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An honest pisstake

Pissing Figures: 12802014
by Jean-Claude Lebensztejn (transl. Jeff Nagy)
David Zwirner Books, 168pp, £11.95

From a Cimabue cherub to Szydlowski/-lowska’s Lenin, simply everyone is pissing.

In pen and ink, paint on canvas, plaster, wood, stone, polymer, block prints, engraving, chamber pots, aquatints, dishware, film, manuscripts, inlay, public statuary, trick-photography, and in a Japanese video game played with live piss; men, women, children, angels, demons, and a limited selection of fauna; in gardens and in brothels, alone or in groups, in fancy dress or civvies; at divine revelations and in diplomatic meetings; onto walls, into wine-cups, into flagons, hats, baskets, rivers, coffins, and all over each other; drunk pissing, child pissing, simultaneous drinking-pissing, horseback pissing, piss sword-fights (obv.), and a boy pissing a urine halo over a young girl’s head. Snow White pisses. Cupid pisses (on his mother!). One doughty soul pisses onto Mars’s helmet – his actual battlegear, that is.

In fact, in the course of Jean-Claude Lebensztejn’s nine essays and 137-odd (sic) illustrations, you could be forgiven for thinking no-one ever does anything but piss.

But his survey steers us through the allegorical minefield of alchemical symbolism, homosexual love-codes, the overwhelming preponderance of small boys pissing in Renaissance art, and the entertaining hypothesis of a literal (OK, figurative) pissing contest between Michelangelo and Titian. And under his tutelage we approach a clearer understanding of the medical uses, ethnic ceremonies, trade applications, and other themes that have to do with urine, and the cultural shifts by which the innocence of those earlier acts and images was lost.

‘Christ’s penis’ and ‘fist fucking’ are unusual bedfellows, even in the world of academia; and I’ll have to take Prof. Lebensztejn’s word that ‘this is what imbues the stream of urine with a tortured subjectivity.’ But in Pissing Figures he has found a hitherto unilluminated corner of art history – and let fly all over it as only a French art critic/historian ever could. His deadpan is particularly delectable. Re Bosse’s Giving Drink to the Thirsty (via, yes, a pissing statue) he points out: ‘In the era of indoor plumbing, we rarely if ever consume water like this.’ Elsewhere, a hilarious note records the full mathematical equation for the piss-parabola.

And if Lebensztejn’s treatment of this schoolboy topic is otherwise disappointingly grown-up (no Lebowski’s rug? No Paula Radcliffe?), the unembarrassed orange cover makes the perfect complement to public transport, if only so you might catch somebody rubbernecking at the pics and then say smugly, à la Andrew Lincoln: “Actually, they’re not funny… They’re art.”

For The Amorist

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