A Visual Language of Eroticism: Violence and Sexuality in Cézanne’s Male Bathers

Written by Thomas MacDonald
Edited by Miray Eroglu

The paintings in Cézanne’s Bathers series, completed between 1859 and his death in 1906, are considered seminal works of modern art. Yet scholarship has generally neglected and devalued the eroticism present in his Male Bathers, which he produced alongside the larger and much more discussed and celebrated Female Bathers. This paper aims to correct this academic deficiency through an analysis of the most famous of the Male Bathers, Les Baigneurs of 1894 (Figure I). I will argue that Cézanne articulates an erotic and sadistic viewing experience in Les Baigneurs, expressing a violent fantasy of male sexuality that relies upon the domination and exploitation of women and femininity. This reading will first depend on an understanding of Cézanne’s conceptual approach to painting, which he applies in the Les Baigneurs to construct its eroticism. I will then analyze the composition and finer details of the painting that point to its violence. Finally, I will apply my reading as a lens on the Bathers series as a whole, which I believe defines a fundamental relationship between male and female sexuality.

Cézanne’s aim to portray the phenomenon of vision necessarily conflates sight and fantasy and points to the physical act of painting as a record of sensation. Greenberg notes the “separate [dabs] of paint” that record “almost every perceptible – or inferred – shift in direction” and “call attention to the physical picture plane”[1] and identifies Cézanne’s objects as fashioned elements of the pictorial space. Merleau-Ponty similarly describes Cézanne’s desire to “represent the object”[2] and use it to “contribute “ to a natural “impression of an emerging order, an object in the act of appearing, organizing itself before our eyes.”[3] But the act of organizing, which Cézanne highlights in his work, also translates into physical sensation, what Merleau-Ponty calls the removal of the “distinctions between touch and sight.”[4] This is also perceived by Greenberg, who describes “a never ending vibration” in “the little overlapping rectangles of paint, laid on with no attempt to fuse their edges” which simultaneously “[draw] the depicted form toward the surface” and “[pull] it back into illusionist depth.”[5] To Merleau-Ponty, the collapse of physical sensation and the physical rendering of paint on the canvas into coherent visual forms is even somewhat violent, where painted objects “[seem] abruptly illuminated from within, light emanates from it, and the result is an impression of solidity and material substance.”[6] Thus Cézanne’s work conflates vision, physical sensation, and desire through the coalescence of paint on the canvas, which deliberately display the artist’s effort. Richard Shiff explains how Cézanne wished to reflect how “our temperament, our primary subjective force, our emotion, influences our impression of nature,”[7] in other words, how we project our own imagination onto nature and perceive through our vision the interaction of the physical world with our fantasy. Cézanne explores the potential in this approach for visceral, carnal expression in his depiction of the male body and sexuality in the Male Bathers.

Figure I. Paul Cézanne, “Les Baigneurs,” 1894. Musée D’Orsay, Paris.

Cézanne’s dark outlines, distinct brush strokes, and color contouring are loaded with erotic suggestion and exemplify the conflation of sight and touch. These elements, in fact, mimic the experience of the voyeuristic eye. The outlines seem to quiver as they simultaneously trace and beget every from. Some muscles, like the shoulders and arms of the two figures at the center forefront, take shape with single, timid, titillating strokes of black. The crudity of these outlines bestows upon the figures they capture a rough, vibrating energy that is heightened in the interaction between distinct brush strokes, which seem to compose the male bodies in licks of ichorous colors. The vigor and carnality that these hot yellows, oranges, and reds signify is intensified against the white of the clouds and garments, and through their juxtaposition with the complementary blues and greens of the trees and water. Color instead links the male bathers with the earth at the forefront of the image, an association that augments the massiveness and solidity of their bodies. Cézanne’s use of color gradation to give these figures depth also stimulates a racy tension in the contrast between the oranges of their bodily peaks and the blues of their recesses. Ultimately, the dark lines and vibrant colors of Les Baigneurs characterizes its figures as both earthly and ethereal, pointing to their invention as objects of fantasy. Cézanne’s submersion of so much of the work’s eroticism into so few of its most superficial elements evokes a heightened, precarious, and risqué viewing experience.

The composition of Les Baigneurs is also metonymically suggestive of masculine sexual energy, which is defined in contrast to femininity. The bathers dominate the canvas, forming an impenetrable, obstructive mass that abuts the edge of the pictorial space and confronts the viewer. This mass is made more prominent through the stark contrast between complementary blues and oranges. The situation of the viewer below the waists of the figures stages a visual perspective that seems to enlarge this mass and elongate their forms, stretched further through both the vertical black lines that trace the bodies at the painting’s forefront and their thrusting upward arm gestures. The dual massiveness and verticality of the bathers in fact defines their masculinity, suggesting the assertiveness of the erect penis. Tamar Garb calls the composition of Les Baigneurs “phallic” and actively “resistant,”[8] but sees the potency of its figures stunted in their reluctance to “parade their sexual difference and assume conventionally masculine postures.”[9] But the bathers are hardly examples of “primeval innocence” as Garb puts it.[10] Instead, the concealment of their sex heightens the synecdochical association of the mass of male bodies with the male sex; identifiable individual parts are subsumed into the suggestion of a larger whole, which in turn becomes more impressive through the suspension of smaller parts. The masculine shape that the bathers together form is further aggravated through contrast with the feminine postures of its components. Cézanne juxtaposes the figures’ curves and dainty gestures, like the restrained pose of the figure at the center left, whose swooping body balances on small and tightly placed feet, with the assertiveness of their combined mass. Les Baigneurs reduces male sexuality to a purely physical element that exploits feminine aspects to aggrandize itself. The figures come into being through this contrast just as the figures on the canvas take shape in the tension between oranges and blues.

The constriction of male sexual energy finds violent release in the painting’s composition, with further implications for the interaction of masculinity and femininity. The phallic assertiveness of the bathers’ mass in Les Baigneurs contributes to what Garb calls their “frozen movement, tense active and anticipating.”[11] The painting suspends the erratic movements of its figures, giving their combined mass, which occupies almost the whole width of the canvas yet swells in its restriction below the cloud line, a potential for dangerous explosion. In fact, the cloud line and even the small size of the canvas seem to impede the vertical energy of the figures’ lines and gestures. But their vertical thrust finds resonance in the background trees whose sharp trunks shoot up and through the cloud line, not only reinforcing the figures’ potential for violent expression but also pointing to their relationship with their surroundings. Again we see the use of the feminine to exercise the masculine: these male bathers are actively using and tedding upon nature. In fact, the figures seem to assert their sexuality onto the space through their distinct poses, which almost mockingly display all angles of the male body and nearly cover the entirety of the natural landscape, a space that is gendered feminine.[12] Gottfried Boehm notes generally in Cézanne’s work that figures seem to be “laid out frontally on the canvas” which he interprets as a kind of “compositional violence.”[13] In Les Baigneurs, this technique reinforces the male bathers’ violent intrusion on a feminine space; the figures, outlined in black, seem transposed onto the natural scene, their overlapping, conflicting movements a direct result of their clumsy assertion and foreignness. Even their garments denote both their strangeness in and active use of the natural space. If the combined shape of the male figures is understood as an allusion to the penis, whose energy in the painting is dangerously confined and exercised upon a feminine space, then it becomes evident how Cézanne structurally defines masculinity by sexual violence in Les Baigneurs.

Figure II. Paul Cézanne, “L’Éternel Féminin (Le Veau d’Or),” 1877. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

This violence manifests in the painting through grotesque figures that confront the viewer. The anonymity of the bathers is the first indication of their eeriness. Most of the figures turn their backs to the viewer; those who do not are consigned to the crevices and sides of the bathers’ combined mass. The obscurity of the faces in the background adds to the uneasiness the painting projects, making the viewer physically unable to optically focus on and identify these figures. The one face (of a coherent body) available to the viewer, that of the seated figure at the far left, seems to conflate the sharp focus on figures at the foreground and the blurriness of background figures, denying the viewer any sense of logical optical illusion. This face seems monstrously discolored and deformed, his hoof-like foot and claw-like hands complementing his gross visage. In fact, this figure stands out in the composition for its cool colors and recession into the knoll at the left of the painting. Seated at an angle that mirrors and opposes that of the tree behind him, he seems especially in conflict with the landscape. He gestures down to the painting’s most frightening feature, a seemingly decapitated head on the ground with red shooting out of its eyes and down its face. The facial features of this head are the painting’s clearest, made more striking in contrast to the others’ obscurity, and, as the only face that looks directly back at the viewer, his red-leaking eyes both threaten and beckon the viewer to partake in the bathers’ transgressive behavior.

Cézanne defines male sexuality through sexual difference and by exploiting femininity and the female body. Scholars have been reluctant to examine the shape of the white garment hanging curiously near the center of the painting, which, I argue, resembles female genitalia. I not only see Cézanne experimenting with a vulvic shape in the same garment in early versions of the Male Bathers, but also a resonance of the triangular white canopy in his L’Éternel Féminin (Figure II), which alludes to the sex of the titular figure,[14] here transposed into a male-dominated space. If, as Mary-Louise Krumine writes, L’Éternel Féminin demonstrates the power of woman over men,[15] then Les Baigneurs circumcises her. In fact, the decapitated, seemingly bloody head suggests a similarly horrific dismemberment of the female body in the presentation of the vulvic garment. The garment hangs just off center in the painting’s composition, adding to the sense of its displacement, and is presented to the viewer as if the legs of a woman were spread open for the viewer. Featured at the center of the phallic mass of the male bathers, it signals its availability for penetration and the exercise of the figures’ violent sexual energy. However, that the form of the vulva should find representation in a garment also points to its disposability, proved by the nonchalant manner in which the standing male figure at the center discards it. The white cloth is reminiscent of the white curtain in Cézanne’s Moderne Olympia (Figure III), which, in that painting, is used to reveal the female and signal her availability both to the male client and the viewer.[16] Thus, if the figures in Les Baigneurs together form an impenetrable mass, then this vulva, inversely penetrable, is an entrance into the male-dominated space, as if use of the female genitalia is a requisite for entrance into a world of male sexuality. The erotic viewing experience that Cézanne articulates in Les Baigneurs necessarily involves the viewer and depends on the domination of women.

Figure III. Paul Cézanne, “Une Moderne Olympia,” 1874. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

This version of male sexuality, defined by the exploitation of women and femininity, can also be seen at work in the Bathers series as a whole, where the Female Bathers exist to inform the Male Bathers.  Most striking in Les Grandes Baigneuses (Figure IV) is the abundance of space. If the male bathers are characterized by the phallic mass, then these female bathers are characterized by their availability to the viewer. Set back from the edge of the pictorial frame and featuring a large gap between two separate groups of figures, they guide the eye through the painting. The viewer seems able to enter and pass through their space; the female bathers do “not ward off the viewer but [anticipate] him.”[17] They seem to perform for the viewer, whose position as audience is mirrored in the obscure figures across the pool of water. Garb notes the stacking of triangular shapes, the two groups of bathers and the gap they frame, in the composition of Les Grandes Baigneuses.[18] Not only, she argues, does the triangle evoke the female sex, but the curious gap represents the conception of female sexuality as “a lack, a gap, a hole, a wound.”[19] Thus, female sexuality in the painting is both redundant and strange, but remedied by the obtrusive wholeness of male sexuality in Les Baigneurs. The female figures are also here intimately linked with nature. They only occupy the bottom half of the canvas, the other half giving equal attention to the trees and sky. The two standing figures buttress the trees behind them while the figures at the far left and right seem to merge with the bush. This association between the female bathers and their setting further feminizes nature, heightening the transgression of the male bathers within their own setting. While there is a rigid separation of the sexes in the Bathers series, Les Baigneurs exploits feminine elements and seems to play off Les Grandes Baigneuses to magnify the masculinity of its figures. Conceived ten years after Les Baigneurs, Les Grandes Baigneuses serves to dramatize its male-dominated counterpart.

Figure IV. Paul Cézanne, “Les Grandes Baigneuses,” 1906. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia.

Thus, the Female Bathers informs the Male Bathers as an allegory for Cézanne’s concept of the relationship between female and male sexuality, where masculinity depends upon the exploitation of femininity. The use of feminine elements to define masculinity by violence within Les Baigneurs redounds this relationship. By contrast, Les Baigneuses depicts a strictly feminine space that does not rely on an exchange with masculine elements to heighten its power. Whether Cézanne endorses or criticizes the relationship between male and female sexuality in the Bathers needs further investigation. In fact, there is a dearth of rigorous study of Cézanne and particularly of the Bathers. This paper was spurred by the apparent reluctance of many scholars to precisely articulate and question what Greenberg so ambiguously calls “something indescribably racy and sudden”[20] in Cézanne’s work. Half a century later, the truth of Cézanne’s project in the Bathers series has yet to be uncovered.

[1] Clement Greenberg, “Cézanne and the Unity of Modern Art,” in The Collected Essays and Criticisms, Volume 3: Affirmations and Refusals, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 86.
[2] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Cézanne’s Doubt,” in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting, ed. Galen A. Johnson (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 62.
[3] Ibid., 65.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Greenberg, “Cézanne and the Unity of Modern Art,” 86.
[6] Merleau-Ponty, “Cézanne’s Doubt,” 62.
[7] Richard Shiff, “Seeing Cézanne,” Critical Inquiry 4 (1978): 790.
[8] Tamar Garb. “Visuality and Sexuality in Cézanne’s Late Bathers,” Oxford Arts Journal 19 (1996): 55.
[9] Ibid., 54.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 55.
[12] Ibid., 54.
[13] Gottfried Boehm, “A Paradise Created by Painting: Observations on Cézanne’s Bathers,” in Paul Cézanne: The Bathers, by Mary Louise Krumrine, ed. Meret Meyer et al. (Basel: Offentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, 1989), 16.
[14] Mary Louise Krumine, Paul Cézanne: The Bathers (Basel: Offentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, 1989), 93.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid., 85.
[17] Garb, “Visuality and Sexuality,” 55.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid., 56.
[20] Greenberg, “Cézanne and the Unity of Modern Art,” 83.

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