Why Is Western Art History Full of People Peeing?
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.
The painting that first triggered Lebensztejn’s research into this subject was 16th-century Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto’s Venus and Cupid (c. 1520s). In the witty, sumptuous piece, Venus lies supine and naked but for a bridal veil and smattering of rose petals that halfheartedly cover her lady parts. Cupid stands enthusiastically beside her, firing an arc of urine into the air. The cascade breaks into droplets, which sprinkle directly onto Venus’s genitalia.
The painting was likely commissioned by a young couple on the eve of their marriage, with Cupid’s piss acting as an acceptable stand-in for semen, auguring fertility for the lovebirds.
Around the same time, urinating also began to symbolize revelry and renewal in painting. In the early 1520s, Titian accepted a commission from the Duke of Ferrara to paint several massive mythological scenes in his private art gallery. One of the works, The Bacchanal of the Andrians (1523–26), depicts a riotous party on the island of Andros, a favorite haven of the Roman god of harvest and winemaking, Bacchus, who forged a river made of wine on its land.
The scenario was inspired by a popular Greek book, Imagines, but Titian interpreted the text liberally, making his own additions to enhance the festivities. In the bottom right corner of the composition, a nymph lounges in ecstasy while a small boy hovers next to her, lifts his robe, and pisses into the river of wine that flows under them. Downstream, a man scoops the urine-infused wine into a carafe.
Here, Lebensztejn suggests that the peeing boy might be Bacchus himself, whose piss holds the power to transform the landscape and stimulate the people that surround him.
Urine took on a less magical and more aggressive role in the 1800s and 1900s. As a result of the introduction of public bathroom kiosks, which “made urination and defecation into private acts,” as Lebensztejn explains, the pissing figure was endowed with a new power to shock and disrupt. In 1887, the radical painter James Ensor assaulted his critics with an angry etching, The Pisser, also known as A Man of the People. In it, a man pees on a wall marked with the phrase “Ensor est un fou” (“Ensor is a madman”).
In the 1960s, the Viennese Actionists fused performance with the iconography of urination to attack bourgeois, post-World War II culture, which they regarded as suffocating. “The aesthetics of the dung heap are the moral means against conformism, materialism and stupidity,” one of the movement’s founders, Otto Muehl, once said.
In his 1969 work, Piss Action, he urinated in front of an audience to make his point. He was later forced to leave Germany for his actions, while his collaborator Günter Brus, whose performances incorporated urination, defecation, and masturbation, was jailed for six months.
Around the same time, piss also cropped up in the work of several photographers who explored sexual freedom and the fight against its repression. Robert Mapplethorpe celebrated homosexuality and S&M in his work, among other less provocative themes (portraits, flowers). In Jim and Tom, Sausalito (1977), one man pees into his sexual partner’s mouth, or gives him a “golden shower.”
Andres Serrano tapped into heterosexual male fantasies, on the other hand, with Leo’s Fantasy (1996), part of his “History of Sex” series. In it, an anonymous woman, whose face is cropped out of the photograph, urinates into a man’s mouth. The scene is slick, cold, and artificial, like trendy porn of the ’90s.
Serrano also famously used piss as a medium for his controversial piece Piss Christ, 1987, for which the artist submerged a figurine of Christ on the cross in urine. The work enraged certain conservative lawmakers like Jesse Helms, stoking the Culture Wars of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
In the ’90s and early 2000s, a number of feminist artists responded to works by men like Serrano who used images of female urination. Kiki Smith feminized the motif with Pee Body (1992), a sculpture depicting a crouching woman who pees a long strand of golden glass pearls. Similarly, Marlene Dumas reclaimed Rembrandt van Rijn’s image of a squatting woman in the act of urinating, Pissing Woman (1631), which had also been reimagined earlier by Pablo Picasso in La Pisseuse (1965).
In Dumas’s version, Peeing with a Blue Dress On (1996), the female subject stares out at the viewer with agency. It stands in stark contrast to the works by Rembrandt and Picasso, which sexualize their subject and turn the viewer into a voyeur.
“We’ve all been conditioned to accept the naked male—even pissing—form as a figure in art history,” says Zwirner. “And the moment you see female figures, it’s all much more complicated. Lebensztejn is forcing us to confront that.”
Lebensztejn, in fact, is confronting readers with many cheeky or radical incarnations of pissing figures throughout art history. In turn, he elegantly reveals how artists have repeatedly used our queasiness in the face of bodily functions to transgress narrow-minded cultural norms.