by D. Dominick Lombardi
It was probably somewhere around 1987 when I read a quote attributed to Auguste Renoir in an art magazine. I don’t recall the exact passage, but he likened his paintbrush to his penis when discussing why he so obsessed over capturing the erotic aspects of a woman’s flesh. A month or so later I made a drawing, I was in my pseudo Post Modern stage making sculptures that looked like they could have been executed in the nineteen teens, twenties or thirties, and the subject was my interpretation of Renoir’s sensual sentiment about his female nudes. It wasn’t long before I started to carve small pieces of wood, carefully calculating their shape and size so they would fit together without imbalance. After I was satisfied with the shape and length of each section they were painted and lightly sanded before the final assembling.
In a few weeks Auguste’s Brain (1988) was completed. Of course, the penis had to be the centerpiece – oversized and in control and in the end, I had pretty much captured the design in the third dimension. After a day or two of deliberating I decided to show my partner, Diane. Things were going well at the time as I was showing and selling works in New York, Chicago and Cologne during art fairs and in gallery exhibitions and I had hoped to get her opinion on where I should first unveil this new piece. To my surprise, she hesitated a bit then said she wasn’t sure the sculpture or idea made sense – she wondered aloud if I wasn’t “barking up the wrong tree” attacking one of the great Impressionists whose work can be found in every substantive private and public collection throughout the world. Remember, this was prior the Internet being accessible to all and I had no real way of substantiating the quote without doing extensive research in a library and it was very unlikely that I would find the proof I needed.
You also have to remember that this was before the 1990s when the epicenter of the art world in New York City was moving back from the East Village to SoHo, and there was at least one penis proudly presented in nearly every exhibition. This following Mapplethorpe and the Contemporary Art Center of Cincinnati’s obscenity case that ended in an acquittal in 1990 – a case initiated by Senator Jesse Helms against NEA funding practices. Not long after that, in the mid 1990s, the dam of pent up penises had burst and it had become a running joke as gallery goers would say “Penises are in!” as we all had gotten over our collective fear that something would go horribly wrong if an institution exhibited a photograph, painting or sculpture of a clearly rendered penis.
But back then, in 1988, I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place (pun intended). What was I to do? After a week or so of weighing my options I decided to reduce the penis to a harmless nub, not unlike the receiving end of a peg leg. As soon as I made the radical reduction I knew it was wrong but it was too late. The sculpture was securely and irreversibly ‘glued’ together with acrylic medium at all contact points and I would have to completely break down and rebuild each part so it was best to just forget about it and simply move onto the next piece.
Over the next thirty years I would think about that decision every time I happened upon that sad form of a once proud protruding appendage and think of what could have been. I wonder even today, if there was the ability for me to do an Internet search, if I would have talked myself into keeping the man intact. About two years ago I did do an Internet search, typing in something like “Renoir’s brush is his penis” or something like that, and “I Paint With My Prick” appeared on the site Quote Investigator – it was that easy. More recently, when I was working on one of my new sculptures that featured a toy statue from the 1960/70s with its face buried in the butt of the main figure I decided if I was silly enough to make that connection or placement that I certainly could restore Auguste’s Brain to it original glory.
By mixing papier-mâché with acrylic medium I was now able to carefully rebuild my thirty-year-old mistake using an old watermarked cyanotype print as my guide. Once the bulk of the penis was roughly a little over the desired shape and size it was a matter of some rasping, filing, sanding then finding just the right combination of colors to complete the restoration and voilá. As an added punctuation to my newly liberated stance as an uncompromising artist I attached a few one-of-a-kind stickers to reflect of my current-day obsession and the piece was done.
So here I am, once again struggling with the idea that there is something to be learned by Renoir’s pronouncement when he said he paints with his prick. Or did he actually say: “It’s with my brush that I make love” as stated in the Yale Book Quotations. Either way, I’m sticking with my original design and Diane now likes it too. No matter what he said, my interpretation is the man was speaking metaphorically and his declaration is what my sculpture represents.