Exposed vagina: does it make you flinch?

In the “Dial up testosterone” article, I showed three seated nudes by two German expressionist artists, and promised that I’d make a close up on one of them to see if she’s only valuable as a taboo-breaking historical achievement, or is actually a good painting in its own right.

Look at her, again.

Erich Heckel, Egyptian girl, 1909
Erich Heckel, Egyptian girl, 1909

I am not asking if you like her or not. As a man, I am not sexually aroused by this image. I wouldn’t want to flirt with her, and I wouldn’t want her to flirt with me. She does not fit the concept of the ideal female body for me, and I suspect, for many of my readers. Immanuel Kant would be happy that she’s not inflaming carnal desires, but sad that she’s not the ideal. So he, most probably, would dismiss the painting as “not art”.

Art historians and philosophers believe Kant’s definition of art has not been in use for more than a hundred years, but they are wrong. Each time you hear someone say, “I wouldn’t put it on my wall” Kant is summoned from the grave. Is it wrong to apply it? Of course not. Not everyone wants to come home and ponder male sexism that allows only 90-60-90 type of bodies to feature in advertising. Most of us want to come home and look at images that resonate with happy moments, as we understand them, and make us smile at our own associations, that – let’s face it – rarely coincide with art history milestones.

So, frankly, I wouldn’t put this painting on my wall either.

But I would put it on the wall of a gallery.

This is why.

She sits on a bed covered by blue bed sheets, against a dark green wall. That is, at first sight.

She may strike you as not a very intelligent person, what with her squinted eyes, crimson bows, and a half-smile that seems somewhat crawling over her face:


But tell me, when you are alone, not concerned about anyone watching you, do you always make sure you wear a poster-worthy smile?

Now, let’s just try to imagine how she feels about herself in this painting.

The artist gives us a whole series of cues:

Smile - копия

Yes, she’s all smiles, even if it doesn’t show very clearly on her face. It is confirmed by her necklace, but most importantly, there’s a smile inside her. Look at her nipples and two red brushstrokes on her belly. They do rhyme with her squinted eyes and lips. Some people may have butterflies in their stomachs, and some people just feel good.

She looks up, as if facing the sun, but her belly smile is directed more at the observer. Yet, we can’t say that it is meant for the observer: exactly because this smile is also “squinted”. She is happy but not because we stand in front of her and offer our attention or appreciation. Unlike many nudes before her, she’s not trying to seduce us; she doesn’t care about us at all!

While you were looking at her breasts, you might have noticed that the blue of the bed gets reflected on her chest, and in the whites of her eyes. This is not really possible, unless the ceiling we don’t see is the same blue as the bed. Surprisingly, this blue is not used on the lower part of her body, where it would be appropriate. Instead, it is the wall’s green that is used to emphasise shadows there, and there are also drips of green on her legs. Could these green drops and smears be an accident?

DSC_0273 - копия

I’d say it is very unlikely: you don’t see heedlessness of the sort in any other part of the painting.

Now, there are no feet, and this is also a conscious choice not to show them, because showing them would require showing the floor and it seems the artist felt the floor was irrelevant.

Why did the artist make these choices? Unfortunately, we can’t interview the late artist, but we can offer a theory.

What if we turn the painting upside down? The bed becomes the skies that get reflected on the chest, and the green becomes solid earth that gets reflected and mixed up with legs. And the girl then truly squints at the sun. With feet and the floor that would be impossible.

Unless you have a better theory that would explain the artist’s choices, I’d suggest we stick to this one.

Now, it’s time to talk about her vagina.

Why is it exposed in such a shameless manner?

Well, we already know the answer. She is not shamelessly seducing the observer; she’s innocently offering her body to the sun. She opens up for the sun’s warmth (the red lines and hot yellow tones now start making sense, don’t they?). She opens the whole of herself, including her femininity, and her vagina. If she hid it, she wouldn’t be innocent and free, because it would mean she was concerned about a possible male observer.

That’s the beautiful paradox of this painting. It is not about sensual red lines that outline her explicit nakedness, as Courtauld’s curators want to make us believe. It is about giving us a rare opportunity to see a happy woman in the flesh, unconstrained by the morals and taboos of the society, but without her provoking us with her nakedness into carnal cravings. It seems that even Kant, if he could make a leap of appreciation into the expressionist painting technique, would be pleased.

This is why I said I wished that painting was created by a woman, for then it would become the greatest achievement in the feminist art history, long before the term itself was invented.

And, you know, on a second thought, I just might put this painting on my wall. There’s something in those orange bows in her hair. They look like scarlet flowers turning up to the sun. Perhaps, she is not so innocent, after all, except that she just doesn’t know it yet.


        1. I have been trying so hard to avoid using the four-letter word when writing about the contemporary art of Sara Lucas, but you are tempting me to break the rule. )))

  1. I just read this and the previous article on the same theme, and I am so happy!
    I am a very big fan of German expressionism ( I think it was studying expressionism that I felt in love with art, back in high school) , so I am very pleased to read about Heckel on your blog. I have even seen this painting recently at the Courtlaud gallery, and I love it.
    I am actually glad that it was a man at the beginning of the XX century to come up with this, it fulfills me with hope in mankind( just kidding 🙂 ) ! I alaways thought that sometimes men are better at being feminist than women ( and I am a woman).
    In my opinion when we start judjing art just as a decoration of our wall, we are devaluing it ( even if I understand the preference to see something pleasant on a livingroom wall). I would absolutely hang this painting in my house, but maybe that’s why all my friends say I have a terrible taste!

    1. It is natural and right to want to put on one’s wall something that makes life more interesting, exciting, pleasant, etc. The problem is, this “beauty” needs to be true, authentic, and not become boring in a week. Often, it is achieved via seemingly unnatural colours or exaggerated lines and forms – but then it becomes difficult to relate it to one’s personal experiences intuitively. That’s the case with German expressionism: it requires a lot of watching to see its beauty, and even then it is not always guaranteed.

  2. I feel almost like it is a friendly tryst in a barn with a long time friend-now-turned-lover … anticipation in her upturned face squinting up at him? Ease of company with being au naturale – they frolicked naked as toddlers and a life-long friendship is already there?

    I like her relaxed unabashed posture – I am just not a fan of the color palette and wish I understood why it was chosen – then again, choice of this color theme seems to have added to the mystery of the piece

    Klimt had a tendency to approach vagina’s like you were spying on someone lost in their own world, more detached, where with this picture there is no sense of spying and it is okay that we are there…

    1. Very interesting view ) I believe you’ve got her emotions spot on (although we may disagree on the relevant circumstance)))

      Speaking of Klimt (and many more like him) – I hate it when an artist makes a peeping Tom out of me )

  3. Looking at the painting, although I know that she is a woman, I have the impression of seeing a very young girl, with braids and red ribbons, coming out from school and sitting on the bed before she takes a shower.
    What I do not like is the style of painting and the too strong colours, but that’s just my personal taste.
    The whole article is very, very interesting. I’ve enjoyed it on reading.
    Good evening.

    1. Thank you, Neda – sorry I am coming back late. That’s the interesting aspect of expressionism: regardless of the arguments or interpretative power laid over an expressionist artwork, the first impression never goes away, never changes… Interesting!

      And thank you for your kind words!)

  4. I can’t help seeing this girl as cockeyed and retarded. I have the unsettling feeling that this is a mentally disabled woman who is unaware of her own exposure – and here I am staring at her … It is a little bit like watching an ape in the zoo playing with his penis. Something is very wrong here – for me at least.

  5. Having looked back at your previous article I am sure you are right on the money with “muses don’t provide divine inspiration: they raise very secular testosterone levels.”

    That is also true, I think, of the patrons who bought the paintings. Or to put it another way, if Hustler had been around then I suspect that more painters and sculptors would have starved.

    Until I read your previous article I knew nothing about where and why the painting was painted. I thought that equal to your description was the possibility that maybe she’s in a brothel, (in Egypt) seated and waiting while the customers stand nervously across the great divide, deciding. She has ‘been this way before’ so many times that to her the idea of sitting legs open is just part of the routine, which is why there is not coquettishness about her position.

    I very much enjoy your articles.

    1. Thank you, David – I am happy I you stopped and looked closely at and into this painting. Degas used to go to brothels to find women who wouldn’t care about being naked and exposed. He found them there, no problem. None of them looks happy though. And this lady, well… she is happy, so that makes me strike the brothel option off.

  6. Oooh, you’d put that on your wall would you? Oh dear!
    I wouldn’t call it an exposed vagina but perhaps a frontal perineum.
    Henkel was a student of archetecture and I believe he carried that over in his impressionist paintings. (Arche)Technically speaking she is female but the artistry is somewhat lost on me.

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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