Thérèse Dreaming, Balthus, oil on canvas, 1938. WikiArt.org. Fair Use
Author’s Warning: This essay contains content and images that may be offensive to some readers.
Being an ex-pat living in the Mediterranean has its perks, especially if you love the fine arts as I do. Proximity to massive museum collections within walking distance of my home is absolute paradise, never mind the perpetual sunshine, good food and fine wines, and, of course, beautiful woman and handsome men. Wrap this enticing package in the genial nature of people who live and let live and you get why I thrive in blissful exile.
I’m a fine arts aficionado with a very modest collection of paintings and sculptures. Most of my pieces come from fine arts auction houses. If you haven’t attended a fine arts auction, well, you’re missing something wonderful. It offers all the charm and grace of the Italian puppet theatre as well as the pageantry, blood, and gore of the Spanish bull ring.
You won’t find any contemporary photos of naked children in these auctions (thanks to Interpol) but you will discover more than enough classic and modern paintings to whet the most jaded imagination. Ever since fresco painters decorated the walls of villas at Pompei, and especially after oil paints were invented around the 15th century, artists have pandered to mankind’s prurient interests, for money of course. Then as now, artists needed to earn a living.
In an era before the emergence of angry virtue signallers preaching to group-thinking disciples eager to suspend evildoers from the nearest Twitter branch, artists infused their paintings with messages about the sexual exploitation of minors and those incapable of making decisions for themselves, about the dangers inherent in relationships of unequal power, and the outright selling of children into sexual slavery.
The Satyr by Antonio Fillol (1870–1930), oil on canvas. Collection of the Fillol family. Public domain image
A satyr according to Wikipedia is a male nature spirit with a permanent erection. In The Satyr, an irate father has sworn out a denuncia against a man in the village for having molested his little daughter (or perhaps granddaughter) and exhorts the terrified little girl to point out her abuser. The victims are common people, humbled by the authorities comprised of the well-dressed gentleman in the bowler hat and the magistrate seated behind the desk. The little girl withers under the gaze of her abuser.
Fillol is careful in selecting his colours. Blue for the enraged father’s jacket, denoting royalty or even divinity, symbolizes that he is advocating for justice and owns the moral high ground in this tableau. Blue is a masculine colour, associated with wisdom, steadiness, and compassion.
The most subtle but powerful colour in Fillol’s palette is the red used to depict the child’s shawl which encases her small torso like a massive bleeding wound, suggesting violation and the consequent suffering that now envelopes her. Ask any human what is the first colour that comes into their mind and most will reply “red,” and for good reason. Red is the colour of blood. Nowhere is there any other use of red in the picture. The red over a pink skirt screams that the violation has left her tainted, damaged, robbed of innocence. The girl has been raped.
The two villains on the left naturally are clothed in black, symbolizing that they partake in a mystery, a secret. The more earthy tones of the other men’s clothing and their incredulous looks suggest they are distancing themselves from their peers, feigning innocence or even ignorance of such acts. All wear black trousers because, one and all, they have something to hide, and where better to conceal such secrets than in darkness?
The magistrate's clerk at the desk is bored as hell. He sees these cases every day and doesn’t think much of the participants, all of whom are likely to be illiterate commoners. He wants to go home to his wife and a warm supper but human frailty and the evil that lurks in men’s hearts won’t allow him.
The Satyr is best understood in the context of early 20th century Spain, a nation with >60% illiteracy ruled by a landed oligarchy with the Catholic Church at its back. Villages were governed by “caciques,” a South American Indian word meaning “chief”. The cacique was usually a large landowner with sufficient authority to compel the civil guard to do his bidding in the tradition of a local lord and his vassals. He often claimed sexual authority over women and girls in his zone of influence. Most of his subjects were day labourers dependant on the cacique and his overseers on the large estates for the very food in their children’s mouths.
To bring a civil suit or even a simple “denuncia” against a cacique and any of his relatives or friends was tantamount to suicide. The men accused of molesting the little girl in this painting have little to fear. The poor father has everything to lose but his dignity.
The Satyr is a powerful bit of social commentary. Despite its artistic merit and bold attempt at redress, in 1906, The Satyr along with three other similar paintings were deemed unworthy to “appear in a public competition”. Fillol’s painting “The Human Beast,” a work addressing the consequences of prostitution on the family, was rejected by the 1897 National Exhibition of Fine Arts as “immoral,” although, like The Satyr, no naked flesh was portrayed as commonly found in most allegorical and many religious paintings.
Fillol was a social realist as was Picasso in his pre-Cubist years while those who controlled the power bases in society feared their modest power to sway public opinion away from the status quo. Like today, anything that threatened control enjoyed by the uber-rich was labelled socialist or communist. The so-called masses, and especially women and girls, were a resource to be exploited by those enjoying money and power.
Blame it on the patriarchy, or whatever; nonetheless, little has changed in the intervening century.
Crysálida by Pedro Sáenz Sáenz (1863–1927), oil on canvas (1897), Sevilla, Cuartel General Fuerza Terrestre del Ejército de Tierra, long-term loan from Museo Nacional del Prado. Public domain image
The painting “Chrysalis” graces a chamber of the Spanish armed forces’ facilities at Seville. The military uprising (golpe de estado) that signalled the beginning of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), killed hundreds of thousands and exiled thousands more, and plunged Spain into 40 years of a fascist dictatorship, began at this military base.
Unlike Fillol’s “The Human Beast” that was rejected by judges as “immoral,” Chrysalis won second prize at the same National Art Exhibition of 1897 and was purchased by the state.
The term “chrysalis” alludes to the allegorical cocoon inside which a girl transforms into a woman, the insect pupa of a butterfly.
Pedro Sáenz knows that he’s catering to the pedophilic urges of his clientele, bathing his child figure in a warm, earthy colour scheme while throwing in some random child’s toys for emphasis. The “hula hoop” doubles as an artistic device that carries the eye from the girl’s compliant, sexualized gaze straight to her vagina. The dark ball at the right of the panel, like the metaphoric vases in classical paintings, repeats the hoop motif adding a bit of rhythm while alluding to the child’s as-yet infertile womb, the vessel wherein life initiates. The pink hair bow is a nice touch suggesting innocence on tap, soon to be defiled by the highest bidder.
Like today’s children, from toddlers to teens who are groomed and sexualized for child beauty pageants that cater to adult fantasies, 19th-century parents enthusiastically supplied their children as artists’ models and more, anticipating the attention and riches that might flow back to them. Think JonBenét Ramsey.
The painting Chrysalis isn’t anything profound; rather easy on the eye and not too hard on the intellect. It is what it is.
Desnudo de Niña Sobre Escalera (Nude girl on a ladder)
Desnudo de Niña Sobre Escalera by Alfonso Sidro (1872–1935), oil on canvas. Public domain
Like the prepubescent subject, even the painting itself is left in the process of development. The hands and feet are not yet fully formed and even the background suggests more work to come, as if the painter were interrupted by a police raid. Nonetheless, the most powerful of icons (a human face delineated by the subject’s nipples, belly button, and vaginal area) are fully painted. I believe the artist never intended to bring any other parts of the canvas to that same level of detail. He left them raw for a reason.
The flood of paintings of pubescent and pre-pubescent girls and boys that issued from 18th and 19th-century studios satisfied a market for images that reflected what was common, if not entirely above board, in society. The sexual exploitation of children wasn’t something that attracted hordes of angry virtue signallers. In an age before photography and the onslaught of social media, if something didn’t cause a political uproar, it was usually tolerated.
At worst, an artist only needed to assign a classical, mythological, or even religious title to a painting (there were thousands of naked Venuses, Mary Magdalenes and biblical Susanas making the rounds). The brisk trade in what today would be deemed child pornography went unimpeded, just another commercial exercise. People with money to spend on their peculiar kinks dictated what the art studios and workshops produced.
Artists didn’t need to look far to find willing models of either sex. Women married at a very young age, as soon as they were physically able to conceive, generally with older men. Life for the masses was mostly nasty, brutal, and relatively short. It wasn’t unusual among the poor, who comprised the majority in every society, for very young women to engage in sex acts for modest recompense, something that was assumed part of the role of indentured servants, cooks, and housekeepers.
Girls who fell victim to their own passions, as depicted by Fillol in his “immoral” The Human Beast, usually ended up in the sex trade. Paris boasted some 180 brothels where women and girls of all ages and colours offered a broad smorgasbord of services for a price. Houses of prostitution were legal in France until 2016.
Retrato Infantil (Child Portrait)
Retrato Infantil by Rafael Cervantes Gallardo. Image Source: Isbilya Subastas catalogue
Like Antonio Fillol’s “The Satyr,” there isn’t any naked flesh visible in Rafael Cervantes Gallardo’s “Retrato Infantil.” Otherwise, that’s all the two paintings share in common.
I’m not sure how to even approach this disturbing painting. A child performing a hand job? Sperm gushing into the proverbial vessel of life? An angry sea (source of all life) as a backdrop? Or is all that water just a lot of shattering glass?
All the iconography from Antonio Correggio to Julio Romero de Torres is here on display. I just don’t know what to do with it. Like, in-your-face, much? I suppose it just goes to show that an artist doesn’t need to violate any laws, not even the laws of propriety and good taste, to be obscene.
Interested readers can bid on the above painting that goes on the auction block on December 16, 2021. Bids start at 1,200 euros (USD $1,355).
See you at the auction house.
Image source: Isbilya Subastas catalogue
Nude Girl by Zinaida Serebriakova (1884–1967), pastel 1920. Image source: WikiArt.org. Public domain.
Zinaida Yevgenyevna Serebriakova was a marvelous and highly underrated Russian (later French) painter. Her works sell in the half-million-dollar range at Christie’s and other major auction houses.
Much of Serebriakova’s neoclassicist work focuses on female subjects, usually involved with children, personal grooming, work, or simply celebrating life. She was an amazing portraitist. Serebriakova’s vibrant, joyful style doesn’t play to prurient male (or female) interests per se, although most of her nude figures are highly erotic.
I’ve included her Nude Girl and Sleeping Girl in this essay to emphasize the broadest possible range of aesthetic interest from images intended purely as aids to masturbation to those celebrating the allure of the human body at all stages of life. It’s at this end of the artistic spectrum that Serebriakova’s body of work squarely belongs.
Sleeping Girl, oil on canvas, 1923. Source: WikiArt.org. Public domain
For a good overview of this artist’s work, please use this link.
La Niña Desnuda (The Naked Girl)
La Niña Desnuda by Gonzalo Bilbao Martinez (1860–1938), oil on panel c. 1920. Private collection. Author image
La Niña Desnuda is the subject of my serialized novel available free on Medium.
Readers may sense that I enjoy some personal history with this painting. Like Pedro Sáenz’s Chrysalis, the subject sports a pink bow in her hair, suggesting innocence while her lanky arms carry the eye diagonally across the canvas and straight to her nether regions, discretely concealed behind rough, peasant hands. She defends her innocence, though not too vigourously. It’s a resigned pose. The girl has no authority or control over her young body that has been rented to the portraitist by the hour.
The underpainting and background to this portrait are rendered in tones of forest green, conferring an almost mythological context to the piece. Think of her as the nymphet Io, daughter of the river god Inachus, emerging from a reflecting pool (in this case, the girl’s aqua-coloured clothing resting on a chair) to catch the eye of Jupiter who, in the form of a dark cloud, proceeds to envelop and have his way with her.
The uncharacteristic blush in the young model’s cheeks and verdant, quasi-electric glow surrounding her torso suggest a heightened state of emotion, latent sexuality tinged with a dose of plain, old fashioned shame; the perfect aphrodisiac for flagging libidos.
Gonzalo Bilbao Martinez was a respected Spanish artist, a member of the Royal Academy, commander of the Order of Carlos III, a commander of the French Legion of Honour, and an officer of the Crown of Belgium, among other accolades. Nonetheless, artists produce whatever their clients want to purchase.
Gazing down the shaft of time, value judgments are much too easy to make. The moral high ground is easily occupied without a fight.
Is La Niña Desnuda a magnificent painting? Yes, it is. Does it (and every painting listed in this essay) deserve a place in our hearts? Yes, they do.
Check out some of my other essays on art and aesthetics on Medium.