April 17, 2007

Art porn (sorry Gene)

I think I finally have the wherewithal to get my back tattoo finished, so I'm gathering up my reference pictures and getting ready to go and remind Mike Davis of what the hell it was that he was drawing on me. Since the outlines are done and what remains is the shading and color, I'm taking a slightly different tack and bringing in botanical drawings instead of photographs from life. I think that'll make it a lot easier to explain the level of detail and realism that I want. It probably would have been better to do that in the first place, actually, but it didn't occur to me until just recently.

I first tried to scour the internet for botanical illustrations. It wasn't actually that successful -- besides the tendency for false image results to swamp the useful ones, there was the problem of how to get a physical copy of a digital color image. There's no color printer in my house, but maybe I could go to the... library. Oh.

I work in a library. I work in a library on a campus full of other libraries. There are millions of books on this campus and I spend 8 hours a day in front of a library catalog terminal that tells me exactly what all of those books are. It took me two solid days of thinking about the problem to put these things together.

Several slightly more intelligent days later, I've amassed a small mountain of large, heavy, glossy books of full-color botanical drawings and watercolors. It turns out that the art section at the Berkeley Public Library and the botany section of the Biosciences library on campus are rich with precisely the kind of material I'm looking for (though with one important caveat which I'll get to in a moment). In the Main Stacks, I found a big, brightly colored book of botanical borders from medieval illuminated manuscripts... as well as a note saying that the library had accidentally purchased an extra copy of it, couldn't think of anything to do with it, and sent it to the library bookstore to be gotten rid of cheaply. I will never understand the thinking that goes on in this place.

In browsing through my exciting but tragically impermanent heap of beautiful pictures, I've realized something: there are too many damn paintings of flowers in the world. Apparently the rules of being a fruity sentimental botanical painter say that if it's got petals, it is beautiful and refined and should be studied in enormous detail, from every angle, by every person who picks up a pencil. (If I see another damn gladiolus I may suffer a nervous breakdown.) If it's got fruit, it may be vulgar and should be made the subject of only a few cursory sketches. If, god help us, there's any suggestion that it might be a vegetable -- even if it is actually a fruit -- it is vitally important that it not be drawn or painted at all. Leaves, in any case, are common and unlovely. Focus on the petals.

It didn't occur to me when I started working on this tattoo that there was anything odd about rendering tomatoes and blackberries in loving, colorful detail. It particularly didn't occur to me to think that leaves and stems might be strange parts to fixate on. To my mind they are the plant, and the flowers and fruit are attractive digressions. But in the dozens of books I've thumbed through in three libraries, I've found fewer than five pictures of blackberry vines (slightly more of the blossoms, which don't appear in my tattoo) and only one prosaic tomato plant. I'd have thought that in a body of work largely drawn by bored, respectable, upper-class Victorian married women, it would be the fleshy, conspicuous sex parts of the plants which the artists would shy from painting. Madam, in the name of decency, put a skirt over those stamens!

Posted by dianna at April 17, 2007 10:27 AM

I remember reading someplace that even though we think of the Victorian period as absolutely closed-off about sex, this actually created a culture of almost hysterical underground sexual tension. I think the specific example that I recall was that people would have wallpaper in their parlors with pictures of tassels on it, which was intended as a constant, metonymic visual reminder of the existence of pubic hair. So that while you were sitting primly in your uncomfortable chair receiving your male visitor, and both drinking tea with your pinkies out, you would see a picture of a tassel behind his head, think of the fact that he had pubes, and blush and swoon. And he would be doing the same looking in your direction. But all under the veneer of propriety.

Dude, I said you were "receiving" your gentleman caller. Hur, hur.

At any rate, if this is true -- and I haven't bothered to corroborate it at all and could, in fact, have made it up -- then I can totally imagine these same ladies, blushing and perspiring, going upstairs to paint dewy pink petals and thrusting stamens. Blackberries, though undeniably succulent, don't really look like sex organs to me, although I'm absolutely certain that if you, in particular, put your mind to it, you can come up with some way that they do.

Posted by: katie at April 17, 2007 04:04 PM

Whether or not it's true, I'll support that point of view. It sure sounds like a much more amusing way to envision the Victorian period.

Posted by: Ping at April 17, 2007 04:15 PM

It seems plausible to me. Especially because I've been doing this exercise: I keep thinking of fruits and vegetables and trying to see if they have any suggestive qualities, and then doing the same with items you might find in a Victorian parlor. Guess which category is winning?

Corn? Not sexual. It's too kernelly.
Doilies? Totally. They're like big pasties, for one thing.

Beans and legumes? Not sexual. They look like internal organs, not external ones.
Carved piano legs? Totally. They're ribbed and dildoish.

Spinach? Not sexual. It's just not.
Lampshades? Can you possibly look at those scalloped fringed edges and not think of labia?

Posted by: katie at April 17, 2007 05:04 PM

It does make sense given things like the handkerchief fetish and the sailor who about falls off a mast at the sight of Orlando's ankle. (Cue the Shins: "Just a glimpse of your ankle and I react like it's 1805.") Isn't this one of the many things that Foucault was on about -- that the attempt, or disingenuous "attempt", to drive sex and sexuality out of thought and experience actually implanted it quite firmly and excitingly into all sorts of corners of life where it previously either hadn't existed or hadn't been quite so, well, throbbingly unavoidable?

Gene is going to kill me for what I'm doing to Cementhorizon's Google hits here. Shit. Sorry.

Posted by: Dianna at April 17, 2007 05:16 PM

Can you possibly look at those scalloped fringed edges and not think of labia?

Up until just now, that is precisely what I had always done. Not, sadly, ever again.

Posted by: Dianna at April 17, 2007 05:20 PM

Also, you obviously haven't looked at a kohlrabi lately.

Posted by: Dianna at April 17, 2007 05:25 PM

I can't even imagine what a kohlrabi looks like. Wait, are they the ones that kind of look like boobs? (I'm sorry too, Gene.) (I meant jugs.) I will admit that chayotes are kind of dirty looking. Oh, and figs.

I did have to keep the obvious stuff like cucumbers and daikons off the list to make my point -- although, they're all just long things, so they should really count as the same vegetable for porn purposes. Or else I should be able to count chair legs, fireplace pokers, and, um, other long parlor things all separately.

On a different note, I had real trouble with the phrase "a well-turned ankle" the first time I encountered it. It really sounded like some character in a novel had fallen instantly in love with someone else because she'd suffered a sprain.

Posted by: katie at April 17, 2007 06:07 PM

Kohlrabi are the weird turnipy things that have big fat stems sticking out all over the place instead of just on top. They look like the vegetable kingdom's answer to the Jeopardy question, "What is a clusterfuck?" You should probably just do a Google search at this point. Also, from what I've read they sound quite tasty, although I've never eaten one or known how to go about doing so.

I've heard they can be (hur, hur) pickled, though.

Posted by: Dianna at April 17, 2007 08:30 PM