“The Concave and Convex of the Lovers’ Bodies: A Reading of Three Paintings” by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming


“Mushrooms by the Sea” (1931) by Filippo de Paris. Oil on canvas, 53 x 63 cm.

I spent a long time looking at this painting, which has been compared to works by Salvador Dali. I was particularly interested in the large sky and beach in comparison to the relatively small sandwiched sea — an ungenerous darkened sliver of blue. The family of mushrooms (three adults and two children?) of the title are surreally gigantic, even monstrous, with some large, phallus-like stems. While the ‘adults’ are painted in earthly brown and green, colours that remind one of soil, roots and slight decay, the ‘children’ are painted in a mixture of yellow and orange, as if they are caught in mid-transformation. We know soon they will also turn dark, shedding their more joyous tone. I felt that the mushrooms yearn for the sea and sadly it is not meant for them.


“Ashtray” (1958) by Renato Guttuso. Oil on canvas, 58 x 67cm.

In Guttuso’s painting there is a collocation of a dozen or so cigarette butts, and strangely, although there is only one can (or glass?) left on the table, three of the butts are still lit; their orange spots signifying life. Together, they leave curvy, Aladdin-style smoke reaching the upper end of the canvas. Who were the smokers? Why did they leave the room? Was the departure intended to be only temporary? I kept trying to see some kind of pattern in the smoke: a fading face, a random letter. But in the end I got nothing. The smokers have left the room, leaving the viewers a mystery. And the smoke is complicit.


“Landscape with Lovers” by Renato Guttuso. Pastel on papers, 48.5 x 68cm.

This is an image of a narrow road between a stone wall and a row of olive trees. The former is brown and black, whilst the latter is yellow, almost glorious, and the dark, distinct branches echo the cracks of the opposite wall. At first I couldn’t spot the lovers, since they are perfectly blended into the stone side of the painting. Their clothes are of a similar tone to the darker stone making up the wall, suggesting their working-class background. Once they are ‘found’, however, it is hard not to see them in the painting. The lovers are kissing intensely and are perfectly oblivious to their surrounding and any potential voyeurs. Their oblivion causes the viewer to be aware of and feel guilty for her intrusion. The onlooker wants to be discreet, look away, and leave the young couple alone. But at the same time she is drawn to them one more time, focusing on their lustful interlocked mouths, the woman’s fleshly buttocks, the concave and convex of the lovers’ bodies down the waist. The hidden erection and wetness. Then he/she reluctantly moves on.

[These three paintings were exhibited in The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in 2011 and this piece was first published in Stet, the website that inspired Agora.]


hlmTammy Ho Lai-Ming is Assistant Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature. She is the administrator of Agora. [Click here to read all entries by or about Tammy.]

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