ADAMWEINBERG: In Distinguished Air Charles Demuth portrays a group of people looking at the modernist sculpture Princess X, by Constantin Brancusi. Demuth exaggerates the unmistaably phallic form of Princess X perhaps to draw attention to an inherent paradox in Brancusi’s (supposedly abstract) sculpture. Richard Meyer, Professor of Art History at the University of Southern California.
RICHARDMEYER: …it’s almost as though Brancusi himself is playing on: are y—is—are people going to acknowledge they’re looking at a giant penis, you know, or are they going to pretend it’s just a kind of, um, erect, uh, abstraction? You know? [Laughs]
ADAMWEINBERG: Demuth renders Princess X, originally made in bronze, in watercolor and adorns it with a face. It has become cartoon-like and fleshy. But not everyone in the painting is focused on it. The man on the left, with the woman, peers at the backside of the sailor next to him, who, in turn, is arm in arm with the “dandy” character to his right. So, it appears, that even in the presence of this artful phallus, at least one of the visitors is more interested in the real thing. And while the visitors are poised to look at the art, Demuth places us behind the men to focus on the sexual politics of the scene. Distinguished Air is a short story by Robert McAlmon. Richard Meyer explains that the watercolor depicts an imagined scene from the story.
RICHARDMEYER: So the narrator of the story Distinguished Air—a young attractive woman named Marjorie, is living in Berlin. —and she becomes close friends with Foster Graham, who is the protagonist. And he’s, um, the man that you see in Demuth’s version wearing a-a top hat and holding a cane and sort of craning his neck slightly to-to try to get a better view of the sailors, uh, from behind.
But here early in the story the narrator, Marjorie, asks Graham if he wants to go to a gallery. Now I’m quoting the story, “I’m just heading for Der Sturm to see what new has been hung in the exhibition rooms there. Do you want to come along? Some of the paintings are apt to be as frenzied as you are and it’ll pass away an hour.’ His response: ‘Good me, Marjorie, I just love art. I love art,’ Foster minced, unable to be direct for over a moment. ‘Will there be some pretty pictures of naked boys? I just love art. It’s too exquisite. So glad you asked me along.’”
ADAMWEINBERG: They never do make it to the gallery. But it seems likely, judging from Graham’s response, that if they had, he would have behaved very much as Demuth imagines.