Is Man’s Sexual Desire a Yearning to Appropriate/Conquer/ Orgasmically Ejaculate/Inseminate/Impregnate, or the Need to Unite with Woman-mother?


Henri Matisse, “Odalisque in Red Trousers”, 1922

When years ago I for the first time saw this painting among Matisse’s other odalisques I became fixated on it without understanding why. Again and again I saw and imagined the woman’s face, her breasts and her belly, and the very sadness of her opening her body to her master, to clients, to the painter’s gaze and the viewers of Matisse’s painting.

Why is the contrast between the openness of her breasts and belly and the closeness of her thighs so exciting? And why exactly this contrast is able to make you so dizzy? Why is it the breasts and the belly that is fixating the man’s gaze, according to Matisse’s painting and not the woman’s thighs and genitals? What is the difference between this odalisque and the others?

When we look at the painting we, probably, see odalisque as her clients would see her upon entering the room. But the painter, in our name, has entered her chamber before anybody else. Her tights are covered by the waves of her clothes, but what is opened to the male gaze? Oh, males are spontaneous semioticians: besides the obvious (inviting appearance which is meant to stimulate in men a foretaste of a guaranteed pleasure valuable for their memory – I was there, I had this, it was exuberant, and this proxy proximity of the smooth body) they look for signs – of hope, of forgetfulness and happy self-dissolution amidst ontological security. And these signs are not delivered by the female body’s thighs, pubis or genitals. The signs men look for rather tied to the female breasts and belly. Why so?

What Matisse’ intuition suggests here goes against the traditional – shallow view at men’s sexual need in its biological, psychological and social aspects (the need for genital relief, for emotional self-realization and for self-assertion). The suggestion here is a paradoxical one and a challenge to our safe clichés about sexuality: man’s soul needs the woman’s breasts and belly much more than her thighs and vagina (and it needs woman’s compassionate gaze). Men like to transform exactly the facial expression odalisque has in Matisse’s painting into a positive encouraging and “ready-for-everything” expression (sometimes even a typical client of a brothel likes to imagine that he made a harlot happy and even can be her savior).

But who knows the woman’s breasts, belly and her encouraging/compassionate face better than a woman’s child? Matisse, it seems, suggests that the origin of sexuality is not only a biological drive but an unconscious nostalgia for mother’s body of enveloping warmth. This complex of unconscious nostalgia for intimacy with a woman includes the psychological need to lose control, to lose oneself on the woman’s belly, under her breasts. Purely and narrowly sexual excitement is secondary and only an exclamation mark on the achieved relaxation in the immediate proximity to her body. More, the specifically sexual excitement can be triggered by the nostalgia for baby’s “prerogative” to use its mother for reaching the feeling of total dissolution into a blissful togetherness.

The gaze of a real painter (personified for us, right now, by Henri Matisse) is penetrating and multifaceted – it doesn’t care to repeat the clichés and be rewarded by the public illusion that the majority of people are as sensitive and “smart” as the artist; it challenges the mass perception, very often provokes scandals and conflicts with consumers and patrons of art, but survives for generations ahead as an unlimited reservoir of humanistic knowledge.