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October, 2014:

Tamar Garb and the Figures of Gustave Caillebotte

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Gustave Caillebotte Nude on a Couch

Tamar Garb’s essay on Gustave Caillebotte

Tamar Garb begins the essay by describing and romanticizing Caillebotte’s Nude on a Couch. Garb concentrates on the presence of pubic hair and the overt and sexual nature of the work. The author’s eye dwells on the lack of narrative aspects to the scene; the nondescript. She also, asserts that the red cloth implies some taboo and more intimate lurid details. Perhaps this is a passion unrealized for the artist or viewer. Garb describes a figure devoid of idealized beauty, a realist, perchance harshly rendered bare, “fleshy” woman. Not the classic rendered, smooth, hairless woman of academic history works.

Garb then moves to the work on which she concentrates the majority of her subsequent discussion, Man at his Bath. Garb states that the artist is treading new ground through his inclusion of a man in this typically female place, the bathing scene. In artists’ works such as Degas’s Bathers this domestic space within the home, the bathing area, is typically populated by woman if not more specifically prostitutes or at least women of lower social class. Garb emphasizes the “conspicuous” nature of discarded clothes and how the lack of objects of concentration in the composition draws our eyes toward the central figure, the vulnerable man.

Garb’s main assertion is that Caillebotte’s treatment of the male nude is groundbreaking and that it is notable for it’s place in the progression of the nude in modern art. The author sees Caillebotte’s painting as one of the first true treatments of male bathing and especially of an upper class man. According to Garb, Caillebotte’s contemporary French culture was fraught with internal challenges to its identity and therefore to its collective sexuality and namely concepts of masculinity. France’s recent loss to the Prussians posed a challenge to the physicality and masculinity of the modern French man. As bourgeois life softened men, there was seen a need for “pure procreation” or as Garb nearly phrases it “economy of sperm”. She alleges that the state of modern French masculinity, and the classical nature of earlier male nude portrayals was challenged by the realist image of this man simply drying himself. This French movement toward model masculinity was the enemy of the bachelor or homosexual; both were seen as deviants or even as traitors’ against state and the might of France. Garb mentions how Caillebotte was himself a member of this “deviant” male group, in that he was single and lived the unscrupulous life of a bachelor.

The author draws her picture of the modern upper class man. Such a man aims for lack of physical identity in his wardrobe. A dark black suit, full beard, top hat, cane and jacket were the costume of the rich French man. This was in obvious contrast to the uniform of the French laborer, which was varied to some extent and made the class if not profession of a man known on site. Wealth gave a man the luxury to be judged not by appearance (as it was the same as most any other man), but by his actions. Garb explains that the Caillebotte’s wealth and attached social status allowed him to transcend the clothes of his birth status and even dress as a caretaker when he tended his private gardens.

Garb then concentrates heavily on comparing the male clothing to a phallus and insists that the cane, hat and even shape of the coat were overt attempts to recall the shape of this icon for fertility. She eventually returns to the anatomy of the half-naked figures of the Oarsmen and The Floor Scrapers to illustrate the difference between the sporting and the working male body. Garb classifies the sporting body as a product of concerted effort and vanity on the part of a rich man aspiring to reaffirm his virility. Caillebotte was himself a boatman and a boxer. Garb even includes a photograph of Caillebotte boxing while dressed only in trousers. Garb sees Gustav as being caught up in the bourgeois pursuit of the ideal sporting body. Floorscapers emphasizes the other, less soft form of the male body in Caillebott’s France. These men are thin and their bodies show their life is not that of luxury. The hands show the level of brute force required to complete such a backbreaking task as your profession.

It is after this interlude that Garb begins to concentrate much more heavily on individual aspects of the male figure in Man at his Bath. She draws great significance from the presence of the “outrageously visible” scrotum in the image, and then describes the same man as emasculated by the emphases on his anus. Garb describes the buttocks as overtly feminine and concentrates on the penetrable nature of the anus and extrapolates that potential for penetration into vulnerability. The writer even pens, “Caillebotte nevertheless seems unconsciously to focus attention on fantasies of penetration” and tries to compare brush strokes of pink near the upper clenched checks of the buttocks to a vagina.

Overall many of the author’s assetions seem to ring true. She paints a picture of the insecurities of men and masculinity during the times of Caillebotte. Garb also includes many footnotes, but unfortunately those notes were not available in the course packet. Abstracted from Garb’s tendency to drift toward overt Freudian analysis of incidental elements of the compositions. I agree that Man at his Bath was a new and groundbreaking piece, but I see no details to claim that Caillebotte had any sort of subconscious desire to penetrate the male figure. Garb has come to these images of men with far more sexual pruschology than logic would dictate the artists intended. I see Man at his Bath as an honest and mundane (as Garb frequently stated) activity given new light. She focuses too much attention on the importance on the tension in the buttocks and far less time exploring how the stance of the model feel natural, as if the figure was unknowingly painted while drying himself after a bath. Garb’s inclusion of the sporting nature of rich Frenchmen is helpful to create a time and place and is instrumental in establishing Caillebotte’s day and the images and expectation for what it was idealized to be a man. The contrast between Man at his Bath and Floorscapers as is specifically relates to the working versus sporting body types for men, is helpful in furthering the understanding of these constructs. The evidence of wear on the working men’s back is in the quality of the line that composes those hard muscles, while the more contoured an deliberate body of the bather show that such shape is aimed at appearance and is not a by-product of a working lifestyle.

Learn more about Gustave Caillebotte

The artist

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Self-portrait of Artist Gustave Caillebotte 1892

Garb tends to contradict herself in several places. She comments upon the lack of narrative in several works and then explains, with few visual clues, details about the mental states of the subjects. For Nude on a Couch she explains how the woman “reclines in a self-absorbed stupor”, but I see only a naturalistically rendered woman sleeping on a couch. In this same work Garb emphasizes heavily the significance of the red cloth as it compares to the anatomy of the woman and mentions the proximity of her hand to her nipple. Again, the weight of significance seems to be unfairly cast. The red cloth has no blatant interpretation other than being red and I have observed many people, both male and female, who sleep with their hands across or rested upon their chests. The author again grasps at straws to draw direct connections between artist and male artisan subject. Garb states that the presence of tools somehow forms some ethereal connection between building laborers and Caillebotte. While this is a simple and easily asserted idea there is little more than conjecture to back up such assertions.

Garb is good at illustrating the general state of sexuality and its norms for Caillebotte’s life, but lacks the logical direction to include details that could be easily proved through documentation. In one case she cites increases in the percentage of female babies born in France, but fails to attribute said “fact” to any source. Garb is too quick to leave concrete and arguable points and obsess about anatomy. Every aspect of a man’s outfit had something phallic about it. Without any real logic Garb describes the man’s clenched buttocks as feminine, and the pink above between his buttocks as a vagina. Garb implies that she has a deep insight into the subconscious mind of Caillebotte’s; a place were he obsesses about penetrating the anus of his model. She again sees the vagina in the red of cloth in Nude on a Couch. Why would Caillebotte need to hide female genitalia in the composition when it is depicted with little secrecy in the foreground.

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While I wholeheartedly agree that Caillebotte’s depiction of the male nude were different, modern, and of importance I have trouble with the degree to which Tamar Garb draws sexual conclusion from few visual elements. Caillebotte was an artist who captured honest moments of active men: men who bath and participate in recreational activities, men of sport, men of labor, and men of means. His class, realism, naturalism and his social status allowed him to bring the male nude to a new place in art, a modern place. Caillebotte brought the male nude into the realm of modernity and showed little compromise of softness of eye in the depiction of such men.

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