Norman Lindsay: Eros and Obscenity

Sex is not only the basis of life, it is the reason for life.
—Norman Lindsay

lindsayI hadn’t intended to write anything at all about Norman Lindsay. I hardly knew of his work. I read somewhere that besides being prolific, he had also been a highly talented boxer. I had seen a couple of short video interviews with him that were endearing. He seemed like a happy-go-lucky old guy from another era—a little naughty for his age, with a twinkle in his eye. He played to the camera a little. A brilliant smile. I was won over. I googled his paintings.

I discovered Lindsay’s etchings were unique in the history of Australian art, the result of a partnership with his wife, Rose Soady, who was a master printmaker. Their collaboration (from 1918 to 1938) resulted in 200 published works. I found a very sexy photograph of the two of them together when they were young, Rose posing next to him in her underwear, frilly bloomers and long black nylons. Lindsay is wearing a three-piece suit and has a grin on his face like a cat that had gotten into the creampuff.

Then, mostly by accident, I read an interview with a Norman Lindsay expert who stated categorically that Lindsay would not have liked pornography. That didn’t sound right to me.

Pornography is a big word that, in the minds of the art-uneducated, often steamrolls over the beautifully erotic. But this expert went on to say that in most painters’ studios, after their death, exceptionally erotic drawings were found, but Norman Lindsay had nothing like this in his studio; therefore Lindsay would not have liked pornography.

Was this Lindsay authority saying that the erotic and the pornographic were the same thing? Or that artists who liked erotic drawings would necessarily enjoy pornography? Or that Lindsay wouldn’t have appreciated exceptionally erotic drawings? Or that Lindsay considered the exceptionally erotic pornographic? A lot of questions were bubbling away there. I felt an essay coming on.

It is obvious to anyone with eyes that much of Norman Lindsay’s drawings, etchings and paintings fall firmly into the erotic box.

How could any authority on this highly sexually-oriented artist make such a misleading statement? Were they Lindsay’s views, or the expert’s own projections? This merited further investigation, so I decided to contact this expert.

I got a kind reply almost straight away. And then the kindness stopped.

Rather than address my query as to whether Lindsay would have had tolerance regarding contemporary pornography or not, and its common confusion with eroticism, the authority wanted now to exempt Lindsay’s work from even being classified as erotic art, citing an Oxford Dictionary entry that declared that erotic actually means sexual love, or pertaining to the passion of love (an example given: the Kama Sutra), going on to say that if Lindsay’s work had fallen into the erotic category, it, and numerous old masters, would have been banned.

Now, as far as I know, the Kama Sutra isn’t banned and neither are the erotic drawings of Picasso and numerous old masters. In fact, this very same authority once previously stated that one of the initial attractions to Lindsay’s work had been this very sensuality.

Sensual and erotic are pretty close in meaning. And they nestle up very close to certain kinds of work that many pigeonhole as pornographic. If we are citing dictionary references, here are a few more:

The Merriam-Webster defines sensual: 1. relating to or affecting any of the senses or a sense organ; sensory. 2. a. of, relating to, given to, or providing gratification of the physical and especially the sexual appetites. b. suggesting sexuality; voluptuous. c. physical rather than spiritual or intellectual. d. lacking in moral or spiritual interests; worldly. Especially: irreligious.

The Collins English Dictionary defines erotic as: 1. the use of sexually arousing or pleasing symbolism in literature or art. 2. sexual excitement or desire.

The Merriam-Webster defines pornography this way: 1: the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement. 2: the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction.

See what I mean? No wonder there is so much confusion in the minds of law enforcement agencies not trained in the ever-changing nuances and opaqueness of the art world.

Many works of art that have been tarred and feathered, in one time or place, as pornography or obscenity, in another time or place emerge as Serious Art. It seemed logical to me that an artist of Norman Lindsay’s calibre, who so often suffered under the brutal ignorance of “wowsers”, as he called them, who accused his work of being obscene or pornographic, might be extra careful himself in calling the palette black regarding fellow artists’ work.

When I wrote back asking for some clarification and more specific details, the response was even more terse. I was admonished to read Sense and Censorship by Michael Pollak, and that I should deepen my research (implying that it wasn’t deep or researched) and asked not to “pester” again with my “ridiculous out of date theories” on a subject that had been “done to death”.

Out of date theories? Done to death? Pester? Me? Maybe this so-called expert can explain then why the police issued a search warrant and seized my computer just last year, on a spurious complaint about possible pornographic photographs I had posted on Facebook—the charges quickly dropped when the photos turned out to be a collection of celebrated pictures by the respected US photographer Sally Mann, and that not a single person in the food-chain, including Facebook administration, federal and local police and even the judge who issued the warrant, right here in Australia, and right now in the twenty-first century, were able to tell the difference between world-renowned artistic photographs and exploitative pornography.

So tell me what has changed? The confusion in distinguishing art from obscenity hasn’t changed. As far as I can tell, nothing has been “done to death” in this area and nothing is “out of date”. Especially when an “expert” is irresponsibly linking erotic art and pornography together as the same thing. Faulkner comes to mind: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

I still had a lot of unanswered questions so I went out and bought a copy of Sense and Censorship and studied the section on Lindsay.

In honesty, I wasn’t prepared for the offensiveness of some of Norman Lindsay’s malformed opinions. I discovered that Lindsay’s ideas were the obscenity. His celebrated and beautiful work starkly contrasted with the often despicable nature of his xenophobic and homophobic views.

For instance, in a letter to his official biographer, John Hetherington, he wrote:

I cannot think of one true homosexual whose achievements have ever been of the order of greatness. You do, I think, get many scintillatingly clever homosexuals, but there is always an incompleteness about even their best work; it is always underlaid with what they themselves would call, I suppose, bitchiness; it just isn’t the product of a male mind, but how could it be?

Norman. Norman. Norman. Are we overlooking Walt Whitman, Garcia Lorca, Oscar Wilde, Cavafy, Gide, Proust, Langston Hughes, Visconti, Diaghilev, Nureyev, Forster, Cocteau, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Thornton Wilder, Aaron Copland, Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns? Even Verlaine had sex with both men and women, including Rimbaud, and there is a strong argument for Leonardo di Vinci—and I won’t even begin to explain to you the fashion industry.

Jamie Horn, who has a website offering Lindsay’s prints, etchings and paintings for sale, wrote about the twenty years Lindsay had been the resident cartoonist and illustrator for the Bulletin:

Despite his enthusiasm for erotica, [Lindsay] shared the racist and right-wing political leanings that dominated The Bulletin at that time; the “Red Menace” and “Yellow Peril” were popular themes in his cartoons.

Fairly recently, in the Monthly, Shane Maloney said:

[Lindsay] provid[ed] the editorial visuals for [the Bulletin’s] race-based nationalism. Aborigines were lazy children, Jews were hook-nosed money-grubbers, Chinamen were both comical and threatening. And, when fresh cannon fodder was required during World War I, Lindsay provided the recruiters with a powerful propaganda tool in the form of virulent pro-conscription posters. Huns in pickle-sticker helmets with the faces of bloody-fanged slavering baboons.

No wonder Norman liked losing himself in the eros of sketching naked women. He needed a beauty-break from all his backed-up bile and frustration. He avowed he hated “cultureless Australia”, Jews, blacks, the police, the government, politicians, labelling anyone who disagreed with his personal ideals of sensuality and bawdiness in art with the degrading flag, “wowser”. He declared himself to be absolutely against all forms of censorship (omitting to mention the necessary forms that protected children and the under-age) even though he personally had a Grand Inquisitor Censor residing in his head which reduced others, at whim, to second- and third-class art-citizens if they objected to his personal freedom to create whatever he felt like.

Michael Pollak wrote:

To Lindsay, Jesus, too, was pure humbug, springing from the stultifying tenets of Judaism. Like the “petty” Australian officials who would ban his works, Jesus was lambasted as a “lesser intellect” who prevented higher intellects from achieving their full potential.

Lindsay wrote, in Creative Effort:

[Jesus] had the gift of all lesser intellects, oratory … This Galilean artisan was typical of his race … he had the emotionalism of a suppressed people … he was able to stir up the mob to epileptic passion. At the best, he was only half intelligent, a feminine mind, excited, suffering and sentimental, with a constricted vision of life picked up on the scrap heaps of Greek mysticism. Worst of all, this Jew imposed the belief that suffering ennobles, and that the poor, the base, the wicked and the dull are those chosen for martyrdom here in order to inherit the reward of the hereafter … despicable supposition! Suffering is not noble …

Pollak also remarked that, despite being an obsessive workaholic, for Lindsay:

over-indulgence diminished creative effort. He wept for the “lamentable group” in the previous century, like Keats and Coleridge, who died with their work unfulfilled or “lived on to fritter away useless time with drugs and journalism”.

 Let’s see; Lindsay consigns to the retarded class: Keats, Coleridge, Jesus, epileptics, journalists, orators, the Greeks, mysticism; he demeans the value of suffering and sentimentality and equates half-intelligence with the feminine mind. Did I leave anyone out? And that is in less than half a page. Imagine spending a whole day with this guy in a closed space! I hope he paid his models well.

So let’s come back to the question of whether Norman Lindsay would have disliked pornography or at least been tolerant of it. He certainly talked about it: “Bawdy in art is extreme from pornography … pornography is … dull, boring, humourless to any mind sensitized to the intonation of wit and humour.”

This is a limited and somewhat defensive definition of pornography. Pornography extends from the innocently playful to the downright repulsive and illegal. Use your words, Norman.

In the 1950s, Bettie Page posed for photographer Irving Klaw in extremely lightweight pin-up, bondage and sadomasochistic themes. She was probably technically the first bondage model. Her work possessed a powerful sense of humour and play, completely refuting Linsday’s definition. Bettie Page was bawdy as hell. But some of Klaw’s underground features of her had the same hand-held style and under-the-counter distribution as the pornographic films of the time, although absent any explicit sexual content, and were still considered porn by censors.

Bettie Page also gave “expert guidance” to the FBI regarding the production of flagellation and bondage pictures in Harlem. She was later diagnosed with acute schizophrenia, and spent twenty months in a state mental hospital in California. After an altercation with a landlord, she was arrested for assault, found not guilty by reason of insanity and placed under state supervision for eight more years. She then attempted to become a Christian missionary but was rejected for having been divorced—but later worked full-time for the Rev. Billy Graham! Hallelujah! What is life if not colourful?

I would bet my riding crop and a year’s supply of vintage dog-eared Playboys that Norman Lindsay would have loved to sketch Bettie Page. He once wrote to his brother Lionel: “Oh for a good honest lecher to talk bawdy talk with …  I feel there is nothing for an honest man to do but to run horn mad after lechery …”

Does this sound like a man who would turn in indignation from a babe like Bettie Page? But no chance of him becoming a Christian missionary like her. There they would have definitely parted company over that other wowser afflicted with too much of the Lindsay-defined “feminine mind”, Billy Graham.

My partner pointed out that while, in his own time, Lindsay’s views on Jews, Aborigines and communists were considered quite conservative, and his artwork scandalous, today it is the reverse. Lindsay’s artwork is beautiful, but ultimately lightweight, while the outdated pseudo-Nietzschean views he held are more reprehensible than ever.

The art historian and critic Christopher Heathcote told me how “radical” artists often have very conformist and conservative views on social matters, holding very much their prejudices in the majority of areas—except art.

It is irrefutable that Norman Lindsay was an erotic artist by any sane definition of the word. He is included in Art Nouveau Erotica in an article: “The Erotic Art of Australia’s Norman Lindsay 1967.” The Universalium Academic Dictionary says of Lindsay’s work, “mainly done in an Art Nouveau manner, the erotic nature of these illustrations was considered scandalous in Australia”. At the Norman Lindsay Gallery and Museum, it talks of “[the] Norman Lindsay house with a gallery of his erotic paintings and etchings, etching and painting studio buildings, and a garden”.

On the Odana Editions website, you can also find the highly sexual Lindsay drawing, Afternoon of a Faun:

This delightful etching was etched c.1920. Rose [Soady] pulled roughly fifty prints from the plate but it was never published because of its erotic content.

Erotic erotic erotic. Everywhere we look, it’s raining Eros.

So to answer the main question I posed above: the “exceptionally erotic” and the pornographic are not by default the same thing—but sometimes they are. Artists who have erotic drawings on their studio walls do not necessarily mean they enjoy pornography—but some do.

And, according to his own definitions of both, Lindsay would not have considered the exceptionally erotic as pornographic at all—if it contained the bawdy, the wit and the humour he required to flip his personal thrill switch.

I believe he would have sympathised with a lot of the controversial art of today’s culture, often mislabelled pornography and obscenity by a completely new generation of uneducated “wowsers”, just as his own work was misunderstood back then.

Several of Joe Dolce’s poems appeared in the September issue; more will appear shortly.


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