Circumcision in Art - the far side

Here we look at some of the quirkier depictions of circumcision in art. Circumcised Cupid? - sure. Circumcised Adam .....

Byam Shaw, Love and the Respectable Citizen John Byam Shaw1872-1919

Byam Shaw was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and had a tragically short life, dying in the 'Spanish Flu' epidemic that followed WW1. His water-colour 'When Love Came into the House of the Respectable Citizen', painted in 1916, shows the impact of a confirmed bachelor falling head over heels in in love, represented by Cupid suddenly bursting in through the window and scattering the furniture.

Let's look a bit closer. Viewing the image full size it is clear that Cupid is circumcised. This is probably the only image of a circumcised Cupid in the history of art. This was the middle of WW1 and Byam Shaw was on war duties, not a full-time artist. He drew a lot of patriotic cartoons for the papers and this seems to have been a bit of gentle fun aimed at a friend. So what do we make of Cupid? The model was almost certainly Byam Shaw's son Glen, then aged 11. Glen went on to be a very successful actor and subsequently director. But Cupid's head is not his - it is clearly the head of a girl, presumably the man's paramour. A lovely, whimsical painting and a unique portrayal of Cupid. First shown in our News section in 2018.

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Jean Orval (Jean Louis Eugene Orval) 1911 - 1987

Jean Orval was a Dutch stained glass artist who emigrated to Australia after World War 2.

He worked in commercial art, and as a teacher, while establishing his stained glass practise which ultimately led to many church commissions in Victoria. In private commissions he often showed infant boys as circumcised, but not in any of his church 'Madonna and Child' windows.

Adam and Eve, a private commission, is remarkable for showing Adam as circumcised. This would be centuries before God's covenant of circumcision with Abraham. It turns out that there was a school of thought in Jewish theology which believed that Adam had to be perfect, and therefore was born circumcised, but here I suspect that Orval has just accurately portrayed his model.

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Adam and Eve
John Winch (Australia) 1944-2007

John Winch was best known as an illustrator of childrens' books, and his sunny, funny illustrations are classics of the genre. But he had a much wider practice, and when it came to sculpture his works could be much darker.

They also take him into the 'Quirky' category. This ceramic work (with wooden coffin) illustrates Canto XX of Purgatorio, from Dante's Divine Comedy. The first problem is that Dante states that the penitent spirits were lying face down, clearly not the case here. The second is that the man is obviously circumcised, with a prominent scar, but Dante tells us that he is Hugh Capet, usurper of the throne of France. He was the son of a Paris butcher, and would certainly not have been circumcised. In this Canto we are at the fifth level of Purgatory, where the greedy and avaricious atone for their sins. Capet, it seems, took advantage of his position.

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Ron Mueck 1958-

Ron Mueck was born in Australia to German parents, and currently lives in the UK. His family had a strong tradition of making puppets and models for stage and film and eventually Ron decided to turn this into an art practice.

His work is typically described as 'hyper-realistic' - going beyong realism - and however accurate his figures are they are never life size. Some are smaller, others much larger - this one is half life size.

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Sculpture Charles Ray (born 1953, USA)

Ray also features in our main art page, but here he enters the 'uncanny valley' with this rather disturbing sculpture ‘Family Romance’ - a typical family except that they are all the same height! Father and son are both nicely circumcised.
Courtesy MOMA

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Sándor Rétfalvi (1941- ) and István Fáskerti, Hungary

Adria Palace, Budapest, was built in 1912-1913 as the home of the Adria Insurance Company. This very grand building also housed luxury apartments and its facade was decorated with sculptures representing various aspects of insurance. An injured man represented medical insurance, Mercury (messenger of the gods) represented transport insurance, and so on. The sculptures were all destroyed during World War 2. After a spell as a police station, the building was restored to its former glory when it became the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in 1995.

Rétfalvi and Fáskerti were commisioned to re-create the sculptures. Rétfalvi did the plaster models from which Fáskerti made the actual carvings. Here is their Mercury, who looks half-starved but, more dramatically is clearly circumcised! This is a pretty radical departure from the classical tradition. The Injured Man is also circumcised which, while not common in Hungary is not quite such a radical statement.

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The Adria Palace in pre-war years, and in its present incarnation as the Ritz-Carlton hotel. The sculptures are visible on the corners of the ground floor. One suspects that Rétfalvi and Fáskerti used considerable licence and the originals didn't look much like the new versions. Correspondent András, who sourced this item, believes that Fáskerti added the circumcised penises as a joke. Adria Palace then and now
Ji Hyun Kim, Korea

Bullet Men, a 2008 sculpture, became quite well known due to its exhibition near the entrance to the Pyeonchang Olympics. Circumcision is the norm in Korea (see our Korea page. Hence Korean artists naturally depict nude men as circumcised. Image courtesy Getty Images, contributed by Korean correspondent CL.

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Salvatore Rizzuti, born 1948

Dedalo (Daedalus), a 2014 sculpture by the Sicilian artist Salvatore Rizzuti, like several other works on this page, breaks with the classical tradition by showing an ancient Greeek (or rather Cretan) hero as circumcised. A deliberate dig at tradition, or just a portrayal of his model? According to both one of our Italian correspondents and the photographs of Wilhelm von Gloeden, circumcision is not so rare in Sicily. (See our Italy page.) Not only is Daedalus circumcised, he has no pubic hair. A Muslim Daedalus?

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Image submitted by MS

Frank Benson (born 1976, USA)

Benson's sculpture 'Juliana' (2014-2015) caused a sensation when exhibited at New York's New Museum in 2015. It is a life-size image of New York artist, model, DJ and LGBTI icon Juliana Huxtable, and was accompanied by a collection of Huxtable's own works.

The sculpture was created as a 3D model in a computer, and the initial physical version was produced on a 3D printer and then painted. Subsequently a small run of casts was made in bronze.

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Juliana was born intersex, and the decision was made to raise her as a boy, Julian. As you can see, her penis was circumcised. But with puberty it was clear that her body was female, and after futile attempts to bind her chest she came out as female. This led to an estrangement from her very conservative mother, with whom she was happily reconciled at the New Museum exhibition.

Gillie and Marc, Australia

Gillie and Marc Schattner are Australian artists who work togethther, and are passionate about wild-life conservation. Their work is, unapologetically, at the popular end of the art market. The characters Dogman and Rabbitgirl are their portrayals of themselves (Rabbitgirl recently became Rabbitwoman to be more politically correct). They later invented Stagman, but I've no idea who he represents. In this 2018 photograph we see Dogman, Rabbitgirl and Stagman enjoying a cuppa and watching a seemingly impossible rope trick. In all the sculptures that are large enough to show such detail it is clear that both Dogman and Stagman are circumcised. Here is a closer view of Stagman and a different sculpture of Dogman.

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Javier Aramburu (born 1966, Spain)

We've become used to seeing Biblical figures such a Jesus, St. John, David and Isaac portrayed with foreskins but here the artist has gone the other way and depicted St. Sebastian as circumcised. Sebastian came from Milan so it's most unlikely he was circumcised. What makes it all the more surprising is that circumcision is pretty uncommon in Spain.

Javier Aramburu, who comes from the city of San Sebastian, is best known as a graphic artist who has designed many record and CD sleeves. However he has quite a body of more serious work, and is also a musician.

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Further suggestions welcome
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Thanks to DB, JM, András, Sothebys Australia, the New Museum and MOMA for suggestions and information.

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