“The Obscenest Picture The World Possesses”: A Twainian Homage to John Berger, George Michael, David Bowie, Prince

On exhibit on the terrace level of Elmira College’s Gannett-Tripp Library is an oil painting titled Head of Titian’s Venus 2015 by Elmira artist Dan Reidy. The large scale oil painting references the famous Venus of Urbino, a 1538 oil painting by Italian master Titian that was described by Mark Twain in A Tramp Abroad (1880) as “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses.” Unlike Twain, Reidy focuses on Venus’s gaze, rather than her overt sexuality. But does Twain’s quote simply suggest he held Puritanical beliefs about nudity and specifically in this case, about masturbation?

Head of Titian's Venus 2015 - Dan Reidy
Dan Reidy, Head of Titian’s Venus 2015, Oil on Canvas, 52″ x 60″

Twain’s further commentary in A Tramp Abroad is infrequently cited. His protest was less about the questionable sexual activity of Venus and more about his own envy of artists who had license to depict controversial subject matter. Twain harbored a lifelong fear of the public condemnation he might face were he to express all his uncensored opinions. Contrasting the prudish literary tastes of his own time with the perpetual admiration of Renaissance painting, he says,

If I ventured to describe that attitude, there would be a fine howl – but there the Venus lies, for anybody to gloat over that wants to – and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and Art has its privileges. I saw young girls stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gaze long and absorbedly at her; I saw aged, infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest. How I should like to describe her – just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up in the world – just to hear the unreflecting average man deliver himself about my grossness and coarseness, and all that. The world says that no worded description of a moving spectacle is a hundredth part as moving as the same spectacle seen with one’s own eyes – yet the world is willing to let its son and its daughter and itself look at Titian’s beast, but won’t stand a description of it in words. Which shows that the world is not as consistent as it might be. (A Tramp Abroad )

Venus of Urbino (1538) - Titian
Titian, Venus of Urbino (1538), Oil on Canvas, 47″ x 65″ [Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy]
Twain’s judgment that “Art” legitimizes “the pathetic interest” we know today as “the male gaze” predates by nearly a century John Berger’s analysis of male privilege in his famous 1972 book Ways of Seeing. Twain exemplifies what Berger calls “the surveyor” as he not just looks, but judges the “surveyed.” Berger is at his Marxist best when he levels the hierarchy of the classical nude with images of women in girlie magazines. Specifically, he asserts facial expressions of women have not changed over time in imagery, describing the woman’s look, whether 16th century or 20th century, as “responding with calculated charm to the man whom she imagines looking at her – although she doesn’t know him. She is offering up her femininity as the surveyed” (55).

By focusing on Venus’s coyly inviting stare, Reidy has chosen not to exploit the sensational sexual suggestion of masturbation, as Twain does, but instead makes us grapple with thgendered submissive attitude seen in Venus’s facial expression. Berger advises us to be aware that men and women learn about gender expectations through this kind of depiction. He explains that this “way of seeing” women has a very long history:

The essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. Women are depicted in a quite different way from men – not because the feminine is different from the masculine – but because the “ideal” spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him. If you have any doubt that this is so, make the following experiment. Choose…an image of a traditional nude. Transform the woman into a man. Either in your mind’s eye or by drawing on the reproduction. Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the image, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer. (64)

Contemporary applications of Berger’s test demonstrate that there may be shifting expectations. Women still overwhelmingly wear the “come hither” mask, but men are beginning to as well, as we see in comparing the following fragance advertisements.

Rihanna Rogue Love Ad Campaign
Rihanna Rogue Love Ad Campaign


Yves Saint Laurent M7 Ad Campaign [Click Image to read about associated controversy]
Yves Saint Laurent M7 Ad Campaign [Click Image to read about associated controversy]
How do we account for this “feminization” in advertising that might be described in some quarters, using Twain’s sentiment, as “vile and obscene”? We could surmise that cosmetic corporations merely wish to expand their consumer base, seeing men’s vanity as an untapped source of revenue. Why not market the stereotypically feminine concern for “desirability” to the remainder of the population? Others may believe this gender-bending trend reflects a half century of pop culture flirtation with androgyny. PBS Newshour’s Corinne Segal notes in her memorial to David Bowie that “For a brief time, mostly in 1968, unisex was everywhere, and with it came a fair amount of confusion in the media.” “It’s not just the way we look; the whole male-female relationship is confused,” columnist Everett Mattlin wrote for the Chicago Tribune in 1968. “In novels, plays, movies, TV — all, presumably, reflecting life itself — men are weak, fumbling, impotent, while women are strong, decisive, domineering…All is topsy-turvy in a neuter world.” Segal praises Bowie for transgressing the established gender norms, especially with his 1972 alien androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust. She writes that for Bowie “gender lines were unimportant in the face of a strong personal style.”

The music industry lost two other notable “gender transgressors” in 2016: Prince and George Michael. It is an easy task to visit Google images and find photos of these musicians wearing the expression of the “surveyed,” offering themselves up to us with the slightly coquettish tilt of the head. Compare their flirtatious expressions to Reidy’s and Titian’s Venus in the grid below.

Gender Bending Gaze
Clockwise from Top Right: Boy George, Titian’s Venus, Prince, George Michael, Reidy’s Venus, David Bowie

The ongoing relevance of the double standards identified by Twain and Berger, and interrogated by Bowie, Prince, and Michael, is further highlighted by recent controversies associated with Donald Trump’s regressive, objectifying “locker room talk.” In contrast to such blustering displays of male chauvinism, these gentle, contemporary examples of the “surveyed sans gender” do not evoke weakness in men, but instead express a “desirability” that is appropriate for people of all genders and sexual orientations. It seems like Twain would’ve viewed such changes in social mores not as obscenity, but as healthy free expression, and been envious of the permissive celebratory cultural environment which followed him.