george minne: the prodigal son.

circling around an intriguing embrace

In the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, there is a remarkable sculpture by George George Minne (1866-1941). It is in plaster, nearly 58,7 cm high, and titled: The prodigal son' (1896) (click on the link for an enlargeable reproduction).

The sculpture - in my view one of the best works of Minne, whom I do notintend to elevate to the same level as the great masters by comparing his work to theirs - strikes us with the unparalleled eloquence of that remarkable gesture of reconciliation.

This eloquence is all the more remarkable, since it is not at all an obvious gesture. As a rule, father and son do not encounter each other naked, and if they would, the father would not lift the son above the ground - let alone that he would allow their genitals to meet each other.

Normally, it is only a child that you lift up. And you would not lift it up vertically - unless you take it under the armpits to have it sit astride on your lap - but under the shoulders and the upper legs, to lay it horizontally on your knees, as with that other lost son, who returned to his mother's womb as the crucified Jesus:

It is only lovers who embrace each other the way father and son do with Minne, and it is also lovers who prefer to meet each other naked and to have their loins meet in such a close encounter. They can do that standing, and, since he is usually bigger, the man then often lifts the woman up, like the father his son with Minne. His enthusiasm can be so great, that he would like to lift the woman above his chest, like with Rodin ('I am beautiful', 1882):

Such gesture reminds us of the twelve apostles who, in many a portal ofa Gothic cathedral, used to stand on the shoulders of their forebears, or, better still, of the figure of Saint Christopher who carries the child on his shoulders, like in Dürers drawing:

The power of the image of Saint Christopher resides in that it lays bare the secret intention of the gesture of sons taking their position on the shoulders of their fathers: that the child will survive the father - carry him to the grave, or, worse still: that the father will succumb under the weight of the son. In that respect, Minne's image is a kind of reversal of the upward movement; the son remains stuck halfway, and acquires something of the corpse that with Michelangelo returns to the womb from which it was born. And that reminds us in its turn of another sculpture of Minne's - 'Mother weeping over her deceased child' (1886) - where it is the mother who clasps her arms around the body of her dead child, in a kind of incestuous reversal of the natural generational relation between parent and child: the mother who, doomed to die, was supposed to pass on life, seems to prematurely have begotten death.

And that sheds a new light on the encounter of the genitals, which cannot be avoided when a father holds an adolescent son in that position . It seems that this encounter was intended as well as avoided. That there is a problem, is evident from two other sculptures of George Minne's: 'Two men fighting' (1886), where the encounter is prevented through a recoiling of the loins, and 'Solidarity' (1898), where the encounter is prevented through their sideward shift:

Already the opposition between fighting and solidary men testifies to the concomitant ambivalence. It is only the solitary - unmirrored - 'Adolescent I (1991) that shows the forbidden gesture unabashed, the eloquence of which is only enhanced by the opposite - concealing - gesture of the arms crossed over the reclining head:

These homo-erotic overtones tend to surreptitiously conjure up, behind the embrace of father and son, the encounter of peers - even brothers, if not a same-sex twin.
But these are only overtones. In subterranean regions, more ominous echoes resound. The opposition between the contrived gesture of the crossed arms and the protruded penis in 'Adolescent I' finds it counterpart in the opposition of the tangle of arms around the heads, which in 'The prodigal son' diverts the attention from the proceedings of the genitals concealed in the loins. But, otherwise than in 'Adolescent I', where the gesture of the crossed arms is strange, but extricable, there is something wrong with the arms in the 'Prodigal son': it is not clear from whence they come - to whom they belong. Visitors cannot refrain from approaching the sculpture in the hope of unravelling the tangle - we are reminded of the riddle of the legs in da Vinci's 'The Virgin and child and Saint Anna', where it is mother and daughter who turn out to be rather two sisters mirroring each other. But nobody will ever be able to untangle the knot - and, if they succeeded, they would nevertheless never get rid of the impression that the mystery remains.

The anatomical riddle of the entwined arms covers another one: that of the reclining head, which, in 'Adolescent I', is the countermovement to the protrusion of the loins, but which, in 'Mother weeping over her dead child'' (1886), is, as the counterpart to the falling head of the child, rather a gesture of despair. If we would turn the body of the son towards the mother, and have him grown up, we would obtain the composition of the 'Prodigal son' - so that the sculpture, next to the overtones of embracing brothers or twins, comes to echo the theme of the pieta, and hence to depict no so much the lost son as the son regained, as rather the lost son as the son deceased.

Another reclining head is to be seen in another sculpture - that from another prodigal son, which Rodin, in 1894, isolated as 'Child of the century' from 'Fugit Amor', where Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, damned forever because of their illicit love, have their back turned to each other - as opposed to Minne's father and son. The arms that, with Minne, come to be entwined with those of the father, are here still cast to the heavens in wretched despair.

Whereas, with Minne, the head of the son rather resembles that of the dead child in the pieta, the head of the father resembles that of the mother who lost her child in that same pieta, and of Rodin's son that lost his father. That only can enhance the feeling that, behind the theme of the welcoming of the lost son, looms up a kind of pieta - the weeping over a son who is lost in the sense of deceased.

The sense of this double-sense becomes apparent as soon as we have the inversion - or the retrograde - resound against the manifest theme: the father who, through the departure - the birth - of the now adolescent son whom he begot was doomed to death, turns out to have gained new life through his return - his dead. The murderous procession of time - the child that grows on the shoulders of the giant to eventually crush him under its weight - seems to be neutralised: the begetter revives and the begotten dies. The negation of the succession of the generations - big and small - finds its expression in the already mentioned similarity of the shape of the bodies: father and son seem to have become brothers - twins, the I mirrored in itself - from 'Two men fighting'(Cain and Abel) and 'Solidarity' (lovers). It is apparently the title that made us think of a father and a son. Behind this verbal hint, the image itself and its echoes hint rather at eternal juveniles. And that sheds the right light on the riddle of the tangle: what remains a mystery in the periphery - what arms belong to whom - unveils its secret in the centre: where normally father and mother - the sexes - ensure the succession of the generations, the organs that avoided each other in 'Men fighting' and 'Solidarity' find themselves in joyous infertility. The hectic enthusiasm of the arms at the top of the image reveals in all clarity what is avoided in 'Men fighting' and 'Solidarity', and what is hidden from view in the centre of 'The prodigal son', where it nevertheless cannot but impose itself. In that respect, the 'Prodigal son' is the mirrored duplication of the self-confident gesture of 'Adolescent I'...

In my view, it is in this unspoken secret that resides all the magic of this sculpture. Whereas Minne in his 'pieta' misses the secret charm of Michelangelo's sculpture - that mother and son are depicted as man and wife, if not as brother and sister, who only can love each other when the son, after his crucifixion, has returned to the womb from which he sprang - he shoots the mark in his 'Prodigal son': the murderous ambivalence that is inherent in the theme of Saint Christopher - the little child that eventually crushes the giant - is resolved into the double negation of generation and sex in the image of the same-sex, forever juvenile, self-enjoying, infertile and hence unbegotten twin - the counterpart of Bachofen's Isis and Osiris, who loved each other already in their mother's womb and hence are each other's children forever. (See also Cavafy: Surviving immortality)

How much more subdued - less ecstatic and more unambiguous - is the one year older version of the prodigal son by Constantin Meunier (1895), which relates to Minne's version like Minne's 'pieta' to Michelangelo's...

© Stefan Beyst, June 2012..

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