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A Phallic Mandolin?

In response to:

The Quiet Genius from the April 28, 2011 issue

To the Editors:

Willibald Sauerländer’s fine review [“The Quiet Genius,” NYR, April 28] of the exhibit of beautiful Corot paintings, mostly of solitary women, notes their melancholy appearance, and that “the erotic remains elusive.” He finds strong feminine sensuality only in the one semi-nude painting on display, leaving the possible implication that the rare undressed woman is the only way that Corot created erotic interest. But there was another way, and it worked wonders.

I recall that John Richardson in his book A Life of Picasso, Volume 2, discusses Corot’s Gypsy Girl with Mandolin and relates that the 1909 Salon d’Automne included a group of figure paintings by Corot, which influenced Picasso to use mandolins and violins as anthropomorphic sexual puns in his art.

My favorite Corot of that type is The Artist’s Studio showing, from behind, a fully dressed, brightly colored, seated young woman looking intently at a work of art on an easel, while her right hand holds up the phallic neck of a mandolin to keep it erect at her side.

Robert Berg
Sebastopol, California

Willibald Sauerländer replies:

It is a rare privilege to be sensitively corrected as in the letter of Mr. Berg on my review of the Corot exhibition in Winterthur. Mr. Berg is only too right, that there is a larger margin of subtle, elusive female paintings in Corot’s work than I indicated. I share particularly his admiration for Corot’s pearl, The Artist’s Studio (Jeune femme en robe rose assise devant un chevalet et tenant une mandoline), shining and glistening like a painting by Terborch.

However, I cannot follow Mr. Berg when he goes on, “her right hand holds up the phallic neck of a mandolin to keep it erect at her side.” The erotic allegory of the mandolin plays with the similarity between the female body and the musical instrument—granted that Picasso, as Richardson reminds us, used an ithyphallic guitar as an aggressively masculine symbol. But Corot is not Picasso, and the silent timidity of his female paintings should be protected against our ubiquitous phallic obsessions.

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