The pussies they wanted to hide

With characteristic strokes and style of a very personal neoclassicism, Francisco de Goya captured the body of a young, relaxed and natural woman, known as sensual and satisfied, on canvas around 1800. The young woman’s identity dissolves along with the story of a painting that has gone down in history not only because of its pictorial quality, but also because of its daring strokes: The nude maja.

Without a confirmed identity, Goya portrayed this young woman at the request of Manuel Godoy (1767-1851), initially nicknamed La gitana (The Gypsy), only for the personal delight of the nobleman. He depicts a girl in a suggestive posture, a subtle figure, breaking with the canons of representation of the woman, but which comes closer to the submissive representation of her: The image of the woman suggested to the powerful man.

However, the existence of the painting came to the attention of a large number of nobles, and Godoy commissioned a second painting: The dressed Maja. The second work showed the same woman, except that this time she was dressed in a long white dress, and her only function was to superimpose herself on the first paint, to reveal it only on specific occasions by means of a system of pulleys.

censura maja
Left: La naked maja (circa 1800). Right: La dressed maja (1808). Francisco de Goya

Goya’s “Pussy”

The daring of La maja desnuda, beyond showing the more or less idealized female figure, was the pictorial sample of a transgressive element: Pubic hair. Until then, the woman had shown her body in painting in uncomfortable, self-conscious and dramatic situations, closer to the Venusian, neutral and asexual “perfection”. Goya shows the woman in a relaxed, sensual state with control of the situation. He moves away from direct exhibition, but controlled intuition generates the uproar of the highest classes.

Censorship by flag

Previously, in Late Baroque Italy, Donato Creti, son of a couple of painters, makes a sample of an academic drawing using a male model, in a turned attitude on a classical stage, hiding the virile member in an almost dehumanizing gesture. The painting did not produce a disproportionate reaction: The male nude was attributed to the great Greek heroes, to the struggle to achieve perfection, showing a certain modesty in showing the member, hiding it or minimizing it.

Academic male nude. Donato Creti (1722)

However, Goya is not an isolated case when it comes to the representation of pussies, and its adjudicated difficulties, are concerned and, obviously, not even the most daring. A few years later, in 1863, Edouard Manet, a French painter, embarked on the adventure of creating a work to be exhibited at the 1863 “Salon des Rejecés“. The work, entitled Olympia, caused a great stir and was branded as vulgar, showing a nude that did not fit into the mythological grid of Parisian society. The play shows a woman in an empowered situation, hiding her genitals not out of modesty, but “because the observer has not paid to see them”. The heels and ornaments emphasize a situation of fetish and domination that did not sit well with the critics, trying to hide the painting now on display at the Musée d’Orsay.

Olympia. Édouard Manet (1863)

At a similar time, the French artist Jacques Louis David undertook a similar task to that of Creti, converging with Goya and Manet in the use of the nude. The “Academic figure of a man” shows the male torso, with the insinuation of his genitals, so that just as Goya did in the maja, or Manet in his Olympia, the figure insinuates itself: The appearance of pubic hair and the appropriate blanket play with the occult. However, unlike Olympia, David’s work did not become a letter that was passed from hand to hand, hidden by the noble halls of Paris and in constant danger of censorship.

“Academic figure of a man” Jacques Louis David (Circa 1800)

The painter and the client

We do not intend to take a look at the censored works of art history, but we would like to ask a question, with this brief brushstroke, what would have happened if Goya had been a woman? Would we have “the same Maja” before us? Probably not, no. We have traveled a brief part of the history where painters – yes, in masculine – have left their clear vision about the woman’s body; the subtle submission, the privileged idea of possessing… And of course social censorship, which labels mere representation as immoral.

Maybe it’s not about the pussies depicted in these works, or those who didn’t become painted, but about those who could be holding the brush and never managed to come out, and for whom perhaps – if it’s not too late – we should raise our voices.

L’origine du monde. Gustave Courbet (1866)

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