Do We Know What We Like?

Some people know exactly what they like in a work of art: verisimilitude. They want pictures that resemble what they represent, so closely that you feel you could almost reach out and touch it.

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That’s why ‘modern art’ has so many critics and arouses such hostility: because it often requires us to see things in a way we’re not used to. The quintessential example is Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), best known for his Cubist work whose subjects seem almost to have been taken apart and reassembled in the wrong order. But even he started out using a fairly realistic style: here’s a self-portrait from around 1903 in which he caresses a reclining nude:

And then he started to see things differently. This later sketch shows another nude having her bottom smacked:

It’s as if Picasso is squeezing the whole kinetic, three-dimensional event into the limited confines of an oblong piece of paper, in defiance of the usual restrictions of jointed human anatomy – bend them, shape them, any way you want them.

The contrast between those two Picasso styles usefully defines something of the range and the challenges of contemporary art. Let’s begin at one end of the spectrum with the work of Walter Minus (born 1958), an Italian illustrator who trained in Paris, and whose work shows the strong influence of comics and twentieth-century pop art.

It’s a distinctive style that sits somewhere between Andy Warhol, Dan DeCarlo and Archie. Here’s his take on our favorite subject:

This is the most accessible of the pieces we’re going to look at today, but that’s because of the familiarity of the style, not its verisimilitude: we are so used to line drawing as a medium that we don’t notice the ways in which the figures don’t look like human beings, only the ways in which they do.

There is familiarity too in the more caricatured line drawing of the American illustrator Danny Hellman (born 1964), which is also influenced by the various dimensions of pop culture.

He had a little burst of spanking in 1997, starting in September with this one showing Hillary Clinton being spanked on air by Howard Stern; unfortunately there’s no way of knowing whether her face is on the cover of the rolled-up magazine.

It was followed seven weeks later by this altogether stranger piece:

It’s a picture that fascinates because of the way it defies all our canons of realism. The spanker’s distorted head is a good place to start: mouth open in the middle of a soundless, meaningless lecture (‘blah-blah, blah-blah-blah-blah’, you can almost hear it go), a tear dropping from his eye as if to say it hurts him more than it hurts the elf-girl over his knee. Seemingly in retort, two tears drop from her eye: it hurts her twice as much as it is hurting him! Or does it? What gives the first impression of a handprint across her bottom is surely only a shadow – unless he’s spanked her with his whole forearm, not just his palm. But conversely, the image is set in a border of flames, which certainly can’t be taken literally, because he’s sitting on a pile of logs that are conspicuously not burning: the only bottom likely to be on fire, metaphorically, is the upturned, bare one!

Let’s turn, by way of contrast, to a starkly realist spanking scene painted in 2009 by the Chinese artist Luo Qing (born 1970).

This is a much less comfortable picture than the others we’ve seen so far, in part because it makes little attempt to invite our empathy with the participants based on a shared humanity: the girl being spanked is reduced to oversized buttocks and muscular legs, while the face of her spanker is downturned, intent on her task and oblivious to the world beyond. It is as if they are isolated together in a shared moment, and we are both excluded from it yet able nonetheless to recognize its mundane, unglamorous reality, as evident in details like the girl’s torn stocking. It’s a provocative and expertly executed piece, but it’s not beautiful.

So maybe verisimilitude in art isn’t quite so straightforwardly what we like after all. A factor we haven’t yet properly considered is what the artists themselves bring to the pictures, the elements of creativity and imagination that make their work something more than mere channeled reality.

The Greek artist Theodore Psychoyos (born 1968) is a good example. He draws in a simple, sometimes even naive style, but includes imagery that is overtly adult and sometimes fetishistic.

The outcome is often a sense of innocence and experience combined in a single composition. His spanking illustration was drawn in 2016 for an exhibition, in collaboration with his partner, Diane Alexandre, entitled Mythoerotics, which portrayed themes of mythology and eroticism as a way of understanding human relationships:

This is spanking in the context of a love relationship, overtly indicated by the heart she’s contemplating, but symbolized most powerfully in the fact that she is being spanked with a rose. The flower is disintegrating with every impact on her bottom: the petals are flying everywhere. Will that leave her in danger of thorns, like an affair gone sour? Maybe not, because she has a second rose, as if in readiness for when the first one wears out.

Another artist given to imaginative symbolism is Frenchman Patrick Jannin (born 1971), who uses the camera as well as pen and ink to create his work. It projects a world of weird, grotesque and sometimes disturbing fantasy – a kind of cross between Hieronymus Bosch, Edward Lear and Terry Gilliam.

A recurring image in his work is that of a naked woman, head down in submission, being spanked across the knees of an animal-headed figure. It appears, with a progressive accumulation of baffling symbolic detail, in a drawing of 2009,

a more overtly fantastical one of 2010, which Jannin entitled ‘La sagesse des anciens’ (the wisdom of the ancients),

and a photograph of 2013:

So the power of art partly lies in the things the artist might add to reality, whether they are suggestive, provocative or just plain bizarre, like the giant bottom poking through the window in Jannin’s 2010 picture. But art also depends on leaving things out, reducing the multilayered complexity of life in order to achieve a clearer focus on whatever it is the artist has chosen to represent. That’s the basis of this 2017 sketch by Antonio Nuvoli:

A cynical eye may see only the resemblance to a child’s drawing, but Nuvoli’s objective is to reduce the image to its core essence: for all its crude simplicity, it’s still recognizably a woman being spanked by a bearded man, and it still conveys a certain power, precisely because it declines to elaborate.

Other artists, in contrast, first strip down and then elaborate in a very distinctive way. Take this illustration by Holly Turner,

There’s nothing verisimilar about it, so its impact should come as much from the style as the subject; but even without faces, the participants convey more quirky personality than the figures trapped in the introverted realist world of Luo Qing.

Or take this 2017 work by the self-taught French painter Alain Day (born 1948), whose style is reminiscent of Modigliani’s.

What I find striking is the way Day plays with human proportion to suggest something of the emotional nature of the event. The biggest part of the girl being spanked is her bare bottom, which should be self-explanatory. But the spanker is shown with a huge lap and left arm, while the spanking right arm is tiny: it’s as if the business of restraining the girl requires much more might and force than the spanking for which she is being restrained, which means there’s also something paradoxically gentle about the scene.

You may see other things in it, but what’s undeniable is that the picture’s appeal and impact don’t lie only in the fact that it represents a spanking, but that it makes us look at the spanking, and the world, in a new way.

And with that in mind, we turn to the most challenging of our contemporary spanking artworks, by the emergent Danish painter Thomas Plauborg.

This is another spanking image that has been reduced to its essential formal structure and then built back up, this time in a semi-abstract mode that almost defies description. I tried to think of it in terms of the formal iconoclasm of Picasso, or of human figures done in the swirling, dynamic style of a Turner sky, the tortured expressionism of Munch or the coruscating impressionism of Van Gogh. None of them offers an adequate analogy for what Plauborg is doing here. It’s a spanking scene taken almost to the very edge of existence.

And yet, if you can, imagine a world where nobody had ever seen or done a line drawing, a world where there was no such thing as a cartoon. Wouldn’t the work of Walter Minus look every bit as outlandish as Plauborg’s?

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