Statues That Were Just Too Sexy
There’s a type of male beetle in Australia that mistakes bumpy shiny beer bottles for bumpy shiny female bodies. It tries to mate with these bottles, and it dies in the process.
We might laugh at these simple creatures, confusedly aroused by hunks of glass. But we, too, are aroused by inanimate material when it takes on just the right shape. We take pleasure in sculpture — erotic pleasure. Even when the sculpture is of a subject that shouldn’t normally arouse any erotic feelings at all.
You’ve seen George Washington depicted as an old man with a wig (and imagined him as older than he actually was, thanks to the whole wig thing). You’ve seen him in a blue wool coat and sometimes in a black suit. Now, prepare to see the man’s nipples and pecs.
This 1840 statue shows Washington holding a sword, presenting the hilt. He is giving up the sword — this shows him voluntarily handing over power. It’s a neoclassical sculpture, and further engravings at the rear more explicitly hearken to ancient Greece. The pedestal has a carving of baby Heracles strangling a snake in his crib and of Apollo in his chariot.
It also has carvings of Columbus and a Native American, representing the Old and New Worlds meeting. That was quite respectful compared to other depictions of natives at the time — the same year this sculpture was made, an artist started on a sculpture of Columbus dominating a cowering indigenous woman, and this would stand in the Capitol building for more than 100 years.
The Washington statue, by Horatio Greenough, also stood in the Capitol. Not everyone was a fan of it, with some people confused about why they were seeing George Washington wearing just a towel and slippers.
We were trying to be a little funny just now, calling that Washington statue sexual. In reality, a statue of someone bare-chested need not be erotic at all. Maybe (as with Greenough’s Washington sculpture), it’s imitating an earlier art style. Maybe it’s depicting a scene where it makes sense for the subject to be unclothed. Maybe they’re shirtless to show their strength. None of those possibilities explain the following statue of Abraham Lincoln.
This sculpture of “the Young Lincoln” does not depict the man as strong, though the actual Lincoln very much was strong and won hundreds of wrestling bouts. The sculpture does still portray him as hot, while the actual Lincoln, by all accounts, was not. He was called “the ugliest man I had seen,” “the ugliest man I had ever seen” and “the ugliest man I ever saw” by three unrelated people, as well as “not pretty” — by his wife. And why is this sculpted Lincoln slipping one thumb under the waistband of his pants, as though a photographer is coaxing him into slipping them off?
When we stumbled on this image, we were fully prepared to hear that someone had carved it this year, as a deliberately subversive, sexual reimagining of Lincoln, maybe even explicitly going for a queer theme. But it was actually carved in 1941, won a Public Works contest and has been displayed in some L.A. federal building or another ever since.
The artist was named James Lee Hansen. (A different West Coast sculptor named James Lee Hansen has been active since the 1950s, but they’re two separate guys.) He won $7,500 in the contest to make this sculpture. He spent the money on a car, immediately crashed it and spent 18 days in prison. Then he got to work on carving. He based the statue’s physique on his own, which answers some questions about the sculpture but raises others.
The Penis They Had to Shrink
We mentioned Hercules before (or Herakles, whatever). That naked baby grew up to be a naked man, and so in 1948, the commune of Arcachon in France erected a nude Hercules statue. He was nude, in that his penis was showing, but he still did wear the lion’s pelt so often associated with the hero. The statue was meant to symbolize the French Resistance against the Nazis. The sculptor, Claude Bouscau, planned an installation that symbolized this more clearly, but the city didn’t want to pony up the money for it, so he just handed in this old Hercules piece he’d already completed.
Then came a problem. The ladies of Arcachon complained that the statue’s penis was too big. Maybe they were fans of the traditional classic Greek style of sculpture, in which the ideal penis was tiny, or maybe they just found the big penis too exciting a sight to deal with on a daily basis. So, Bouscau chipped away at the penis, shrinking it. That still did not satisfy the ladies. They asked that he make it even smaller, and he complied.
In the 21st century, Hercules’ penis continued to attract attention. In 2010, someone broke it off. This might have been another critic offended at the sight, but it may also have been someone who loved the penis so much, they wanted to keep it as their own. The town stuck a new stone phallus in its place the following year, but a vandal broke that one off, too. After a few more replacements, the mayor kept a mold on hand so they could easily cast new penises out of plaster.
The thefts never stopped. In time, Arcachon decided that it was most practical not to keep tempting the penis thieves (also known as dickpockets). They resolved to give the statue a detachable penis that they’d leave in storage most of the time. Now, Hercules usually just has a tiny metal rod sticking out of his groin, and Arcachon only attaches the stored penis during ceremonies.
The First Nude Woman
People have been carving nude sculptures of women since before recorded history. Some of the oldest manmade objects ever found were nude sculptures that we call the Venus figurines — and by “manmade,” we of course mean “humanmade”; one theory says these figurines were carved by pregnant women.
Those figurines were a few inches tall. The first life-size nude sculpture of a woman that we know of was also named for Venus. It was a statue of Aphrodite in the Greek city of Knidos, and though it was destroyed in the fifth century, when it was about a thousand years old, we have reproductions of it today:
How sexy was Aphrodite of Knidos? Accounts tell of one man slipping into the temple at night and trying to have sex with her, leaving a stain in the process. He was so ashamed afterward that he threw himself off a cliff. Another account tells of two men getting aroused at the statue before noticing stains previously left on the thighs. Both straight men and gay men got aroused by Aphrodite of Knidos. Even the actual goddess Aphrodite came to Knidos to compliment this famous statue, which, um, okay, we’re starting the question the accuracy of some of these ancient sources.
Sexy Lucifer, and Sexier Lucifer
In 1837, a cathedral in Belgium got artist Joseph Geefs to make them a sculpture of Lucifer, to stick in the back of the church, as though all the other religious sculptures nearby triumphed over him. Geef seemed to take inspiration from the verse in the Bible that called Lucifer “perfect in beauty,” rather than giving him huge horns or making him a dragon. His statue, L'ange du mal looked like this:
They stuck it in the church, as planned. But something about the statue kept distracting female members of the congregation. Maybe it was the near-nudity (he’s not even wearing a loin cloth; there’s just some cloth draped over his lap). Maybe it was the way his thighs are spread apart a little. Maybe he looked too young. “The devil is too sublime,” said church administrators.
They sold the statue off and commissioned Geefs’ brother Guillaume to give it another try. In many ways, Guillaume’s replacement statue, Le genie du mal, addressed church complaints. Lucifer here is marginally less naked. He has more pronounced horns. He’s older. This is how he looks:
The replacement satisfied St. Paul’s Cathedral enough to install it, and it remains there to this day. Still, the consensus among everyone who looks at the statue today is: oh no. They rejected one devil for being too hot and wound up with one who’s even hotter.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with a hot Lucifer. The devil’s all about temptation, right? It arguably makes more sense than making everyone gaze upon a sexy shirtless Jesus.