What would an online dating service for figures from the art world look like? We at Ptenopus gave some form to the fantasy. We test ran our online dating service last month. It was driven by a theme, Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, a book dedicated to the philosophical exploration of love. Users got to choose their favorite chapter as inspiration for their profile bio. So have a look at the different profiles and tell us if you have a match!
Know that they may be ancient so sliding into their DMs isn’t an option.
‘Al-Sitt and her Sunglasses’ (2008), Huda Lutfi. Via Selections
This artwork by Egyptian artist Huda Lutfi depicts the late Egyptian singer, Oum Kalthoum, wearing her iconic cat-eye diamond-studded sunglasses, with a swarm of dancing hands and the lyrics to her immortal song “Al-Atlal” (The Ruins) behind her. She is often referred to as Al-Sitt (The Lady) and holds the honorific title Kawkab al-Sharq (Star of the East).
In the chapter ‘Dark Glasses’, Barthes suggests that the act of putting on shades is to not only conceal, but also draw the attention of the desiring gaze. In Kalthoum’s case, her signature dark glasses not only protected her from severe and prolonged exposure to stage and studio lighting, but elevated her to a mythic status. She kept herself buried behind her iconic bejeweled glasses, only letting her voice convey her emotions.
Trivia: The famed scarf, another element of her iconography, was also an elegant eyewash. Kalthoum claimed that she used to experience stage fright, making her palms sweat profusely. This is why she held a scarf during her long performances.
‘Before and After’ (1961), Andy Warhol. Via MoMA
This artwork by American artist Andy Warhol is based on a small advertisement by a plastic surgeon for nose-jobs that regularly appeared in the National Enquirer tabloid. Warhol enlarged and projected the image in order to trace it onto the surface of the canvas, adding drips and artisanal dots to emulate the appearance of the newsprint. This was one of his first forays into Pop Art, a genre with which he became synonymous.
What seems like an odd choice for an artwork was, in fact, quite close to Warhol’s personal experience. At the age of 29, Warhol went under the knife to have his bulbous nose reshaped. Physical transformation for him was not simply about dealing with gnawing insecurities, but also an artistic process in itself. “I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re so beautiful. Everything’s plastic, but I love plastic….I want to be plastic”, Andy Warhol once said. A master of transforming banal to beautiful, he wore a white wig to hide his premature baldness and a girdle to support his damaged stomach muscles after scarring from gunshot wounds. Warhol used his own damaged body to rewrite the rules of visual art.
In the chapter ‘The Tip of the Nose’, Barthes notes that the lover dwells in perception. Love constructs images and therefore the alteration of love can be caused by something as slight as a “faint but certain trace of corruption” on the other’s nose tip. So what does a nose job do to a romance?
Mithunas for More
‘Loving Couple’ (Mithuna), 13th century, Orissa, India. Via culture trip
This piece of sculpture titled ‘Loving Couple (Mithuna)’ on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was once part of the decor of a Hindu Temple in Orissa back in the 13th century. It depicts two lovers intertwined in an explicitly amorous position, lost in each other’s eyes. These figures carved in stone were one among many such erotic sculptures that belonged to the esoteric system of Tantra in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. Mithuna (sexual union) is listed as one of the five Panchamakara, or methods used within Tantric rituals to achieve the divine consciousness.
‘Silpa Prakasa’, a medieval Orissan Sanskrit text on temple architecture says that a temple “without love imagery is always a base, forsaken place, resembling a dark abyss”. Another Vastu text suggests that the best site for a temple is one where “loving couples have lived, loved and bred…”. Erotic sculptures, such as these, held multiple meanings, ranging from an obvious celebration of life’s pleasures to the more metaphorical symbolism of a human soul’s penchant for a divine union. Given how Tantra is about expanding and liberating consciousness, the idea of polyamory is not alien to it. In his paper ‘The Erotic Sculptures of India’, Y. Krishna argues that “the public exhibitions of voluptuous couples and sexual orgies in sacred places could only help to invest them with dignity and to sanctify them and free them from social stigma… In short, this was an open invitation to sexual license.”
Barthes echoes a similar sentiment in his chapter ‘In the loving calm of your arms’. He says that the “gesture of the amorous embrace seems to fulfill, for a time, the subject’s dream of total union with the loved being.” So could it be in the polyamourous embrace.
‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ (1973), William Copley
This painting by American artist William Copley titled ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ captures the quintessential excess of Copley’s art. It could have been inspired from the novel of the same name by Philip Roth, which was a huge success in the US. The equally controversial novel dealt with themes, such as, sexuality, pornography and intimate desires (often of perverse nature) laid out in the form of a confessional monologue by a lust-ridden bachelor to his psychoanalyst.
Copley’s unapologetic celebration of the erotic and burlesque set his work apart from those of his American contemporaries. His untutored, raw, and garish paintings were primarily inspired by Mexico’s loud and exuberant folk imagery. His work celebrated prostitutes and buxom females, sensual and assertive. Copley’s voyeuristic treatment of female subjects closely resembles the photographic domain of modern pornography. While it might sit uncomfortably with some, his portrayal of the ‘so called’ vulgar and dramatic exemplified his dedication to art as protest. Both in composition and content, Copley did away with convention.
Ronald Barthes in the chapter “When my finger accidentally…” says that every contact with the lover’s body evokes a “question which the skin is asked to reply”. The pleasure lies in the signs — a language of its own. What is love and what is perversity is then merely reduced to the interplay of these signs. The brazenly erotic therefore is perpetually a contested zone.
Girl with the Bread
‘May I Give This Ukrainian Bread to All People in This Big Wide World’ (1982), Maria Prymachenko. Via WikiArt
This folk artwork titled ‘May I Give This Ukrainian Bread to All People in This Big Wide World’ by renowned Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko (1908–1997) may have been one among the nearly 25 artworks that were recently burned when the Ivankiv Museum in the Kyiv region came under Russian attack. Born in 1908 in the Ukrainian village of Bolotnia, Prymachenko’s phantasmagorical artworks captured the life of the Ukrainian countryside. The work of this Ukrainian peasant woman and self-taught artist can easily be described by three words – simple, gorgeous and surreal. Her’s was a brilliant oeuvre of folk art, the heart of any nation.
In the chapter “The Heart”, Barthes goes beyond the idea of the heart as an organ of desire to a gift-object. The heart is what is given away and also what remains. The heart is all we have and all we can offer. Prymachenko’s work is often fondly described as “the art of the holy heart”. And who knows, in readily giving many of her paintings as presents, she was perhaps scattering pieces of her heart around, something no fire could consume.
We end this February special series with Prymachenko’s words and let this be a constant reminder of the kindness and simplicity we are all capable of – “I make sunny flowers just because I love people, I work for joy and happiness so that all peoples could love each other and live like flowers on this Earth.”