Without Victorian modesty, even pianos can get carried away!

In a 2000 lecture dealing with (among other things) the mutation of "virtues" into "values," Gertrude Himmelfarb asked whether the covering of piano legs by Victorians really involved sexuality:

This mutation in the word "virtue" has the effect first of narrowing the meaning of the word, reducing it to a matter of sexuality alone; and then of belittling and disparaging the sexual virtues themselves. These virtues, chastity and fidelity, have been further trivialized by the popular conception of Victorians as pathologically inhibited and repressed. Thus "Victorian values" have been associated with piano legs modestly sheathed in pantaloons, human as well as table legs referred to as "limbs," and books by men and women authors dwelling chastely on separate shelves in country-house libraries.

In fact, these were not the normal (or even abnormal) practices of real Victorians. They were often the inventions of contemporary satirists (writers in Punch, for example), which have been perpetuated by gullible historians. "The woman who draped the legs of her piano," one historian solemnly informs us, "so far from concealing her conscious and unconscious exhibitionism, ended by sexualising the piano; no mean feat." In fact, it is this historian who has sexualized the piano and has imposed his own sexual fantasies upon the Victorians.

I have a minor correction. While I must necessarily take no position on the perpetuation of satire by gullible historians (lest I get into a conflict of interest), and I cannot claim to know who is right about sexualizing the Victorian penchant for covering piano legs, I can state with some confidence that the historian Himmelfarb criticizes was not the first to sexualize the piano.

Unless the Victorian satirists were first, I'm afraid the credit must go to Salvador Dali, who did a pretty good job of it back in the 1930s:

Once again, here's "Atmospheric Skull Sodomizing a Grand Piano" (1934):


And from the same year, here's "Skull with its Lyric Appendage Leaning on a Bedside Table which Should Have the Exact Temperature of a Cardinal's Nest":


I don't know whether this means the couple had a child or just merged with each other, but the presence of the bedside table indicates some that some sort of ongoing intimacy occurred.

I scrupulously take no position on whether any of this could have been avoided had the piano been appropriately covered.

And at the risk of being anthropopianomorphic, I have to venture that Dali might have been using the pianos as some sort of substitute for his own libido, or maybe his sex life. Because in the same year he painted the indisputably sexualized pianos, he also painted "Cardinal, Cardinal!":


Note the same bedside table. The man (IMO) is clearly Dali, and he's leaning towards the bedside table at the same angle as the skull does. His shirt even looks like a skull! Not only that, he's holding a pitcher (the breaking of which artistically symbolizes lost virginity), and seems unable to put it back where it belongs. The uncovered woman is of course his wife Gala. (A divorcee who could not be considered virginal by any definition.)

As to what the reference to the "exact temperature of a cardinal's nest" might mean, I'm tempted to speculate that it might involve a failure of the human fertility cycle, and I'd note that by 1934 Gala seems to have left her fertility cycles behind her.

Whether Dali was making any judgment about virtues or values (or what that judgment might have been) I'll leave to others.

Politics is surreal enough as it is.

(I've tried not to politicize art, but the piano meme seems to have legs.)

MORE: While I wasn't thinking about her when I wrote the post, a Hot Air commenter named OBX Pete says that Hillary Clinton looks like a piano:

I've seen her legs and believe me you don't want to see them. If you take a picture of her and crop everything above the waist she could be mistaken for a grand piano. Actually she is doing us all a favor by wearing those pantsuits.

On the other hand, she has to work with what she was born with (as we all do) so she can't help it if she has piano legs. I'm more concerned with that ultra-liberal mind.

I looked into this and discovered that it's worse than I imagined -- to the point where the Urban Dictionary includes Hillary in the very definition of "Piano Legs":
1. piano legs

Disproportionately thick calves and/or ankles on a woman with otherwise normal body weight.

No wonder Hillary Clinton always wears pant suits. She's got a humongous set of piano legs.

Comments (by no means limited to the right wing) about Hillary's alleged "piano legs" abound -- in the blogosphere and on various bulletin boards. And a syndicated columnist actually complained about David Letterman's failure to mention them:
Democrats of the female persuasion, difficult as it is sometimes to tell, are off limits when it comes to insults. Not once has Mr. Letterman joked about Hillary Clinton's piano legs, Donna Brazile's weight, Carol Roberts' (the Palm Beach county balloteer and marionette for team Gore) gravely voice, or those Palm Beach voters who can't punch a chad and look like cross-dressers. Such attacks are cruel. But, John Goodman playing Linda Tripp on Saturday Night Live, now that's funny.
I never thought about this before, but the meme is definitely out there. So I have to ask what if -- just what if -- Senator Clinton's trousers are intended as a sort of piano leg coverup?

If we dovetail this into Ms. Himmelfarb contension that "'Victorian values' have been associated with piano legs modestly sheathed in pantaloons," what are the implications for the sexualization of pianos?

Might the latest campaign represent a desexualization of sorts?

posted by Eric on 03.13.07 at 01:48 PM


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