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Chapter IX of ‘The erotic eye and its nude’

'I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter
and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.'
Shakespeare, Othello (I,i)

In chapter III we described how the eye’s seizure of power transformed the nude into a hermaphrodite. In chapter VI, we saw how clothes completed this movement. Time has come to describe a second series of transformations, whereby the nude is transformed into the beast with two backs that excludes the third onlooker. This transformation is above all elicited by the capture of the nude in the image, which consolidates the eye’s seizure of power: the image only renders the visual aspect of the appearance and forbids any tactile or genital contact. Such double prohibition has far-reaching consequences for the relation of the erotic eye to its nude.

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How, to begin with, does the introduction of an image influence the relation of the lover to his beloved?

Beauty is but a furtive moment in the ever changing unfolding of erotic display; we are only granted to enjoy it as long as our beloved is with us and as long as she loves us; and it resides in a body that is subject to an irreversible decay (Dorian Gray). Not surprising that the eye wants to capture the furtive erotic appearance in an image to be able to permanently enjoy it, especially since clothes bereave us of free access to the nude.

The most obvious subject matter for such an image is the overall appearance of the body, especially the beauty of the face. Given the purely visual nature of these two subjects, their - equally purely visual - depiction in an image will perfectly do. Granted, the making of an image - especially the intervention of a camera - might disturb the spontaneity of erotic display, but this obstacle can easily be circumvented with some skill and devotion.

Encouraged by the splendour he managed to catch in the image, the lover may feel inclined to catch further stages of seduction, if not the beauty of an exalted body. But this time his endeavour cannot fail to run up against technical boundaries. As soon as the lover proceeds to making an image – as soon as he starts manipulating the brush, the chisel or the camera – he inevitably has to suspend precisely the seduction that caused the exaltation of his beloved. Worse still, the vantage point from where the delight of the exaltation happens to be relished, does not necessarily coincide with the optimal vantage point from where the camera can shoot it.

The only way to solve this problem is to stage the whole proceedings. The lover might ask his beloved to adopt the required pose. He then has to retire to a technical vantage point. He thereby not only leaves himself out of the image, but outmanoeuvres himself as a lover as well. No longer in a position to exalt his beloved, he might even ask her to touch and stroke herself, if not to masturbate. Unawares, lovemaking is transformed into the making of an image, the lover into an artist and his beloved into a posing model. No doubt, the lover can afterwards all the more indulge in the plain voyeuristic delight of the spectacle that otherwise would have escaped him. At a great cost however: the gratification of looking replaces the gratification of doing. Again – and especially here – is visual appearance transformed into a fetish. Susan Sonntag’s contention that photographing is in essence an act of non-intervention – a step further than Benjamin’s contention that photographing equals taking in possession – reflects the estranged awareness of this more fundamental change.


Ironically, the reverse is supposed to happen in the relation between the artist and his model. Ever since Antiquity, the wildest fantasies are conjured up when the layman imagines what is going on between those allegedly privileged mortals. It is apparent, however, that the artist as such has no intention of approaching his model erotically, quite the contrary. He is out at making and image: he is looking for his brush, his chisel or his camera. To be sure, when he starts working, he has to look at the model. But his looking is not so much the gazing of the voyeur, as the scrutinising of a technician. He has to decide which pose the model has to adopt, how he will frame it, what colours or what kind of films have to be used, and so on. In traditional painting, moreover, the whole procedure was often a two-tier affair: Leonardo de Vinci recommends observing people in action and using models as a reminder later on.

This is not to say that the artist might not relish the charms of his model, or that he never would proceed to sexual intercourse, quite the contrary. It is well known how Rodin used to go offstage with his models, leaving the message: 'The artist is visiting the cathedral'. And the dancer Isadora Duncan has the story how Rodin, who was modelling her while dancing naked, suddenly approached her body and began to mould its flesh with hands aglow as if it were wax. Similar stories are legion. They date back at least to the Ancient Greeks, who told the story of Praxiteles and Pharynx. They turn up again in the Renaissance and come to their apogee in the second half of the nineteenth century in Parisian Bohemia (Bordello). They continue flourishing, although painters had to leave the scene in favour of photographers, filmmakers and couturiers. Anyway, it is obvious that, as a voyeur or a lover, the artist has given up his creative stance: the fire that should have fuelled his endeavour is burning out.

Neither does the model take an erotic stance. She merely prepares for being converted in an image. She has to know how to display herself in an appropriate way to be painted or photographed. To seduce a lover is quite a different matter. The model merely adopts a pose. Real seduction is transformed into the mere staging of it. The model only has to provide the necessary clues, the appearance, and her inner state does not necessarily correspond with her appearance.

Certainly, adopting a seductive pose - if not already the sheer state of undress - might induce erotic feelings in the model. Also the model can use her excitement either to make her exhibition more convincing or to seduce the artist. It can justifiably be asked whether it was Rodin who - while inviting Diaspora Duncan to dance in the nude - or Isadora Duncan herself, who - while willingly putting her charms on display - created the opportunity of which both took advantage. Either way, when posing is transformed into seduction, the artistic procedure is broken, and love triumphs over art instead of serving it.

In the real world, things are far more prosaic. Mostly, the model is not excited at all. After all, model and artist have met for technical reasons. But even when the model is excited, the technical setting will prevent, if not the arousal, then at least its continuation, as was also the case with lovers. The artist has to explain which pose the model has to take. If the model succeeds, she often fails to feign the corresponding transport. For painters, this is not much of a problem: they can fill the gaps themselves. In most photographs, however, the failure to feign the corresponding transport is all too apparent in the absence of involuntary signs of excitement, such as the erection of the nipples (or the penis), the widening of the pupil, not to mention a general artificiality of the demeanour, of the facial expression in particular. The models can remedy this by adopting a whole range of conventional poses. She may throw her head backwards: this posture suggests transport, while at the same time hiding from view the very face that might betray her lack of transport:

valery bareta

dominique lefort

tony ryan

Or the model intimidates the photographer with her gaze (like on Manet’s ‘Olympia’). Or she feels the irresistible urge to caricature the pose she is supposed to take, if not the gaze of the photographer:

kondrad gös

The photographer can solve the problem by choosing a situation in which the model is allowed to closes her eyes. On the photo of Filip Naudts below, the gaze is turned inwards, although the half-parted lips continue to betray what it might see there:

filip naudts

Or the model can try to solve the problem by hiding her face and eyes: the face is covered or diverted, the eyelids are lowered or closed:

A popular solution is to let the model sleep. In that pose, the body exposes itself without any overt defence:

jacek pomykalski

ernesto timor

Barreau dramatises this situation in exhibiting a dreaming body on an altar in the moonlight:

daniel barreau

And, ever since Fuessli's Nightmare, this development is completed through letting the model have a dream.

Also death is an obvious solution, as in the photo below, where the charm of denudation is subtly adding to the accessibility of Rossbach’s dead ‘Ophelia’:


In still other cases, the artist hides the reluctant face behind a mask, a cloth, a piece of garment, or the hands or the arms:

martin boelt

jorge parra

If he does not altogether frame it out (the headless trunk):

richard wlliams

Or resorts to all kinds of subterfuges, like having the nude perform some neutral activity:

christian coigny

When the model is excited nevertheless, it is not always the artist who elicits the transport. On the contrary: precisely the artist’s technical stance might induce the model to anticipate her being admired as an image, or she might imagine herself seducing some imaginary lover. In that case, the model displays all signs of excitement indeed, but her gaze is vacant or her eyes are closed (see above). Or a third party might join the nude. This may be a voyeur: or a lover who proceeds to overt lovemaking:

rajko bizjak

A transitional stage between the reluctant exhibition before the photographer and overt intercourse with a lover in the image, is the model admiring or kissing herself in the mirror:

filip naudts

or admiring and touching herself:

if not abandoning herself to masturbation:

A variant on this intermediary phase is the popular theme of the twin, which, in the image below is incestuous at that:


Or the equally most cherished lesbian scene:

igor amelkovich

A new version of this theme can be realised with digital manipulation:

francesco d'isa

Also the couple making love before the camera cannot but stage sexual intercourse:

norbert guthier

And the fate of the photographer is, if possible, still worse. In Antioni's 'Blow Up' his position is still enviable:


But that is no longer the case in the following settings:

walo thönen

joy yourcenar

How much the photographer resents his expulsion from the image is apparent from the many endeavours to introduce himself in the image again. In Goudal's photo below, the photographer is manoeuvring himself in the image through his reflexion, which does not prevent that he remains a mere onlooker on the fingers that are doing their job in his stead:


There is no way out: the very making of an image reduces the potential seducer to a technician, handling paint and brush or a camera instead of cherishing a body, and transforms the potential seductress in a merely posing model. In order to feign her arousal, the model has to avert the eyes, if not to close them, or to plainly offer herself to her own or a third party's gaze or embrace.

Admittedly, this is worlds apart of what is usually imagined. What presents itself as a sophisticated form of lovemaking, turns out to be a mere caricature of it. Not lust, but resignation presides over the creation of the image.


We can only hope that the sacrifice of artist and model alike will be justified by the production of an image. After all, the image, apart from the fact that it is always at our disposal, and that it permanently makes present what is otherwise doomed to transience, has the invaluable merit to exhibit before the eyes of the onlooker a heightened beauty, which surpasses a beauty that is perhaps already unparalleled in the real world.

That does not prevent that an image is only there for the eyes of the beholder, which is all the more regrettable, since the nude displayed in the image is not an end in itself. It is only the spark that ignites the fire of desire. The nude displays itself precisely because it is driven by the desire to be kissed, touched, embraced and eventually possessed. But, what is generously granted by a real body, must forever be refused by its image. Not unlike Narcissus' mirror image in the water, beauty in the image is doomed to be merely admired. What you see is what you don’t get at all. Here originates the desire to breathe life into the nude depicted: that it may come to life, as in the story of Pygmalion (Jean-Louis Gérôme).

But such desire can never been fulfilled. Precisely because the image transforms the nude in to a mere appearance, the admirer is transformed into a mere eye. Together with his tangible body, he is also bereft of his hands, his skin and his genitals. Thus, resorting to an image equals castration! That is why especially the admirer wants to see a third party appear in the image: that spares him the pain of eternally having to gaze at seduction. At the same time, however, castration is now really completed.

The very merit of the image thus proves to be its deathblow: it shows only to withhold. Whereas the lover taking pictures of his beloved might find solace in the arms of his mistress, and whereas, in the studio, the artist and the model in principle could proceed to sexual intercourse, this is from the beginning excluded by the admirer's looking at an image. In showing what it withholds, the image unequivocally speaks out the ban that was merely whispered in the studio: Noli me tangere! Don’t touch me! Thus, the image inherently partakes of the forbidden. That is all too apparent from the fact that the image inevitably transforms the nude that was originally meant for the onlooker, in the beast with two backs. The forbidding image comes to stage the forbidden: a beauty that turns away from the admirer to offer itself to a third party in the image - or its counterpart: the self-sufficient divine hermaphrodite.

That is not to say that the reduction of the model to a mere image to be contemplated does not have its secret charms. Apart from transfiguring the nude, the image allows the eye to freely wander over every detail of the body, without fear of rejection or ridicule. But a heavy toll has to be paid for this privilege: the beauty in the image cannot possibly reciprocate the advances of her admirer.

Precisely therefore, a new problem arises: the image equally leaves the poor voyeur abandoned to himself. It ignites the fire, without providing the firewood. In order to keep the fire burning, the voyeur, not hampered by the chilly stone of a statue, might proceed to masturbation as did Pygmalion and many a Greek (Rops):

In a more modern version, and with the sexual roles reversed:

claus rose

Worse still: he might lend to the appearance in the image his hands as a substitute body. Which comes down to a betrayal of the image: it served as merely a bridgehead to a sheer substitute reality. Thus, the image not only annihilates itself, but also the real world.

Thus is articulated the fourfold progression of castration by the image: the production of the image, the subject it was supposed to depict, the very structure of the image and, finally, its consumption, they all partake of one and the same refusal.


The staging of the nude in the image inevitably leads to its transformation in the self-sufficient hermaphrodite or the beast with two backs. We cannot help being reminded of what has been called ‘the primeval scene’. Freud introduced the term to indicate the spectacle of the parents entwining before the eyes of the very child that imagined being loved by one of them. This is merely the prelude to a far more ‘primeval’ scene: the ideal couple showing off its beauty and sexual prowess before the eyes of the poor average mortal - male and female alike - that cannot but feel utterly excluded. Do they not - just as the helpless child looking up to its all-mighty parents - feel compelled to enviously disturb their entwining? Also the hermaphrodite is experienced as an embodiment of the primeval scene: it is as if the desired body is already possessed by another phallus.

Our contention that the logic of voyeurism culminates in the depiction of the primeval scene may be obscured by the fact that the primeval scene is not always depicted in all its clarity. We need only recall that even when the nude is exalted - the precursor of the completed primeval scene - the exalting male is mostly merely hinted at. This is from the beginning so when the nude is shown fantasizing, dreaming, writing letters, phoning, making her toilet or washing herself or being engaged in other supposedly neutral activities: these only betray that the nude is preparing herself for someone else.

This sheds a new light on still more obscured shapes in which the primeval scene may go disguised. Take the - ever since Fuesli - very popular position of the voyeur standing at the head of a nude lying prostrate before his eyes. Is this not a most marvellous erotic landscape? Why, however, adopt such a position, if not to witness the imminent embracing of the lover for whom the thighs are splayed wide?


pascal renoux

When the nude is bent down before the voyeur, she is ready to receive her lover from the back. And is not every position where not only the eyes and the face, but first and foremost the place to be is directed away from us - sidelong or backwards - meant for some third party?

Veil after veil on the primeval scene falls dawn. Perhaps we finally understand why in many a picture the frontal approach, especially with the thighs splayed wide before us, is deliberately stressed, while at the same time failing to really make us feel invited. Could it be that this overemphasizing merely has to help us repress our innermost feeling of rejection?

A merely implicit or hinted at presence of the nude’s real lover is by no means an exception. On the contrary, I guess it is the most favourite way of depicting the (voyeuristic) primeval scene. This formula owes its charms to the fact that the nude is not shown while fully surrendering, which makes it plausible that everything is still possible, and precisely such possibility may stir the desire of a presumed conqueror. The obliteration of the competitor has the additional advantage of soothing the pain of exclusion and rejection, of being reduced to the status of mere onlooker: at least for the moment, only the voyeur enjoys the privilege of being able to lay eyes upon the desired beauty.

An interesting reversal of the primeval scène is when the third party is as it were presenting the nude to the onlooker:

pascal renoux


The attentive reader may have wondered why we did not yet mention the most popular and most controversial way of depicting the primeval scene: the image of the penis in the vagina. Although the theme is not altogether absent in the still image, it is rather the main dishof many a film. The reason might be that, in a film, the upward and downward movement rather obscures the fact that, in fact, the penis is disappearing in the vagina. Therefore, in the film, the ‘fort-da’ can function as a visual fetish for the invisible orgasm (whether or not culminating in the ejaculation out of the vagina).

manuel laval

More congenial to the image is the rendering of copulation after displacement to the mouth:

emil schildt

norbert guthier

norbert guthier

But, of course, the disappearance of the penis is not the main reason why the primeval scene is more often depicted as the intertwining of entire bodies than as the merger of organs. The shift to the body spares the voyeur the painful sight of the ultimate proof of his exclusion. And there are aesthetic motives as well: the spectacle of the united genitals is, if possible, still more repellent than that of the separate genitals. No wonder that the eye recoils in horror and prefers the far more appetising sight of bodies entwined.

But the erotic eye now runs up against new problems. Not for nothing is the couple entwined called the beast with two backs: the enticing fronts of the body are hidden from view.

patrick wecksteen

When the couple lies down, the situation is even more problematic. The legs are entwined in an often inextricable tangle, and that is not precisely an enchanting spectacle:

norbert guthier

howard austin feld


William Ropp succeeds in transforming the inextricable tangle into the intriguing image of the enigmatic entwining:

william ropp

With hindsight, we understand why the loving couple is often rendered with the male in dorsal approach or with the upper parts of the bodies separated, as when a woman rides the man:

marité malaspina

A more obvious solution is replacing genital intercourse with cunnilingus of fellatio and the like. There are still more possibilities when only the preliminary stages to intercourse are rendered, although the solution of Vance is a little bit extreme:

giuseppe sarcinella

david vance

That goes especially for caressing. Also in real intercourse, the erotic eye often joins the hand that is caressing the body:




But the artist can also maintain the entwining and try to arrange the bodies in a surveyable symmetry.

The focus on the genitals between the symmetric pair of legs can be avoided through replacing the merger of genitals with that of more peripheral organs:



joanna nowakowska


A second solution is found when the voyeur no longer projects his own desire into the desired object (see chapter III), but nestles himself in the appropriate organs of the desired body instead.

This move begins with the hand. The hand feels, but does not see. When the lover does not want to resign from looking, he can let the hand of the desired body stroke the desired body in his stead:

joanna nowakowska

jörg oestreich

As soon as the arousal approaches the genital phase, the merger of the genitals itself can be staged on the scene of the desired body. We already described the onset of this move in chapter III. This movement is completed when the desiring organ want to merge with the desired one. In a first phase, the displaced penis is moving toward the vagina:

Or it penetrates the vagina:

emil schildt

The merger can also be staged after the displacement of desiring and desired organ alike, as in that masterly photo of Markus Richter:

markus richter

In a series of reliefs of Matisse, a plait is penetrating the cleft in the back.


We have already seen how, in humans, sexual display is reciprocal in principle: it is essentially the simultaneity of the displayer’s admiration and the admirer’s display. We have also seen that differential beauty and the exchange of beauty for power made reciprocal display and admiration fall apart in two opposite offshoots: voyeurism and exhibitionism. We now can add that the introduction of the image only cements the one-sidedness of these offshoots and decisively cuts them off from the further phases of love’s unfolding.

In real life, the generalised one-sidedness of erotic display on exhibitionistic meeting grounds such as beaches or parties, can be restored to full reciprocity at any moment. In utterly forbidding love’s unfolding, though, the image drives a final wedge between the admirer and the object of his desire. It thereby inevitably paves the way for the representational fetishising of the object of voyeurism: the self-defeating desire to lay eyes upon what can only be felt, as epitomised in the witnessing of the primeval scene.

The devotion of the voyeur to the alienating image is only stirred by the dramatic extension of the range of a henceforth purely fictional meeting ground: only the most beautiful women, selected from all over the world, are allowed to appear in the image, which comes to display their transfigured beauty before the eyes of millions. Since, moreover, no restraints whatsoever forbid the access to the image, the voyeur is forever released of the task of seducing, be it through the display of power or bodily beauty. Isolated voyeurism thus becomes the main preoccupation of an ever-increasing majority of males, since the image is first and foremost cheap, and allows even the most abject male to enter the exhibitionistic amphitheatre of the image. Isolated exhibitionistic display, on the other hand, becomes a female privilege, albeit it the privilege of the ever diminishing minority that is allowed to appear on the scene, and that thereby eclipses an ever increasing majority or henceforth lesser beauties.

The birth of the image thus seals exhibitionism’s and voyeurism’s coming of age. Only by being cast in an image is the former seductress transformed in an epitome of the intangible Venus - or, to phrase it with Angela Carter ’a whore dispensed with the obligation of delivering the merchandise, virgin though raped by billions of eyes’. And only by yielding to the spell of a mere image finds the potential seducer himself seated in Plato’s cave - which has become crowded indeed - where he is immobilised and doomed to stare at the mere shadows of beautiful woman exhibitionistically parading out of reach behind his back.

The combined effect of increasing differential beauty, the exchange of beauty for benefits, the introduction of clothes and foremost the development of the image, is that exhibitionism and voyeurism become the dominating forms of seduction, to the extent that they come to pass for their primeval forms.

Granted, as long as it takes the shape of voyeurism, the visualisation of love’s unfolding remains precarious: beauty does not stop stirring the desire for a complete unfolding of love. Only when we proceed to the analysis of sadomasochism will be revealed a this time more stable form of visualisation of love.

© Stefan Beyst, February 2004

From the same author:
'the ecstasies of eros'

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waclaw wantuch gabriele rigon craig morey
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