Creating any form of art can lead to an ecstatic moment of pleasure only found in physical and spiritual love
Paul Gauguin, a successful stockbroker and married father of five would have been fairly satisfied with life until his weekend diversion began to consume him. When he was about 26, he had started dabbling in painting, without quite realising where this particular pastime was to lead him. Some nine years later, painting would take him over completely, as the smell of paint and turpentine and smooth tubes oozing vivid colours became his passion. Mette Gad, his wife, with their brood of children left for Copenhagen, a bitter and unhappy woman. The marriage was over.
It was not only the oil paint or the act of applying it to canvas that caused such an upheaval in Gauguin’s body, mind and spirit. It was in fact an extraordinary awakening – a quickening of his senses that made him aware of sights, sounds and smells and provoked his wanderlust and his gypsy life. As also a passion for the smooth dark bodies of prepubescent Tahitian girls and his careful, tireless nurturing of sunflowers – the remains of his time spent with Van Gogh at Arles – sunflowers that spilt over like sunshine from outside his hut in Martinique or Panama or some sundry Polynesian island. From bourgeois to Bohemian, Gauguin’s epanouissement or blossoming, was complete. The ‘noble savage’ had rejected the constraints of conventionality to take to the painful yet exhilarating life of an artist, a heady life that would also lead him towards drink, dissipation, syphilis and early death.
There is no way of knowing in what mood or state of mind Picasso stated that ‘all art is erotic’, but such a statement is certainly worthy of dissection. I have failed to find any obvious eroticism in religious art, landscapes (without figures) or abstract art – to mention some examples – and I doubt whether Picasso with all his brilliance and vibrant energy was referring to something as simple as what his quote superficially implies. What I believe he was referring to was not to what had been created, but to creativity itself, the energy and concentration that lead to the making of art – any form of art. It is not art that is necessarily erotic as much as the creative spirit behind it.
A powerful creative expression stems from a sense of inner freedom, an opening out of restraint lodged deep inside the self when an artist is no longer concerned about ‘what will people think’. An artist therefore – almost godlike – manipulates and mutates whatever it is that is being created, giving it whatever shape or form the creative impulse desires, while experiencing exhilaration, despair or a constant state of arousal. An abstract oil or acrylic on canvas that deals with no figures or naked flesh, can still be an erotic experience for the painter. The act of painting is the erotic experience, with all senses awakened. It is the smell, sight and feel of the paint covering pristine canvas with powerful strokes. The scrambling, dribbling, dragging or smearing with fingers or brush, the slick wet paint – thickly opaque or thinly transparent – hiding a colour, seeking another, blending and changing a third. The endless, tantalising play that leads to the ecstasy of the final moment.
The erotic sensibility that exists because of talent and the ability to express without fear or restraint does occasionally get you into trouble. That is when the artist moves from freedom to irresponsibility and self-destruction. Michael Jackson comes to mind: superbly gifted, tragically eccentric, and made legend for perpetuity.
It is the erotic spirit that is the artist’s fountainhead, in the desire to move forward towards the chosen art form. Of equal value is the manner in which the erotic spirit manifests in the personality of an artist. Among the women who sang in kothas, many were celebrated for their singing. There were those who maintained their dignity, others who were uncomfortable in the role, while some who had the vulgarity of the common prostitute. Their lives were fraught with unhappiness, rejection, unrequited love and the burden of an uncertain future. Their singing was strongly laced with languor and longing, and a provocation designed to ensnare a worthy mentor. It is the same languor that is now so intrinsic to the classical music of North India.
Sacred poetry and that of physical love often exist simultaneously within the same lines, within the same words, the physical being the metaphor for the divine. An unforgettable scene in Pyasa has Guru Dutt leaning over the balcony, absorbed in the song of the Baul singers on the street below, singing words of love and yearning for the Divine: ‘Come my beloved, embrace me, I have been thirsty for your love for an eternity past’. The poignancy of this scene – and the sexually charged mood – is in the silent torment of the heroine (Waheeda Rehman), unable to express her love, and of whom the hero is unaware. The Bauls, singing of the agony of separation from God have his full
attention, while Rehman can barely refrain herself from touching Dutt, suffering her own anguish of unfulfilled love.
Classical Indian convention has expressed the parallel concept of divine and romantic love. The well-known metaphor used is that of the ashta nayikas: the emotions of eight women racked by love or, on the metaphysical level, the various stages of the soul’s evolution in search of God. The besotted nayika makes her way through moods of erotic anticipation, and disappointment when the lover fails to appear, resulting in the heroine’s smouldering, unappeased body, which eventually drives her to search for her beloved, braving all obstacles until the eventual union. The love struck nayika is depicted in clear, erotic language; whether it is classical painting, sculpture, dance, literature or music. Eroticism is the language that transcends the physical to express the spiritual merger with the Divine.
Different cultures understand ‘erotic’ in varied ways. Its interpretation depends on personality, socio-cultural background and geographic location. Words and their interpretation – ranging from pornography to Puritanism – acquire different values, depending on from where the usage emanates. While Picasso would have said what he did, we can only speculate and offer our own
understanding of the subject.
Rupika Chawla is a Delhi-based art conservator. She is the author of Surface and Depth, Indian Artists at Work, Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India and two books on the artist A. Ramachandran. She has also curated major exhibitions at the National Museum and the NGMA in Delhi.