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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
It's just not fair. All the other book lovers are given great summer reading choices. Romance, mystery, horror, and science fiction novels are all made for the summer months — page-turner paperbacks spicy enough to keep one interested even in the drowsy summer heat.
Art books, on the other hand, tend to be beautifully made but designed more for serious reading, great for the coffee table but not really suited to a trip to the shore. But this summer, author Nigel Cawthorne comes to the rescue!
Cawthorne's Sex Lives of the Great Artists is just the sort of escapist, trashy tome art lovers can appreciate but haven't often had access to. It's a paperback and fits easily into a shoulder bag or backpack. It's fun to read out loud to your friends. You can easily pick up where you left off after taking a dip or dozing off in the summer sun. And it's chock-full of saucy, sexy stories of artists who were as experimental in the bedroom as they were in the studio.
Painter Francis Bacon, for instance, fell in love with a man named Peter Lacy who proposed that he and Bacon move in together — on the condition that Bacon live chained to a wall and sleep on a bed of straw. Bacon considered it, but declined because such limited mobility would make painting so difficult. The two continued their love affair regardless. One activity Lacy regularly engaged in was beating Bacon, to both partners' pleasure. Lacy also enjoyed slashing Bacon's canvases to pieces. "He liked to have people watching us as we had sex," Bacon said of his lover. They were ultimately separated after Lacydrankhimself to death.
Though the surrealist Salvador Dalí might seem more tame than Bacon at first glance because he was married to the same woman his entire life, he was far from conventional. He was obsessed with scatological fantasies and images, and the primary form of pleasure that he and his wife enjoyed was mutual masturbation. The couple also liked to indulge in "sexual experimentation" sessions in which they would openly discuss their sex lives (including Dalí's unusual desires) with male friends. On the other hand, one might describe Dalí's sex life as conservative in that he avoided having sex with any women besides his wife. It seems that when an aggressive woman would try to have her way with him, he would invite her back to his apartment...and then put a freshly fried egg on her shoulder. (You know those surrealists — always interested in deconstructing the object.) That way, he wouldn't have to fight off her advances any longer.
Leonardo da Vinci, it seems, was interested in both men and women. But he was also very interested in the male sexual organ. Part of his essay "Concerning the Rod" — about how unruly those "rods" can be — is reprinted in Sex Lives. In the essay, he writes: "Often the man is asleep and it is awake, and often the man is awake while it sleeps, and often when the man wishes to use it, it desires otherwise, and often it wishes to be used and the man forbids it."
He continues, "Therefore, it appears this creature possesses a life and intelligence alien from the man, and it seems that men are wrong to be ashamed of giving it a name or of showing it, always covering and concealing what deserves to be adorned and displayed with ceremony as a ministrant." (Perhaps if da Vinci's painting career didn't work out, he could have been a comedian. Or a sex therapist.)
Pierre Auguste Renoir had this advice for his friend and fellow painter Modigliani: "Paint with joy, the joy with which you make love to a woman. Before I paint, I caress the buttocks for hours...." As a number of stories in this collection prove, Renoir was not the only one who was finding such sublime inspiration. Making love to their models was a popular practice for many great artists. Cawthorne even goes so far as to postulate that the Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile was, in fact, an outward sign of afterglow: "Every heterosexual man knows that look. It is the look of a woman who has just been made love to and is about to be made love to again, just as soon as her lover puts his brushes down." (Oh, that Leonardo and his naughty rod.)
There's much more. Stephen Spencer, it seems, was involved in a bizarre love triangle with both his ex-wife, and his new bride (who lived with yet another woman, a cross-dresser who favored men's clothes). On one occasion, Andy Warhol — who once claimed, "Sex is an illusion. The most exciting thing is not making it." — exhibited his shoe fetish by licking the footwear of a surprised paramour. Macho man Jackson Pollock apparently was a slow starter: His sexual experience was limited to kissing until after his 18th birthday (and thereafter he was often was too drunk to perform).
Cawthorne recognizes that even the more cultured among us can use a little trashy, escapist beach reading, and with Sex Lives of the Great Artists, he has delivered that in spades. And if Cawthorne's dishing of the dirt offers just a bit of insight into the life and work of our favorite artists, so much the better.