensitive images of a destructive, paranoid madness. This realistic, seemingly almost justified madness, reflects an inequity that has been bitterly repeated throughout art history–to the extent that it retains any memory at all of women artists. Their stories, especially those of women who worked in the shadow of a great male mentor or peer, are all too often tragic: ending in madness, like Claudel’s; suicide, as with Constance Mayer–apprentice, mistress, and model to Pierre-Paul Prud’hon–who slit her own throat with his razor in 1821; overdose, as with Elizabeth Siddall–wife and model of Dante Gabriel Rossetti–who died of a laudanum overdose in 1862; violent death, as with Ana Mendieta–wife of Carl Andre–who died in 1985 after a “fall” from the window of their Soho loft; grief, as with today’s woman-artist-victim of choice, Frida Kahlo–wife of Diego Rivera–who died, after unspeakable sufferings, of pneumonia and pulmonary embolism in 1954; or, for those lucky enough to retain their sanity and outlive their shadowing counterparts, mere obscurity, as with Lee Krasner (1908-1984), actually slightly older than and in most respects, excluding fame, the equal of her husband, Jackson Pollock. (15)

Abject Desire

The figure of the hard-drinking Jackson Pollock and the large, fierce, muscular action paintings for which he became famous–along with latter-day followers such as the egotistical, macho, neo-expressionist painters of huge ambitious canvases who were dominant in the 1980s (e.g., Julien Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, and Anselm Kiefer)–are prototypes for the character and work of Lionel Dobie in Martin Scorsese’s short but stunning film, Life Lessons (his contribution to the New York Stories anthology). Pollock is tacitly (and punningly) acknowledged as Dobie’s original in the film’s credit sequence, where the New York School’s most famous painter’s characteristic “splatter” is the background to the film’s opening titles. Life Lessons’ story, like Artemisia’s and Camille Claudel’s, concerns a relationship between an older male master and a younger female pupil, but here the student neither rises to nor surpasses the master’s genius. She is an insecure and indifferent painter.

It is not Paulette’s vision or talent that inspire Dobie, but–perhaps more realistically–her youth and beauty, and his desire for her. She is to him that improbably mythic and old-fashioned object–the muse. Though eloquent about the experience of being such a mythic creature (late in the film, Paulette cries out, “Sometimes I feel like a human sacrifice!”), Life Lessons’ main focus is not on the muse but on the master, and the means by which he creates. And this film is the most explicit of the three in its visual focus on artistic facture, featuring sustained and repeated scenes of art-making, equating art-making with filmmaking, offering a cinematic equivalent for virtually every painterly flourish (bold, up-front use of handheld camera; panning and tilting; iris shots; slow motion; jump cuts; filtered shots, to name a few), and suggesting a parallel between the progress (or “action”) of the big painting that Dobie creates in the course of the film and the film narrative itself.

At the film’s outset, the sexual relationship has already ended: Paulette, who has evidently been Lionel Dobie’s live-in apprentice-cum-mistress for some time, informs him that it’s over and she’s moving out, possibly away from New York, which has not been nice to her (she’s just been thrown over by an up-and-coming performance artist for whom she harbors a debilitating passion). Lionel persuades Paulette to stay in New York, in his loft, as his assistant, assuring her that he respects her decision to end their relationship. But he harbors a passion for her that makes hers look like a schoolgirl crush. And while Paulette’s desire disables her artistically, Lionel’s fuels his work. He is catapulted from a state of artistic inertia by lust. The more abject he becomes, the more energetically he paints.

Much of the film illustrates this, as Lionel alternates between pathetic, humiliating encounters with Paulette and ever more vigorous work on his big canvas, as in the scene where he cannot, for the second time in one evening, resist entering her room, and uses an excuse both feeble and obvious in its sexual symbolism: “I think I left my sable brush in here,” he insists when she chides him for entering unbidden. The scene is framed by scenes of Dobie at work, which are noteworthy in several respects. First, in a couple of big, sweeping pans, the power and the glory of Dobie’s art and reputation is established (the accompanying song is about power: it’s Cream’s “Politician”), along with the vast scale and ambition of his work and his thick, creamy, painterly virtuosity. Big, passionate, athletic gestures, in the expressionist vernacular, suggest deep psychosexual forces at work.

That Dobie’s is essentially a sexual energy (and a highly gendered sexual energy at that) is implied by the image of the painter glancing at, then stepping upon a black-and-white photo of a female nude in a magazine–shown in striking jump-cut closeups–followed by a quick cut to viscous yellow paint squirting out of a tube. Then it is confirmed by his almost demented behavior, his silly lost-sable-brush gambit, and his fetishistic focus on Paulette’s foot. “I just wanted to kiss your foot. I’m sorry. It’s nothing personal,” Dobie quite improbably insists. “Do you want me to get you anything?” The scene then succinctly evokes, in the little “blue” movie this question conjures in Paulette’s mind’s eye and the dialogue that follows, her ambivalent sense of erotic power over Lionel. First she remembers (or imagines) him as a tender, confident, clean romantic partner (in a monochromatic sequence shot in shades of blue to Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”). Or does she? The song has already been associated strongly with him. As Ronald Librach puts it, relating the scene to the opening sequence of Godard’s Une Femme mariee:

Here, too, stylization signals an ironic supremacy of images over reality:

that is, of the pathos of fulfilled desire as the theme of an interpretive

pantomime all about the consummation of a relationship between an

artist/lover and the object of his aesthetics and desire

(palette/Paulette). The comic irony of the sequence is ensured by a simple

deflection in continuity: the expressly described look of desire on her

face establishes his point of view. (16)

Paulette sends the soiled, emotionally exposed, abject Lionel on his way: “Do you love me?” she asks. “Love you? I said I did. Yes,” replies Dobie. “What would you do if I left?” she probes. “What would I do? … I’d go up on the roof and howl like a gut-shot dog.” “Well, I don’t love you,” Paulette rejoins. “So what?” says Dobie. He leaves her room and resumes painting with renewed vigor. This time, in a rather intriguing and symmetrical conceit (shot/reverse shot), the process is shown from the painting’s point of view (when the screen looks back at him, though–cf. Artemisia–he is no mere object; he is very much a subject, retaining the brush/phallus and his agency).

Abject, Dobie is in fact powerful, converting his misery into the action that produces the huge, virile, violent paintings so valued by society. That his passion for Paulette–for whom he’ll do almost anything, he claims (kiss a New York City cop on the lips; even stretch her canvases)–not only cannot take precedence over his work but actually fuels it, is evident in a scene where Dobie fails even to notice her. Paulette has come down from her room (visible from the floor of Lionel’s loft as a hole in the wall upon which he repeatedly fixates) to ask him to turn down the music, but he neither hears nor sees her as she stands, at first bemused and then plainly bedazzled by his display of creative force.

Here, too, one sees the explicit erotic force of Dobie’s painting, both in terms of his thrusting and lunging libidinous energy and sensual engagement with the work and in terms of Paulette’s reaction, which betrays evidence, in successively tighter close-ups, of not only admiration but seduction, past and present. The cutting between the impression his work registers on her face, the process, and the work itself, the matching of cinematic gesture with painterly flourish, the choreography of the entire piece to Bob Dylan’s live version (with The Grateful Dead) of “Like a Rolling Stone”–all result in a thrilling vision of creative force, a tour de force (really a perfect term to describe the cumulative effect of Scorsese’s film, Nick Nolte’s performance as Dobie, and the production of the painting).

Another scene demonstrates conclusively the irony of Dobie’s degradation and the function of his desperate lust. He returns from an event at which he witnessed Paulette leaving with a younger, very handsome painter and discovers that she’s brought the guy home: he sees movement and hears voices from his vantage point below her little hole in the wall. In this scene, Scorsese’s use of music is again notable: the handsome Latin rival is named Toro; the song is Procol Harum’s “Conquistador.” Dobie looks–disheartened and long –up at Paulette’s window, then strips off his shirt and paints like a house on fire. He goes over to the radio to tune the dial and, as the sound segues from “Conquistador” to “Nessun Dorma,” a dissolve cuts to him seated, glazed, sweaty, and exhausted, with paint in his beard. Never, perhaps, has the abject been more poignantly realized on film than here, where Dobie sits, seemingly in ruins–lumpish, inert, and filthy–as Puccini’s aria (from Turandot) throbs. As this “lament for both unrelieved fatigue and unfulfilled love” reinforces, Dobie is the very picture of pathos and defeat. (17) But no, after a shower and a cup of coffee he is ready for a confrontation with the “bull.” Toro comes down and asks him for a cup of coffee; Dobie pours him one, and in a revealing, supercilious, racist quip, asks him if he’s a graffiti artist. Then a sudden burst of music shocks, as Dobie adopts his pose before the big canvas and performs the coup de grace. The phallic thrust of the paintbrush signifies. The grin on his face says it all. Toro may have slept with Paulette but he, Dobie, is the better painter (he knows it). Toro’s sexual conquest is nothing to his artistic one; he, not Toro, is the conquistador. Dobie’s sense of superiority derives from his success but also, as the details of the film’s script and setting implicitly suggest, from the very privileges that attend to his sex, age, and race.

The film ends with Paulette leaving as Dobie is completing his grand picture–a canvas as big as a movie screen, filled with action. “You think I just use people,” he charges. “Well, you don’t know anything about me. You don’t know how involved I get, or how far down I go. Hell, I was married four times since before you were even born, so don’t you tell me.” She leaves. He is stricken. At the gallery opening where the product of Dobie’s passion is displayed with other recent work, the lovely young bartender (an aspiring painter), practically throws herself at Dobie’s feet and his next “human sacrifice” is in place–more grist for the mill.

The story of Lionel Dobie and Paulette, finally, is a remake of an ancient story (or is it a myth?)–the story of the genius and his muse. Scorsese sees Dobie’s accomplishment as the gift of genius and the grace of sublimation, what Freud described as “the process through which the excessive excitations from individual sexual sources are discharged and utilized in other spheres, so that no small enhancement of mental capacity results from a predisposition which is dangerous as such.” (18) Although Dobie’s excessive sexual sources are hardly described in Life Lessons as unconscious, they are plainly “utilized in other spheres,” much along Freud’s model. Indeed, in describing the basic nature of the urges that can be sublimated into higher, cultural aims, Freud employs a term peculiarly evocative of the fine arts: “We therefore have to conclude that the sexual impulse-excitations are exceptionally `plastic,’ if I may use the word.” (19) And Freud identifies art as the most privileged product of sublimation, describing the artist, in a now immortal passage which delimits the reader’s picture of an artist’s race, sexual orientation, and gender as much as does the term master, as “urged on by instinctual needs which are too clamorous; he longs to attain to honour, power, riches, fame, and the love of women.” (20) With consummate irony and self-consciousness and not a little immodesty, Scorsese exposes in Life Lessons the sordid side of this gift of sublimation, its psychic cost to both “genius” and, especially, “muse,” as the artistic process consumes the “relationship.”

Myths of Origin and the Cinematic Object

And Scorsese knows of what he speaks. He is, after all, portraying himself (in this case, quite self-consciously, I think) in Lionel Dobie: the mature, celebrated, oft-married artist, renowned for his big, colorful, violent, action-packed, gestural, almost baroque tours de force. Likewise Bruno Nuytten, the cameraman turned director, is at some level portraying himself in Camille Claudel, his film about artists whose work is shown as craft as well as art: tactile, manual, and, in the case of Rodin’s big projects like The Gates of Hell or The Burghers of Calais, also big productions, created by large teams of specialists. And so, naturally, is Agnes Merlet involved in self-portraiture in her image of Artemisia Gentileschi, shown as a woman so turned on by looking at art that she must make it and make it hot. In Merlet’s mind’s eye, the Baroque studio becomes the modern film studio, the painting the cinematic tableau. It’s a simple substitution of one kind of machinery for another.

Despite their titular female protagonists, Artemisia and Camille Claudel ultimately propose a view of artistic or cinematic origins hardly empowering to women, since each constructs art as a product of a female imagination deformed by pathology (scopophilia, coprophilia). Life Lessons, no gem of feminist filmmaking either, only reiterates the more common view of female artistic imagination as feeble, insecure, and distracted by more immanent concerns. But in all three films, the passionate commitment to art is seen not only as inherently and originally sexual in its underlying energies but also as explicitly bound up in sexual forces. In them, the heterosexual artist couple embodies the cinema’s love affair with love, erotic and sublime. The art that seems to issue from this love, product of the erotic engagement, becomes the film itself. The narrative is a mythic one of cinematic origins–the couples personifying the ultimately erotic act of filmmaking–that touches upon the peculiar sensibility of the film and its maker(s), be those involved with the quasi-pornographic experience of looking, the almost fetishistic interest in technique and handling, or heroic passions and the valorization of gesture and production. It’s a narrative that articulates the erotic nature of energies that flow into the production of any art. But by reiterating an ancient and mythic scenario of genius and muse, of master and subject, by focusing–as is usual–on the normative, white, heterosexual couple of older man and younger woman, and by entangling its female protagonists’ artistic passions with images of pathological desire, the narrative finally offers an exclusive myth that aims only to explain–indeed to naturalize–the achievement of those already “known” to be great or potentially great. You might call it the primal scene of canon formation.

This article originated as a talk delivered to the Department of Cinema and Photography at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale on April 30, 1999. I take this opportunity to express my gratitude to my colleagues there for the occasion to present it, and especially to Lilly Boruszkowski, for encouraging me to take up this topic. I am also indebted to David Anthony, Monica Bandholz, Rachel Carlson, Peter Chametzky, Kevin Koron, Tom Mogle, Linda Nochlin, Faustina Robinson, and Rebecca Sittler for their valuable assistance, input, or feedback.


(1.) This topic has received increasing attention in recent years. See, among other contributions, “Le Portrait peint au cinema/The Painted Portrait in Film,” a special number of Iris 14-15 (Fall 1992); Brigitte Peucker, Incorporating Images: Film and the Rival Arts (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995); Angela Dalle Vacche, Cinema and Painting: How Art Is Used in Film (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1996); the exhibition catalogue, Art and Film Since 1945: Hall of Mirrors (Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996); and Susan Felleman, Botticelli in Hollywood: The Films of Albert Lewin (New York: Twayne, 1997). The striking symbolic imbrication of violence, femininity, and art in Legal Eagles, After Hours, and other films of the 80s, is the subject of my current research.

(2.) I have discussed the question of brow height elsewhere, in the context of a discussion of the reception of Albert Lewin’s oeuvre, “How High Was His Brow? Albert Lewin, His Critics and the Problem of Pretension,” Film History 7, no. 4 (Winter 1995): 386-400.

(3.) Artemisia (1997), directed by Agnes Merlet; written by Agnes Merlet, Patrick Amos, and Christine Miller; cinematography by Benoit Delhomme; cast: Valentina Cervi (Artemisia Gentileschi), Miki Manojlovic (Agostino Tassi). Camille Claudel (1988), directed by Bruno Nuytten; written by Marilyn Goldin and Bruno Nuytten; based on the book by Reine-Marie Paris; cinematography by Pierre Lhomme; cast: Isabelle Adjani (Camille Claudel), Gerard Depardieu (Auguste Rodin). Life Lessons (from New York Stories, 1989), directed by Martin Scorsese; written by Richard Price; cinematography by Nestor Almendros; cast: Nick Nolte (Lionel Dobie), Rosanna Arquette (Paulette).

(4.) Andre Breton, “As in a Wood,” in The Shadow and Its Shadow, ed. Paul Hammond (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1991), 82. This piece originally appeared as “Comme dans un bois,” in L’Age du cinema, no. 4-5 (August-November 1951).

(5.) Martin Scorsese. Scorsese on Scorsese, ed. David Thompson and Ian Christie (London: Faber and Faber, 1989), 147-50; and Ronald Librach, “A Nice Little Irony: Life Lessons,” Literature/Film Quarterly 24 (1996): 128-44.

(6.) My sources on Gentileschi and her ordeal are: Mary D. Garrard, “Artemisia’s Trial by Cinema,” Art in America 86, no. 10 (October 1998): 65-69, in which the author draws on the researches published in her larger study, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989); Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin, Women Artists, 1550-1950 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art/New York: Knopf, 1984), 118-24; and Rudolf and Margot Wittkower, Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists (New York: W.W. Norton, 1969), 162-64.

(7.) Garrard, “Artemisia’s Trial by Cinema,” 65.

(8.) “The true story of the first female painter in art history,” according to advertisements for Artemisia. See Garrard, “Artemisia’s Trial by Cinema,” 65. As for Merlet’s avowed feminism, Garrard cites a newspaper article by Kristine McKenna, “`Artemisia’: Artistic License with an Artist,” Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1998, Fl, F10.

(9.) Garrard, “Artemisia’s Trial by Cinema,” 67.

(10.) This line and the psychosexual ambiguities that relate to looking were employed with pointed insight and scathing humor by Hal Ashby’s 1979 film, Being There, in which Peter Sellers played a naif who meant by “I like to watch” that he liked to watch television, and Shirley MacLaine played a sophisticate who understood him to mean something rather kinkier.

(11.) Leonard Maltin’s 1999 Movie & Video Guide (New York: Penguin/Signet, 1998), 199, for instance, describes Camille Claudel as an “overblown biography of the French sculptress (Adjani), who has a `madness of mud’ and who single-mindedly pursues her art.”

(12.) An excellent short discussion of Rodin and Claudel’s relationship and impact on each other’s careers–one that supports assumptions of my argument–is Anne Higgonet’s “Myths of Creation: Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin,” in Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership, ed. Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993), 15-29.

(13.) Assessing the full stylistic and thematic scope of Claudel’s work from the period is very difficult, as she later destroyed most of it. See Reine-Marie Paris, Camille: The Life of Camille Claudel, trans. Liliane Emery Tuck (New York: Arcade, 1988).

(14.) For more biographical and historical background on Claudel, see Higgonet, “Myths of Creation,” or the biographical monograph by the artist’s niece, Reine-Marie Paris (above).

(15.) The most significant book on the subject of artist couples is Chadwick and de Courtivron, eds. Significant Others. “Artistic Coupling” was the subject of a session organized by Susan Felleman and Peter Chametzky at the 82nd annual College Art Association (CAA) meeting held in New York, February 17-19, 1994. The session included an introduction by Felleman and papers by Beth Harris, “`Either Sex Alone Is Half Itself’: Elizabeth Siddall and Dante Gabriel Rossetti”; Renee Riese Hubert, “Surrealist Artist Couples”; and Robert Hobbs, “Lee and Jackson: Symbiosis and Critique,” and as discussants, contemporary artist-couple Nancy Spero and Leon Golub. Abstracts and audio tapes available through CAA.

(16.) Librach, 138.

(17.) Ibid., 136.

(18.) Sigmund Freud, Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, ed. Nandor Fodor and Frank Gaynor (New York: Philosophical Library, 1948), 178.

(19.) Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, trans. Joan Riviere (Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Books, 1952), 302.

(20.) Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, 327.

Susan Felleman is Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. She is the author of Botticelli in Hollywood: The Films of Albert Lewin (Twayne, 1997) and numerous articles on film and art.

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