A little history

Pic de la Mirandole borrowed from Theogony1 from Hesiod the barbarous legend according to which the castration of Uranus produced the foam of the sea, which gave birth to the celestial Venus. The perpetrator of the crime was none other than the youngest son, Cronos, while the instigator remained the mother. The loving wife played the role of castrator in history, and Venus was born from the emasculation of her father, dismemberment and tearing being the very principle of her birth. The famous painting that Botticelli made around 1455, The birth of Venus, perfectly illustrated this transmission of the seed to the shapeless matter. In Open Venus4 (1999), Georges Didi-Huberman

He pointed to foam, the most explicit representation of the father’s sperm, which pushed Venus to the shore of his birth.

The story continues in Book VIII of Odyssey2.

Venus was married to Vulcan, god of fire and much older than her. But it was then that the goddess with the beautiful belt was seduced by Mars. The god of war, more powerful and younger, came with many presents to defile his bed. The Sun, witness of their unions, went to warn the deceived husband. At this frightful news, Vulcain placed indestructible chains around the bed, to make them surprise in the act and ridicule them before the gods of Olympus.

Innumerable are the representations of the lovers. Before or after adultery, explicit, pictorial, descriptive or convoluted. They are often accompanied by Cupid, their supposed son, and the deceived husband. Their story of adultery, thirty centuries old, remains an absolute topicality, as evidenced by the bestseller John Gray, Men come from Mars, the women from Venus, appeared in 1992.

It will be here to review the painting of Tintoretto, Mars and Venus surprised by Vulcan (around 1550) from the point of view of psychoanalysis. I chose this representation for its highly symbolic character, its apparent contradictions, the inconvenience and incomprehension it provokes. Before going into its history, a rapprochement appeared to me, the one with the drawing of Parmigianino5 : Vulcain, Mars and Venus, 1530. The two works present to me a more sexual than moral character. The Vulcain Parmigianino, erect, looks at the bodies of lovers revealed by a moving sheet. It’s still a story of look, unveiling, nudity. Curious is the treatment of the husband, whose features are precise and meticulous, while the lines of the lovers are not completely finished, and especially that of the unfaithful wife. In a much more explicit way, Parmigianino leads the spectator’s gaze to the sexual excitement of the husband, whereas in Tintoret, the libidinous interpretation comes in a second time. At first, a series of misunderstandings and discomfort disturb us.

Scene oriented description

Because with Mars and Venus surprised by Vulcan, Tintoret chooses to turn away from the scene of deception. In the foreground, Venus is undressed, on a bed undone, and pulls his sheet. While Vulcan reveals to him (or hides him), his private parts. Between them, an imposing Cupid sleeps in his cradle. The barking of the little puppy at the front of the stage does not seem to wake him up. A fleeing Mars hides under the table, and tries in vain to silence the dog. The only person dressed, his outfit is fighting. The lines perspective on the ground lead us to the exit, which is none other than the workshop of Vulcain and its oven extinguished. Other openings in the scene are the two windows with rounded glazing, just like the circular mirror that reflects the couple. The decor is limited to a transparent vase. And yet, the atmosphere is charged, the characters confined, and cropped left.

The eye is first attracted by Venus’ gesture of flight. No wonder, because in the foreground his figure occupies nearly a third of the canvas. Her body and that of her husband are perpendicular. It is the left hand of the goddess who shows the direction of its momentum. She pulls the sheet, trying in vain to hide (or reveal) her nakedness. The preparatory drawing of the painting affirms it, showing an even more evasive Venus, wanting to escape from the scene. This is the first of a series of apparent contradictions that destabilize the viewer. Have husband and wife already performed the act, or is it a scene to come? What is Mars doing under the table? Had he come to embrace Venus before being caught by Vulcan? His clothes corroborate this hypothesis, but as a spectator it is difficult to situate oneself temporally, hence the discomfort.

For now, Mars is hiding on a table covered with sheets, just like the rest of the room. Those of the table show a satiny fabric with blood red folds. They echo the female genital organ, but also the curtain of The Lock, that Fragonard realized in 1778. Their fabrics are shiny, lubricated, red and boiling. The same drive urgency, the same sexual charge emerges from the scene. The fabric of the table extends on Vulcan’s belt, which is paler in color, more faded, just like his oven. His outfit made him think he was not working. His legs announce an action posture, but which one? He puts his right leg on the bed, the left a little stiff, which is not surprising since it was lame. The look is on the mirror at the bottom of the room. A new anomaly is represented, because his two legs are on the bed, and we guess the following events. This incoherence between the foreground and the reflection is necessarily wanted by the painter. Moreover, on the preparatory drawing, scene and reflection are played at the same time…

Psychoanalytic interpretation: identification of the infantile and libidinal unconscious

1st interpretation: aggression towards the maternal figure of Venus, beautiful and pure

As Freud did not fail to notice, even the worst dreams are about fulfilling a desire. There is much to say here about the fantastical nature of Tintoret’s choice, spatial, luminous, chromatic, narrative. Her painting is half-awake, half-asleep, still haunting images of dreams. The work disturbs the logic of description on the one hand, and narration on the other.

Another characteristic feature is his incessant work of displacement, present in many subtle games of figurative references. As if the aggression inflicted on Venus became that of the whole space, in front of which should tear our eyes itself. The space is crumpled like a theater curtain, folded on itself, buried, repressed. As in an open perception of the powers of fantasy, the structure of the place participates empathically in the violence of history. It’s a space race: the wife, the child, the husband, the lover; nudity, childbirth, aggression, pleasure. And one feels the insensitivity to cruelty towards the beardless body of the girl assaulted by her old husband.

This way that has the vision of horror to always repeat itself, loop, in the foreground with the marital aggression, then in the distance, in one direction and then in the other, evoking the animal act, reproductive. Venus is not afraid, she is docile and resigned in the foreground. Behind, Cupid’s eyes are closed, as if not to see the inevitable. He sleeps with fatigue, the god of love would be defeated. Is it a displacement? Is he tired after the amorous debates of Mars with Venus or in anticipation of those of Venus with her husband? In any case, the transparency of the windows and the vase is in contradiction with the scene. Childhood, transparency, symbols of purity, virginity, what a beautiful wink!

It is the eternal return of the psychic visual. It is a visual way of embodying an obsession with time, a sovereign reverence, when a gesture repeats another or answers it symmetrically. The buried memory of the original scene, “the amnesia of youth” that Bourdieu evoked.

Because it’s nudity it’s all about (why is Mars the only one dressed up?). It is of the looked-up body in question, and the glance engages what our conscious efforts want to ignore, in an unconscious repression. Lacan speaks well of “the elision of the gaze in the waking state”.

We go here from the bodily beauty, Tintoretto silversmith Venus, to the sacrifice of his nakedness, Tintoretto executioner of Venus. Nudity is neither the natural simplicity of the body nor the offensive desexualizing grammar that Roland Barthes saw. But rather this double-faced process that Georges Bataille suggests to us: the image of the body is offered, it opens. There is no image of the body without the imagination of its opening. And what a better opening than the violence of Cupid’s birth, the pulpit of his pulpit.

This is the attack on the untouchable body of the mother. Metaphor of incest or rape of the mother.

2nd interpretation: aggression towards the father figure of Vulcan, aged and (i) respectful

Such a small sheet is enough to cover the sex of the husband. Small folds crest on the table echo it, just in front of lines of direction reflected in a mirror disproportionately large compared to the size of the room. No wonder, the mirror would compensate for the lack of the husband. His situation is curious. So low, that it hides part of the window. Instead of reflecting the cradle of Cupid or the debates on the bed, it sends us back the temporal anomaly of the scene. This device would not be surprising in the Renaissance. Circular, like the decorations of the windows, its shape recalls the shield of Mars. The husband is old and lame, blinded by the sex of his wife, deaf to the barking of the puppy. The lover is valiant and powerful, his shield is disproportionately large. The sexual charge of the canvas makes any moral interpretation disappear, as the late Daniel Arasse reminds us in “Cara Giulia”, We Can not See It (2003)6.The gesture of Tintoretto is an act of childish anal aggression, and its object is the desecration of the act of marriage. For in the scene the female organ is omnipresent: bare in Venus, buried in the red drapes, black lubricant in the fabric of the bed. This is not the head of Medusa that is reflected on the escutcheon3,

but another time, perhaps to come. Reading Freud’s writings on the jellyfish head: “At the sight of the vulva, even the devil flees”. Would the devil hide in the details?

By emphasizing his weakest instincts, Tintoret desecrates the male figure and makes him human, almost animal. He thus takes the place of the father. Following the Freudian lesson, this desecration is comparable to a castration. Like the one that Uranus suffered to give birth to Venus. A venerable and powerful god by function, is deprived of his judgment by a woman who has a position eminently open, which exhibits shamelessly. Hair surrounds her neck, arm and wrist, compensating for the castration she sets up. Like jewelry, the hair would compensate for this “something more” that would compensate for this “something less”. It is also the theory of Freud.

Conversely, the castrated man exhibits clothes that can be seen as a vulva by their shape and color, idea redoubled by the open legs of Vulcan. Red is an additional indication of femininity, menstrual blood.

If for Freud, the phallic libidinal modality knows only one sex, the masculine, the female sex being reduced to a male castrated sex, theoretically his thesis remains questionable. The idea that the woman tries to castrate the man because of his penis desire is largely to report to an infant fantasy: the fantasy of the little boy who unconsciously fear the castration that could punish him for his incestuous desires ; to the fantasy of the little girl who would subconsciously reproach her mother for not having a penis.

Completion of the analysis

Finally, there is an insensitivity to the contradiction, shift of the affects and work of the displacement, irruption of the formless, rhythmicity of the obsession. Because the dream is existence, not its negation. To speak with Heidegger, “presence is brought before his being”.

In his work, Tintoret multiplied incongruous encounters. Now, from the point of view of psychoanalysis, the union of two elements that we would not imagine to be coupled can refer to the fantasy of the original scene, which Freud considers indispensable to the structuring of our psyche. These two interpretations could, therefore, also awaken infantile psychic conflicts, capable of generating the enigmatic feeling of trouble in front of the painting.

Three nudes coexist (not counting reflections in the mirror). But while Cupid’s nude evokes the infant state, that of Vulcan is Adam’s nude, curved, closed on itself. While Venus opens to us in all its splendor. Her nude is just as worried (by the marital aggression from which she seems to want to escape), that worrying. The disturbing strangeness that Freud evokes in images that provoke in us a mixture of sensations, voyeurism and guilt, the desire to understand and the interrogation of the symbolic. It is an impure nude because it causes the desire of Mars, guilty, and that of Vulcan, drive, animal. The nakedness of Venus causes the “masked touch” that Georges Didi-Huberman describes so well4.

Annex: References

1 Theogony is a work of the Greek poet Hesiod, dating from the 8th century BC. JC. She plays a founding role in the development of Greek mythology.

2 The Odyssey is an ancient Greek epic attributed to Homer, who would have composed it after the Iliad, in the 8th century BC. JC. It is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of literature and, together with the Iliad, one of the two founding poems of European civilization.

3 Jellyfish is a monster of Greek mythology, unable to move, with the hair of snakes. He petrifies the one who looks at him. Perseus, with his winged helmet making him invisible, approaches Medusa backwards. He manages to kill her and seize her head, which he places in the center of his polished bronze shield.

Consulted works:

4 Georges Didi-Huberman, Open Venus. Ed. Gallimard, 1999.

  • 5 Daniel Arasse, The subject in the table. “Small brush will become big: Parmigianino and the scene of Vulcan”. Ed. Folio, 2005.
  • 6 Daniel Arasse, We can not see anything. “Cara Giulia”. Ed. Folio, 2003.
  • Jean-Pierre Sag, Human sciences applied to art. Visual Arts L3, CNED 2017-2018. 
Mars et Vénus surpris par Vulcain (1552), Tintoret
Mars et Vénus surpris par Vulcain (1552), Tintoret