Consider the fountain. Over the course of history, the shape-shifting object has channeled gushing water through the feet of Poseidon, the maws of sea monsters, and the upright stamen of blossoming flowers. It’s also been known to funnel arched streams from the sculptural phalluses of all manner of male figures—from cherubs to boys to men.
French art historian Jean-Claude Lebensztejn has dubbed such characters “pissing figures.” And, as he points out in a new book by the same name, Pissing Figures 1280–2014
(a new title from the ekphrasis
imprint, part of David Zwirner Books), urinating is a consistent motif throughout Western art history, one that has taken numerous forms, and whose significance has shifted over time.
Encountering a peeing fountain for the first time might be surprising, amusing, or even blush-inducing. Social conventions and etiquette, after all, have kept bodily functions behind closed bathroom doors for hundreds of years. We’re not generally accustomed to witnessing others peeing—even when they’re delivered to us in the form of a sculpture.
But fear of impropriety hasn’t stopped artists from incorporating urination into their work. And, as Lebensztejn points out in his enlightening text, they’ve used the motif as a means to transgress puritanical and prejudiced social, political, and religious codes from at least 1280 until now.
“The story that’s being told is the story of how the act of pissing went from something celebratory to something that’s repressed and immediately tied to sexuality,” says Lucas Zwirner, the editorial director of David Zwirner Books.