Wednesday, February 22, 2012

When a snake is just a snake

-- By Juliet

I remember the first time I read that Freud believed snakes to be phallic symbols.

I was an impressionable high school student, and I was learning a little about a lot of things-- art and psychology and history. And as I flipped through my art books, well...there was something to be said for Freud's phallic theory. I mean, check out Lilith with the snake (to the right). She sure looks like she's about to have sex with that serpent. (Like so many students before me, I was largely intrigued by art history because I couldn't believe I was allowed to look at smut like this, right there in the school library! Ah, those innocent pre-internet days...)

And the truth was, at fifteen I hadn't had much experience with snakes, whether of the phallic or the serpentine variety. But frankly, looking at this painting of Lilith -- who was pretty kick-ass and much more interesting than Eve-- made snakes seem just a little

And then there was this sculpture, entitled 'Femme piquee par un serpent - Woman bitten by a snake' by Jean-Baptiste Clesinger, known as Auguste.
You can certainly see how "bitten by a snake" might be a euphemism for something nasty, and yet wildly intriguing. Finally, I stumbled across this painting of a snake charmer, by Jean Léone Gérôme, in which it certainly does look like there might be something else going on right after the show:

But it didn't take long for my nascent feminism to assert itself: all these paintings had been created by men, and a lot of the boys I knew seemed to be a little preoccupied with all things phallic. And then it occurred to me: Freud was also a man, and therefore also likely preoccupied with anything he might consider to be phallic.

Without the sensual portrayals of serpents in art, I really didn't find snakes to be sexy at all. In fact, there was a picture that rather summed up my feelings for reptiles in general, by one of my favorite artist of all time: Medusa, by Caravaggio. Her hair was made of snakes, but there wasn't anything sexy about it, not in the least.


Gigi Pandian said...

I don't remember getting to see such cool art before college. You must have gone to a much better high school!

Juliet Blackwell said...

Ha! My high school library had a couple of great tomes, full of paintings. When I was there for "study hall" I used to flip through them for the whole hour!

Rachael Herron said...

I *love* Caravaggio. I'll go visit him in Venice for you.

Sophie Littlefield said...

wow rachael, i have always thought of caravaggio as a bit *lovelier* and nicer than that medusa portrait careful out there. and julie - sheesh! that sculpture is...well, i'd slap an x rating on it just so more kids are tempted to peek at it!

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