Pierre Paul-Prud’hon — Standing Female Nude Seen from The Back (detail).1790.
The Erotic Frigidaire
There is a sensual energy lurking beneath the surface in Prud’hon’s drawings, however, that continually threatens to overflow its classicizing boundaries. Because many of the poses for académies in Prud’hon’s time were adapted from antique sculpture, we feel at first that we are looking at statues. Their inherent stillness and fully rounded forms add to this sensation. But then, Pygmalionlike, they come alive through their radiant light and sensual surfaces. Prud’hon’s figures are like creatures from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, in the midpoint of some supernatural transformation. They are part marble, part flesh; carefully observed from life but still speaking of art.
The “erotic Frigidaire,” a phrase coined by Thomas Hess to describe the sculptures of Antonio Canova, perfectly describes Prud’hon’s ambivalence as well. Like the surrealist “cup of fur,” the “erotic Frigidaire” combines opposing traits in a disturbing way. It heats the blood just as it cools it down; it excites while it calms; it invites you to approach but commands you to keep your distance.
Prud’hon’s drawings continue to be compelling, not only because of their sheer beauty and impeccable draftsmanship but also because of their inherent contradictions. In the same figure, the torso may be borrowed from a fifth-century Venus while the face has the look of an 18th-century beauty. The wonderful thing about these drawings is that these tensions are never fully resolved. They pull us in opposite directions and leave us not quite understanding what to feel. That the same object can be both particular and ideal, flesh and marble, life and art, is what is so endlessly absorbing.