If you happen to be in Europe, it won’t be hard to spot at least one fountain boasting a cherubic child peeing, like the famous "Manneken Pis" in Brussels, which has provoked goofy laughter in so many passerby. It’s something involuntary; whenever we see the normalization of private acts in the public eye, like having a wee, we can't help it, we just chuckle. It appeals to our morbid yet prudish social upbringing. For such a mundane and natural activity you'd be surprised how the art world has taken a hold of it. This depiction of the peeing child is just one of the many examples out there and it does make you wonder, what's the connection between art and peeing?
French art historian and critic Jean-Claude Lebensztejn devoted a whole book to study this phenomenon that, although quite common in the western art world, is not as studied as one would imagine. Pissing Figures (1280-2014) is a complete analysis of peeing art and it sheds light on the symbolism behind urine. From innocence and fertility, to entertainment, joy, and even indecency, the perception of urine has gone a long way, and reflects how we have evolved as a society and how our understanding of life has shifted.
For instance, there are many myths surrounding the statue fountain in Brussels. Some believe it alludes to the story of the two-year-old Duke Godfrey III of Leuven’s peeing over the enemy to win the battle. Others speculate it is a reference to the fourteenth century tale of when the city lay burning and the fires were extinguished thanks to a precocious young child peeing over the burning buildings. My favorite and most common anecdote is that of a man who was desperately looking for his lost child and he found him peeing peacefully in a corner. Obviously a burning city wasn't saved from a peeing child nor was an enemy defeated by an incontinent duke, it is the message behind these stories that matter. Innocence is the strongest and most powerful weapon, it is the playfulness and lack of malice that proved to be more righteous than any gruesome battle tactic.
In some paintings of the sixteenth-century, we see quite a few Cupids urinating. This was meant to symbolize fertility. As Lebensztejn explains, in Lorenzo Lotto’s Venus and Cupid (1520s) we see Venus posing naked while her son pees on her. What's interesting is that this stream of urine is aiming at Venus's vagina. Now, it’s believed that the painting was commissioned as a wedding gift to wish the couple a fertile future; so in that sense, the urine symbolizes the semen being directed to the woman’s genitalia.
Besides fertility, the act of urinating soon came to represent gaiety. Titian’s famous The Bacchanal of the Andrians shows a group of people having a jolly party and right in the center we see a child peeing over a little stream and if you look closely you'll see that on the left there is a man collecting some of that water. Gross, right? Well, apparently the child is none other than Bacchus, the god of wine, and the liquid the man is collecting could be wine created by this mischievous god.
So far, if you've noticed, it is mostly small children that are shown peeing and it is still tied to the meaning behind Brussels’ fountain. The fact that they're kids excludes them from the taboo of public urination. They don't know what they're doing and there's no perversity in their actions. But as society became more prudish and more severe, the portrayals became way more rebellious and reactionary.
During the eighteenth century, the idea of privacy became even more strict, so enclosed bathrooms became a norm. Public urination started being punishable; thus, many dissidents belonging to the art world began portraying adults urinating in public spaces as a form of criticism to this prudishness. As a result, public peeing became unacceptable and it ultimately ended up representing the uncivilized and vulgar masses.. However, it was also connected to sexuality, since the act of urinating was highly linked to a person’s sexuality for obvious, although not so logical, reasons.
It is funny how for centuries peeing art has been dominated by men and boys, I guess that for esthetic purposes it is easier to capture the male body while urinating. Also, women have always been penned as clean and pure individuals, so peeing was out of the question when it came to art. But during the twentieth century, many female artists began depicting female urination as a critique towards misogyny and to represent equality. No matter the period, peeing has always been present in art, a connection we don't see as farfetched, after all, this discipline has strived to capture the human condition in all its different hues. Perhaps, like Lebensztejn, if we paid a little more attention to the mundane, we'd uncover a wealth of meaning and symbolism.
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