Bosom buddies – art and our breast fixation

Freud said there were no such things as accidents so it should come as no surprise that The New York Times would carry a front page story on women who decided against reconstruction after mastectomy – complete with fascinating photographs of their flat, scarred and, in many cases, beautifully tattooed chests  – at a moment that The Frick Collection in Manhattan is exhibiting “Cagnacci’s ‘Repentant Magdalene’” (through Jan. 22).

As several Times posters noted, the newspaper would not be displaying those photos had the breast cancer survivors had one or both breasts. And that’s in part because of artists like Guido Cagnacci, the Italian Baroque master whose subjects included Cleopatra and who helped sexualize the female body and female breasts in particular.

From its earliest days, the Church embraced the figurative aspects of divinity – unlike the other Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam. In the beginning, artworks of Jesus and the saints emphasized the Resurrection and comforting subjects like the Good Shepherd as a way to bolster the nascent Church. These gave way in the Middle Ages to often grotesque images of the suffering Jesus on the Cross.

It wasn’t until the discovery of Roman copies of Greek male and female nudes in the Renaissance that artists began to see Jesus and the saints in the context of sensuous ancient nudes.

Cagnacci was an heir to that tradition. His Magdalene at The Frick is less penitent than luxuriant, lying sprawled on the floor of her bedchamber, propped up on her elbows as she listens to a female confidante or servant, who points to an angel casting out a demon. Two other women stand by the open door that leads to a balcony, one wiping away tears.

The Magdalene’s face is red with tears. But never has suffering looked so ravishing. Her blue silk and brocade dress and shoes lie cast off to one side, as does her gold jewelry, shimmering. (No one does texture like the Old Masters.)

That texture, however, pales in comparison to her opalescent skin, the curve of her hip, the pertness of her breasts. Mary, of course, was a natural for pinup treatment. The Church has always associated her with the sinning Mary who prostituted herself, the Mary who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfumed oil and the Mary out of whom he cast seven devils. But in “Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor” (Harcourt Brace & Co., 1993), Susan Haskins argues that conflating all these Marys into one is a misrepresentation of the one. All we really know about Mary Magdalene is that she was a disciple of Christ – the first, Christians believe, to greet him in his resurrected state and spread the Good News.

But male artists, bless them, can’t resist the hooker with the heart of gold, Mary as Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.” And the more undraped and bosomy in her “penitence,” the better.

(Not every artist. George de la Tour gave us a transcendent, candlelit penitent; Caravaggio, a fierce if elaborately garbed Roman matron. Artemisia Gentileschi’s Mary is so rapt that her dress slips from one shoulder but no farther.

Then there is Marius Vasselon’s “The Penitent Magdalen” (1887), which would be right at home in the pages of Playboy.

The irony is that the depiction of Mary’s penitence keeps you entranced with what she’s repenting of. The spirit might be willing, but the flesh is indeed weak.

And it is this “weakness” that has sexualized the female body and breasts in particular to such an extent that breasts remain objects of desire even when they’re absent.