Paintings of a Writer: Obscenity in the Art of D. H. Lawrence
On the 11th of September 1885, English novelist, poet, dramatist, essayist, and critic D. H. Lawrence was born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, England. He was the fourth of five children born to a passionate but uneducated father and a serious, intellectually alive, and religiously devout mother. Her Congregationalist views were most influential on young Lawrence – they shaped his later attitudes toward his role as a writer and had a paradoxically positive effect on his conception of appropriate conduct, especially sexual. Throughout his life, Lawrence struggled to find a balance between passion and thought, body and spirit, and the creative and destructive powers of human existence. Driven by so many opposites, it comes as no surprise that his opinions on art and literature were based on a definite set of moral rather than purely aesthetic principles, yet his morality was not entirely conventional. This was a paradox, most explicitly present in his controversial novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). The book made him go on a crusade against censorship and sexual Puritanism, and ended in the famous obscenity trial in 1960. It is most likely that the suppressive reaction of the critics towards his writing pushed Lawrence towards other forms of expression, in this case – painting. He had painted before, but only now he started to make paintings, as Jonathan Jones stated, “with an argument”.
According to Jones, “[Lawrence] painted erotic visions with a reverence for the naked heroic body and extensive quotations of the physically explicit art of Renaissance Italy. Renaissance themes in his Boccaccio Story and Leda and the Swan unfortunately don’t mean a Renaissance confidence in depicting bodies. Arms and legs taper bizarrely, heads are tiny, torsos warp in odd ways; everyone looks slightly deformed – the women more than the men. Lawrence is a lot happier painting men nude than women. The most successful pictures are of men – and of the cock, which Lawrence believed must be recognised as the sacred thing it is. The Boccaccio scene revolves, with an Uccello bounciness, around a peasant’s member. Best of all is Dandelions, a painting of a naked man pissing. This is really quite good. In other pictures, men have huge buttocks, while women are undefined. It reminds you once again that the most memorable erotic moment in Lawrence’s fiction is when the men wrestle in Women in Love.” (Jonathan Jones, A Life in Pictures, The Guardian, Saturday 8 November 2003)
It seems that Lawrence the painter was as controversial as Lawrence the writer. In the summer of 1929, Lawrence’s paintings were exhibited at the Warren Gallery in London. However, on the 5th of July the exhibition was raided by the police who took away thirteen of the pictures that were considered obscene. At the subsequent court hearing, the pictures were ordered to be returned to Lawrence on condition that they would never be exhibited again. But the most important, and probably most controversial, was the message in Lawrence’s introduction to the book of reproductions issued for the exhibition. In it, Lawrence tried to decipher the reasons behind the ‘backwardness’ of English paining. “The English, says Mr. Lawrence, have produced few good painters because the national spirit became atrophied with fear at the time of the Renaissance. This fear was caused by the wave of venereal disease which then swept over Europe. High and low alike were tainted—Mr. Lawrence gives a lurid account of the Tudor and Stuart dynasties—and the result was a shuddering, universal attack of sex-repression, which obliterated ‘Merry England’ and has continued with gathered strength to the present time. It was reflected in literature by the morbidity of the Elizabethans, the emasculated intellectualism of the cavalier poets, and the coarseness of Restoration comedy. Thus a mental attitude towards life took the place of an intuitional one. By the time English painting really got started with Gainsborough and Reynolds we had lost our imagination and freedom of expression. France, because it had affected some sort of rational compromise with sexual necessity, was a little better off. But gradually everything has gone from bad to worse. This sex-repression, caused by the fear of disease, has by now robbed us of the power both of artistic creation and appreciation. ‘We, dear reader, you and I, we were born corpses and we are corpses.’ Such is Mr. Lawrence’s general thesis…” (R. P. Draper, D. H. Lawrence: The Critical Heritage)
Only a century apart from Lawrence’s battle against sexual repression, we can say that “[t]he war is over; sex won. Lawrence was in the advance guard, but like many an old soldier he has been pensioned off, with a chest full of medals in the shape of an academic curiosity that will doubtless endure. Sex is far too big nowadays to require his services. Sex doesn’t need any defenders, least of all one who preached that “the phallus is a great sacred image: it represents a deep, deep life in us that has been denied, and still is denied”.” (Jones)
Explore the art of D. H. Lawrence, the painter, HERE.