In 1975 I was asked to design a poster for the American distributor of a French film called Maîtresse. The director was Barbet Schroeder and the stars were Gerard Dépardieu and Bulle Ogier with costumes by Karl Lagerfeld. These names suggested quality and I agreed to fly to Paris for a private viewing.
The film subsequently obtained limited release in the UK because of its explicit sexual scenes. The beautifully filmed story charted the dual existence of an attractive and stylish blonde who’s other self was a raven-haired dominatrix seductively clothed by Lagerfeld, who operated a house of pain for well-heeled members of the community. Sitting alone in the tiny theatre I was, in turn enthralled and scared to death by the unfolding action. Blonde Bulle Ogier could transform herself into a raven-haired temptress in a Jekyll and Hyde world of her own design.
With hindsight there were other reasons for my attraction to such a heroine, unconscious at the time. A few years before, Vidal Sassoon had created what became an iconic hairstyle typified by the image of Mary Quant and the image of the Hollywood legend Louise Brooks. We purchased such a wig which so transformed my wife that she went unrecognised by some of our closest friends at a party. At the time of the poster commission I was about to part from my blonde wife of fourteen years and fall in love with a vivacious brunette whose echoes of Louise Brooks was not unlike the movie temptress Maîtresse.
I executed an oil painting larger than the format required for the poster so that the detail would remain sharp in reproduction. On seeing the image of a dark haired dominatrix with a bullwhip the distributor felt that it would be too stormy for use in newspaper advertising – I asked him if he had seen the movie?! I was loath to water down my image, indignant that I should compromise my art, but relented when my wife pointed out that it was a poster commission with commercial imperatives of its own. The oil paint was still wet so I changed the hair to blond and the bullwhip was exchanged for a bunch of keys. A long distance phone call assured me that they liked the changed image they received as a phototransparency. When once I had received the cheque a few days later, the paint being still wet, I returned it to my original statement.
Because the picture had been conceived as an illustration I never considered including it in any of my exhibitions, but in recent years for my own self-edification I expanded on the idea. What would the image look like if she were behind the curtain? What if she bent down to pick up the fallen letters? What if she had a rest? I realised the series was complete when the body of the Maîtresse became the gap between the curtains and the paint took over.
Usually erotic shock in visual art has only limited staying power. Nowadays Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), so much analyzed, does not shock anyone, not even schoolchildren. Nor do Courbet’s The Origin of the World (1866) or Magritte’s Rape (1945), which superimposes the nude body of a woman onto her face, still distress museum goers. As for Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs, their appearance in the post-modern cannon signifies their acceptance as marvelous works of art. Because movies present extended narratives, they can be more shocking than paintings. In its day, the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) certainly was shocking. Now, however, when many films are more shocking, it has become a classic example of montage.
In 1969 Allen Jones made Hatstand, Table and Chair, fiberglass sculptures of women transformed into items of furniture. Chair, the one that concerns me here, has two components: the almost naked woman lying on her back; and, the black seat cushion for a chair, which is supported by her body. That sculpted figure alone would hardly be shocking nowadays. And as for the chair, it is just a chair. Although her position is obviously uncomfortable, sitting on the chair above her hardly seems an upscale sadistic activity. Of course, for all I know, some men (or women) may fantasize occupying such a seat. But this seems an odd, even a peculiar fantasy if I can use that word in this context. For most of us, I think, neither element of the sculpture is especially shocking. And yet the combination is oddly potent. Why then is Chair still shocking?
To speak in an academic way, Jones’ Chair synthesizes modernist artistic traditions that ordinarily are entirely distinct by bringing together two distinct elements: a tromp l’oeil sculpted figure; and the ready-made. Duane Hanson’s realistic sculptures were shocking and so surprised us because they seem so real, especially when they are set directly on the floor; usually naturalistic sculptures are on pedestals, which signifies that they are works of art. And of course ready-mades also were shocking when they originally appeared, because we don’t expect to find bottle racks, snow shovels, and urinals in art galleries. I identify the chair in Chair as a ready-made because it, unlike the chairs found in the decorative arts department of museums, is not a chair that was originally made for someone to sit on: rather, it is a would-be functional artifact which has been transformed by Jones into a context making it an element of a sculpture. In that way, his chair is like the basketball in Jeff Koons’ One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (1985), an object which, inaccessible because it is suspended in a tank, has become one part of a work of art.
By now neither of Chair’s components are still shocking. And yet, this combination of sculpted woman and chair remains shocking. According to some Surrealists, what can be visually shocking is an unexpected juxtaposition of otherwise not-shocking artistic subject matter. That is what happens with Chair. How surprising that this strange object remains shocking almost half a century after its creation. In a perfect museum installation, I am suggesting, Chair should be set between Duchamp’s Fountain and One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank. I am in total awe of Jones (and Duchamp and Koons) because it’s not easy to concoct shocking works of art employing just banal materials from mass culture.