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Phallic Art

Artefact 3: Phallic Tenderness | Article 2 of 12

D. H. Lawrence: Boccaccio Story (1926)
D. H. Lawrence: Boccaccio Story (1926). Oil on canvas (72 x 118.5 cm).

In the second of twelve essays, Stephen Alexander explores the role of the phallus in Lawrence’s work. Here he looks at Lawrence’s motivation for painting naked men.

Stephen Alexander

Stephen Alexander

Towards the end of his life, Lawrence quite fancied himself as a painter as well a writer and he produced an interesting collection of canvases that were famously exhibited at the Warren Gallery in London in the summer of 1929. Whether the thirteen canvases eventually seized by the police were pornographic is debatable. But, in a letter to his American friend Earl Brewster, Lawrence confessed:

“I put a phallus in each one of my pictures somewhere. And I paint no picture that won’t shock people’s castrated social spirituality. I do this out of positive belief that the phallus is a great sacred image: it represents a deep, deep life which has been denied in us, and is still denied.”

Lawrence knew precisely what he was doing, therefore, and it’s puzzling that some commentators wish to play down the scandalous aspect of his paintings. It’s also disingenuous, as they know perfectly well that Lawrence’s paintings from this period – such as Boccaccio Story (1926) – are an important part of his project of phallic tenderness, via which, like Nietzsche, he hoped to trigger a revaluation of all values.

Boccaccio Story may very well be a painting of real beauty and great vitality, as one critic wrote at the time. But so too is it quite obviously obscene in its subject matter of sexual exhibitionism and the carnal desire of nuns; what would be the point of it – and of Boccaccio’s tale – were it otherwise?

Suggested Reading:

D. H. Lawrence, The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. V, ed. James T. Bouton and Lindeth Vasey, (CUP, 1989).

Keith Sagar (ed.), D. H. Lawrence’s Paintings, (Chaucer Press, 2003).

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