Monday, 23 April 2018 06:00

CLOTHING AND NUDITY 3

EROTICS OF DRESSING

Along with an erotics of undressing, there is in Christian culture an erotics of dressing that offers no less charm and wealth of articulation. It is founded on the biblical comparison between the body and the robe, and between these two extremes it creates a transit that makes possible a number of different results.
The most acute contemporary interpreter of the erotics of dressing is Pierre Klossowski, for whom eroticism is inseparable from the experience of incarnation. From the experience of incarnation he draws the notion that the nudity of bodies is not the point of arrival of a process of undressing, of violation, but on the con-trary it is the consequence of a process of enclothing, materialization, personifica-tion. The notion of nudity itself makes no sense, neither in its classical Greek meaning of ideal model, nor in its Christian Reform meaning of naked body. What counts is not being nude, but being a body, physical and material flesh. The origin of this concept may be found in the patristic writings of the first centuries of Chris-tianity. Tertullian sustained categorically that ”everything that exists is body of a determined sort; nothing is incorporeal except what does not exist.” The funda-mental point of reference is not therefore Christ`s suffering, the naked and wounded body nailed to the Cross, but rather His Incarnation, the spirit become flesh, and the glorious Resurrection in flesh and blood. The demonic, says Klossowski, is not carnal but spiritual. The modem world`s sickness does not consist in the preva-lence of the external over the internal, of false clothes over naked truth, but rather in the fact that the spiritual can no longer be incarnated, in the failed possibility of possession. The phenomenon of possession is not therefore a manifestation of the demonic, but rather its very exorcism. Because of the simple fact that it is incar-nate, the demonic ceases to be demonic.
From this comes the liberating force shared by both art and eroticism. Both fur-nish an exterior covering, an image, a simulacrum to that which otherwise lacks reality. They make present what is absent. They make visible what is merely spiri-tual. Bodies and art participate in the same work of salvation. They confer form and they redeem what in itself is only nonbeing, negation and contradiction. Both are the actualization of something incommunicable and unrepresentable. This some-thing, which Klossowski defines as ”demonic,” does not come from within, from subjectivity, from the self. Rather, it comes from outside the self. Thus, it is not expression but resemblance. Both eroticism and art move in a sphere of mimesis. The imitation, however, can never be verified, because the original, the phantasm, the demon, can never appear as such.
In the eroticism of dressing, the body is considered a garment: ”It inhabits other bodies as if they were its own and in the same way it applies its own to others.” The essence of eroticism is thus hospitality, that is, dressing what is foreign as if it were familiar and what is familiar as if it were strange. The corporeal transitivity reveals itself in Klossowski`s narrative trilogy Les lois de l`hospitalité in the act of giv-ing one`s own spouse to one`s guest. Such an act, which is as irreducible to common adultery as it is to libertine prostitution, emphasizes in the extreme the idea of body as garment. Only by allowing others to take on a body that belongs to us can we continue to see it in its exteriority, as clothing.
The concept of the body as resemblance prompts Klossowski to reevaluate nude statuary in traditional and academic painting, the nude as pictorial object of the old masters. In fact, he criticizes the avant-garde, which from Klee onward opposes the body`s anatomy to ”the anatomy of the painting itself” and thus emancipates itself from any model - any exterior original. In this way, Klossowski says, the ”graceful nude” becomes gradually disarticulated and dissolved by the imposition of painting`s autonomous laws. According to him, the nude`s decadence from the beginning of the twentieth century on is a manifestation of modem iconoclasm that leads to arbit-rary production in which possession no longer operates. It is nevertheless legitimate to ask whether the nineteenth-century academic nude could be defined as truly erotic. In the final analysis, the process of dressing that Klossowski defends results in an ultraformalism and neoclassicism based on the contemplation of pleasing surfaces without the possibility of activating a transit between clothing and nudity.
There is, therefore, a limit to dressing, beyond which the notion of clothing makes no sense and gets stuck in a sepulchral immobility. The courtesans of ancient Rome, described by Klossowski in his book Origines culturelles et mythiques d`un certain comportement des dames romaines, do not have statuesque bodies, but simulacra of flesh that are rocking and shaking between the arms of the spectators. In another very fine text, La monnaie vivante, Klossowski mentions industrial slaves, referring to fashion models, pinup girls and film stars, whose bodies are rescued from their status as merchandise to the extent that they are transformed into the general equiva-lent of exchange value - into living, circulating coinage.
That is why the great interpreters of the erotics of dressing should not be sought in nineteenth-century academic painting, but rather in Baroque art, where movement was considered essential. The transit it established between clothing and nudity shows up in two fundamental ways: in the use of the erotics of drapery or attire, as we see in Bernini, and in the depiction of the body as a living garment, as we see in anatomical illustrations.
Drapery acquired autonomy very slowly in the history of painting. In the first half of the fifteenth century, in his treatise De pictura, Leon Battista Alberti pro-claimed that drapery is dependent on what it covers: ”Folds act in the same way, emerging like branches from the trunk of a tree. In this way they adhere to all the movements so that no part of the cloth is bare of movement. In Verrocchio`s school between 1470 and 1480, drapery achieved independent representation, and later, primarily because of Leonardo`s work, it became a determining element in figu-rative representation. Nevertheless, in his Trattato della pittura (Treatise on Painting), Leonardo himself recommended not encumbering cloth with ”a confusion of too many folds,” but rather letting it fall simply and plainly. In the second half of the sixteenth century, under the influence of the Council of Trent, the premises for a new view of drapery that would free it of preoccupa-tions with realism were accepted. Representations of the Resurrection and even more significantly of the Ascension of Christ and the Assumption of the Virgin played a determining role in this process. The place once occupied by the naked, cruci-fied body in Reformation spirituality was now taken by the clothed body of the tri-umphant Resurrection. Thus, a new erotic sensibility was born, one that saw clothing in the light of a new body redeemed from sin and innocent at last. Religious orders played a role in this process, promoting the iconographic celebration of their saints and imposing a model human figure entirely wrapped and clothed in a tunic.
It is necessary to keep these premises in mind in order to fully understand the extraordinary erotic magic of Bernini`s masterpiece, the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, made for the Cornaro chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. Its magic does not depend simply upon the angel`s splendor, the evident sexual symbolism of the arrow, or upon the expression that crosses the saint`s lovely face, clearly indicating that she is about to faint, but mostly on the fact that Saint Theresa`s body disappears in the drapery of her tunic. It has undergone a transformation that has emancipated it from human form, while it still projects all the impetuous and vibrant shuddering of a body in ecstasy. This is why the damaged terracotta model for the work preserved in the Hermitage in Leningrad seems even more significant than the finished marble. By conceding less to the formal unity of the work, it accentuates the essential: the transit between body and clothes, the displacement of what lies beneath the drapery.
The deep cavities formed in the cloth of the tunic repeat the folds of a body that continually offers itself, that invites stimulation, arousal, penetration. In the fin-ished work, the angel has the arrow in one hand and with the other he prepares to uncover the saint`s breasts. But his pose, much more static than in the terracotta version, demonstrates the incongruity of the act that he is about to perform. In fact, transit has completely 11ulfed the form of her body and transformed it into fabric.
The passage of Saint Theresa`s natural body into the glorious body of her tunic is a transit from same to same that recalls the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. In Catholicism the experience par excellence of Christ`s body and blood does not occur in the contemplation of the Cross, but in Holy Communion. Christ is pre-sent in the Host, just as Saint Theresa`s body is present in her tunic. It makes no sense to seek anything beneath the fabric: ”Theresa lives essentially in her tunic.” Here, triumphantly innocent in her material covering, in her autonomous and self--sufficient clothing, everything is given. Nevertheless, this new body of hers is not an immobile form. The sacramental presence is a living presence; it is ”an ever-renewed motion. . . that sees clearly how form is only one aspect of what exists.” It does not find peace, rest or repose in a pleasing surface, nor in a spiritual marr-iage nor in theatricality as an end in itself. Rather, it tirelessly and continually `flows, ebbs, moves and shifts.
Baroque erotics, however, were not exhausted in the tunic of Saint Theresa. They continued on the path that leads from clothing to body. Baroque nudity is not an end to a process of disrobing. It is a resplendent ”tunic of flesh” that in no way differs from the ”tunics of light” spoken of by the Church Fathers. This was already evid-ent in Bernini`s nudes, in the Apollo and Daphne marble or in Truth Unveiled, in which nudity and drapery are placed side by side in complete and surprising autonomy. The body as a garment celebrated its triumphs with those great painters who were the most exceptional interpreters of the erotics of dressing. It is enough to mention Rubens, who exalted the texture of skin with incomparable effect and who set up erotic transits between skin and fur, as in the famous Het pelsken; or Poussin, who orchestrated vast compositions in which nudity and drapery are treated with the same indifferent detachment; or Velasquez, painter of glorious garments and of a silken Venus at Her Mirror. The high point of this way of understanding the body occurred in Boucher, who painted ”tunics of flesh” that do not even seem naked, and who did a canvas that shows Venus disarming Cupid, a symbolic representation of the suspension of the iconoclastic impulse.
The impulse is suspended, not by being postponed, nor by being held behind a veil, but by being rendered useless through the awareness that bodies are garments, not statues, clothing, not substantial forms. From this awareness came Baroque ana-tomical drawings that pass a surgical blade, the razor`s edge, through Poussin`s pretty ”tunics of flesh,” open them up and pull the layers back to show the pleasing sur-faces of the muscles and internal organs, celebrating to the utmost their erotic charm. The most significant work conceived from this perspective is probably the treatise by Goffredo Bidloo, Anatomia humani corporis (The Anatomy of the Human Body), published in Amsterdam in 1685 and illustrated with stupendous drawings by Gerard de Lairesse, an artist of Poussinian taste and sensibility. Medical doctors as well as artists considered it useless. But it constitutes one of the high points of Baroque eroticism, and it furnishes an extraordinary counterpart to Bernini`s ”Saint Theresa.” In the latter, clothing was as vibrant and lively as a body, and, in the for-mer, the body was as external and glorious as a garment. In both cases the subject is annihilated, one in ecstasy, the other in death.
The representation of the body as garment was certainly not a Baroque novelty. It occurred in fifteenth-century anatomical drawing. Beginning with Vesalius`s Fabrica, published in 1543, there was a whole series of anatomical works, initially made for medical doctors, and later expressly for artists, that represented skinned bodies with flesh left on the hands. While these clearly bore a relationship to the paintings of the period (especially to Titian and Michelangelo), for the most part they never rose above the aesthetic category of the horrible. A transit between life and death is established, because the cadavers are represented as objects of dissection that are indiscernible from objects of erotic attention. This is precisely the transit created in the illustrations to Bidloo`s treatise, which represent the skinned, lifeless bodies of a young man and woman. In these illustrations there is no hint of decomposition, nothing to remind us of slaughterhouses or dis-memberment. The internal organs are as pretty as curving breasts, buttocks or vulva. The erotics of dressing go beyond the skin and dress the insides of the body. Even the underside of the skin, delicately folded back to face outward, remains clean and bloodless. It resembles suede or velvet, a nicer fabric than the funeral shroud that wraps the body or the cloth that ties hair, but not essentially dif-ferent from them.
At first glance, nothing distinguishes these cadavers, drawn, as the frontispiece says, ad vivum, from living bodies in a moment of careless abandon, stretched out as if asleep. In an extremely pleasant gesture, the dead woman`s hands cunningly follow the opened flap of her skin. The hands seem almost to come forward on their own in order to offer a view of something not internal, but of a finer and more praise- worthy fabric. The illustrations represent a complete dissection in progressive sequence without ever exposing anything intimate or secret. From the sound and healthy corpse shown in the first illustration to the skeleton drawn in the last, there are 105 drawings full of transits from the same to the same. His curls, her pubic hair, the wings of the fly that accidentally lights on his belly, her turgid nipples, his skinned penis that stands up majestically while little nails tack down the scrotum onto the table. . . it is all clothing, covering, fabric. The tendons resemble the cord`s fibers that hold the corpse up by the throat or the straps that bind the wrists together. Even the bones are presented as fabric, albeit somewhat threadbare. Everything is reduced to its minimal terms, cut to pieces and drawn from every angle, such as the tiny footbone illustrated in the final drawing. Everything is fabric, clothing to the very end. Everything turns to dust, but dust is still an extreme covering; it envelops everything.
Translated into 11lish by Roger Friedman.
Published in ZONE 4, Fragments for a History of the Human Body, edited by Michel Feher with Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi, New York 1989.
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