Albrecht Dürer’s pre-pornographic Venus

Albrecht Dürer, Indoctrination into Measurement, 1525

Albrecht Dürer, Indoctrination into Measurement, 1525

A screen is interposed between the student draughtsman and his model, a youthful reclining Venus, the artist and his model separated by a rectangle, a wire grid of rationality, a mapping of space and flesh. The draughtsman’s indoctrination into measurement is that of the model as well. As he learns to measure, she learns to be measured, and the screen that lies between them separates their spaces, also binding them together, an artifact of assessment casting its spell of organized space and neutralizing the immorality of the voyeur’s desire.

Although the moment on display in this woodcut is neutral, a second, stronger moment emerges from behind the one displayed – the instant after, in which the model has just re-concealed her most intimate of organs. The draughtsman’s eye insistently ignores his model’s nudity, concentrating a bit too fervently on his task at hand like a schoolboy who, catching a glimpse of his teacher’s panties, detours his gaze from the forbidden and desired regions of her body.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, David and Bathseba, 1526

Lucas Cranach the Elder, David and Bathseba, 1526

Without being pornographic itself, this Dürer print contains all the elements of the pornographic image. As in all pornography the image’s subject is less the model’s nudity than the tracing of the line between the voyeuristic eye and its object, in this case as in most, a woman. As the student of art receives his “Indoctrination into Measurement” it is the model who herself is placed upon the scales of judgment through this vision, through this act of watching (and its complementary pretense of not-watching).

We are not yet in the space of unadulterated lust in which the voyeur’s evidently lascivious gaze is a proxy for our own (once-forbidden) gaze as in the voyeuristic themes of Bathsheba being watched by King David from the battlements on high as she bathes, or of Susanna’ accosting by the two lecherous elders. The space and time which this image occupies is still that of the prudish refusal of desire, of the shame which arises from the forbidden sight of the now-covered female organ, shame emerging the woodcut, although unportrayed, is the very image one cannot ignore.

It is this mortification which makes the image pre-pornographic rather than pornography pure. The woodcut does not luxuriate itself in the act of voyeurism, even thought it contains all the elements of which the pornographic image is composed – the artist’s objectifying regard, its model’s acceptation, the world’s framing into a rectangular tableau, the grid as element of composition, the relationship of power which the grid establishes, and the intercalation of the screen as mediator, not only between the regard and its object but between substanceless image and material world.

Tintoretto, Susanna and the Elders, ca. 1560

Tintoretto, Susanna and the Elders, ca. 1560

This pre-pornographic image contains hidden in its structure the grain of the pornographic image to come, the picture we can only too easily imagine when we place ourselves in the artist’s point of view. From our vantage point as voyeur of the print, we see a reclined woman suggestive of a nubile but virginal young Venus of classic beauty. Yet, when we project our eye into the draughtsman’s, and see with his vision, through the grid, the modest image of Venus lying upon her side is replaced with the frontal view of large fleshy legs looming with promise in the foreground, guarded over by a heaving breast and watchful eye of the model, all the lines of the legs and body converging to one hidden place both in the woodcut and the woman’s body. The pedagogical print which is to educate the artist in the laws of proportion no longer shows the idealized composition of the young nude reclining comfortably on her side, but instead sexualizes the space through the scaling of her flesh, on display for the regard hiding behind its screen in desire and in shame.

The artist’s regard is our own, and his indoctrination into scale is ours as well.  Like the scientist or the doctor, the rational artist (as opposed to the inspired artist) is granted access to the forbidden vision of the female body, and in so doing grants us our own longed-for access to it. Looking at this image, we understand the draughtsman’s anxiety, as he cannot help but feel our own predatory and voyeuristic gaze upon him. In his own act of looking, the draughtsman understands that he is not alone, that his act of voyeurism has its own voyeur as well, so that with an admixture of lust and guilt he presents us his stiff back and rigid hand, his calculating gaze making a show of coldness in the hopes we will not see what is too plainly portrayed – not only the origin of the world, but that of measurement as well.

Courbet Gustave, L'Origine du Monde, 1866

Gustave Courbet, L’Origine du Monde, 1866


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