Look at “Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin,” a fifteenth-century portrait by
Rogier van der Weyden, and you’ll notice two figures in the middle
distance, lingering at the crenellations in the courtyard. One gestures
in faint surprise; somebody has captured their attention. It’s not Luke
the Evangelist, the Virgin Mother, or even the infant Christ. It’s a
faraway man who has stopped to piss on a high wall.

This isn’t an isolated incident. The fact is, a river of piss runs
through art history. For centuries, painters and sculptors have depicted
the act of urination. Men piss. Women piss. Most of all, young boys
piss, so much so that scholars assigned a Latin term, puer mingens, to
their ubiquitous appearances. Now Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, a French
critic, has written “Pissing Figures, 1280–2014,” a genealogy of
the *pisseurs *and pisseuses who haunt our canvases, fountains, and
frescoes. The book, in a rangy, fluent translation from Jeff Nagy, is a
record of what Lebensztejn calls our “diuretic fantasies”—of the lore
and lust surrounding urine, sacred and profane.

Lorenzo Lotto, “Venus and Cupid,” 1525.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Courtesy David Zwirner Books

In the beginning was the pissing boy, the putto. He appeared first in
the margins of illuminated manuscripts, peeing discreetly as if in fear
of detection: the gentle plash, the flaxen strands as wispy as a
maiden’s hair. By the fifteenth century, he’d grown brazen and begun to
multiply—“processions of urinating children set about inundating
paintings and sculptures in villas and public squares,” Lebensztejn
writes. They pissed into vases and basins and shells and conchs, onto
snowdrifts and poppy husks and flocks of cupids. They pissed in the
mouths and anuses of other boys, who themselves pissed in more mouths
still. These were no ordinary boys. Spritely and seraphic, often winged
and laurelled, they charmed their way into old churches, where they
patrolled the transepts and friezes, pure of heart and full of bladder.
In Padua’s Ovetari Chapel, for example, Andrea Mantegna painted a
cycle of frescoes that included a pissing putto suspended from a
garland, where, according to Lebensztejn, he “lets loose a long jet of
urine, as if it were a bemused, symbolic paraphrase of the baptismal
water.”

Indeed, a boy’s piss seems at some point to have crossed streams with
holy water, becoming blessed with ablutionary powers. In Italy,
Lebensztejn notes, “it is still customary, even today, to call an
infant’s intemperate pee acqua santa.” Sometimes the gift of pure piss
transferred to adulthood, though it helped if you were aiming
heavenward. A thirteenth-century fresco in the Basilica of Saint Francis
of Assisi shows three angels, grown men, holding their penises over
Christ on the cross, as if they might relieve his suffering by relieving
themselves.

Left: Rembrandt, “Pissing Man,” 1631. Right: “Pissing Woman,” 1631.

Of course, the angels, being angels, feel no relief as they piss. They
get their celestial jollies by raining a little holy water on us, but
they know nothing of urination as a physical urge. If you want to enjoy
some real salt-of-the-earth pissing, Lebensztejn reports, you have to
skip ahead to 1600. It was then that, with the advent of genre painting,
and its attendant embrace of everyday experience over iconography, more
and more adults began to piss in images. In Rembrandt’s “Pissing Man”
and “Pissing Woman,” both from 1631, we’ve at last found a couple
urinating without ceremony, the peasant woman “turning around to
reassure herself that no one is watching.”

In other drawings and paintings of the era, common people, dressed up or
down, began to piss from brothels, gardens, and saddles, into the air
and onto their own shadows. It was a great time to piss in art. Women
began to do so in record numbers. Yes, they’d peed a bit earlier—you can
spy one awhizz in the bottom-left corner of Matthias Gerung’s
“Melancholia,” from 1558, kneeling as if abashed, with some guy puking
beside her—but whereas in the past she’d retained “an allegorical
aspect, mythological or animalistic,” Lebensztejn writes, she now could
tinkle freely alongside a pisseur.

Paul Gauguin, “Te Poipoi,” 1892.

Her arrival, though, presaged a loss of virtue for the act of pissing.
Ingeniously, Lebensztejn identifies the squatting Tahitian woman of
Gauguin’s “Te Poipoi,” from 1892, as art’s last true pissing innocent.
She offered “a modern-primitive vision of the Golden Age” (pun
intended?), at the very moment that the invention of public-bathroom
kiosks “made urination and defecation into private acts.” Thereafter, to
piss in public was to court censure or titillation. Men could not keep
their heads on straight around the pisseuse, and “uncountable
knickknacks, paintings, drawings, and photographs married amusement and
erotic excitation for the male gaze.” (That gaze took on a disturbingly
literal form in the case of vases de mariée, porcelain chamber pots
“at the bottom of which a wide-open, painted eye soaks up the sight of
an invigorating shower.”) Someone was always watching. A taste for the
taboo had leached into our pee, and soon it poisoned the well. Behind
closed doors, the easeful, earthy grace of the act trickled with shame.

Andres Serrano, “Immersion (Piss Christ),” 1987.

Photograph by Andres Serrano courtesy David Zwirner Books

By the time the pissing figure entered the twentieth century,
Lebensztejn writes, artists were headed for “a barrage of urinary
provocations, each one more confrontational than the last.” Picasso,
Klee, Dubuffet, Demuth all painted eroticized pisseurs and
pisseuses; photographers snapped them by the dozen, not infrequently
engaged in urophagia, the drinking of urine. Irrevocably, piss burst
into the grammar of porn and sadomasochism, redolent of leather where
once it had smelled of tall grass and newborns. It was only a matter of
time before the medium became the message. When Pollock disliked a
dealer or a client, he is rumored to have peed on his paintings before
delivering them. Warhol and his assistants coated canvases with metallic
paints and pissed on them to activate a chemical reaction. And in the
eighties, Andres Serrano’s “Immersion (Piss Christ),” a plastic crucifix
immured in the artist’s pee, took things full circle. As in the
thirteenth century, Jesus was the ultimate urinary object. This time,
the artist had usurped the role of the angels.

What happened? Whither urine? Looking through the centuries, the modern
observer can’t help but sense some uric conspiracy, a secret society of
piss disclosed to modern man only in dribbles and drabs. It’s no
accident that so many pissing putti, from their earliest days,
appeared at bacchanals, foisting their “little members”—a favorite
phrase of Lebensztejn’s—in sprawling, tawdry scenes, lousy with
musicians and revellers. It’s as if life then were an endless party, a
riot of fluids and fun where every jet, spurt, torrent, and dribble had
its place and people were comfortable in their skins. Our forebears knew
something that we don’t. They could laugh at what was holy to them. They
could regard piss, through some parallax, as a symbol of both purity and
Rabelaisian excess. “The contradiction is in urine itself,” Lebensztejn
says: an intimate, aesthetic product of one’s animal life, it’s still
“rather repulsive to smell when it’s not one’s own.”

By banishing our “psychic prohibition” against piss, Lebensztejn hopes
that we might see paradise regained, a prelapsarian piss utopia that
restores to urine its whiff of sublime mystery. A society inclined to
seek new uses for its waste, he says, should take up the golden cause.
Lebensztejn, citing a passage of Pliny’s “Natural History” devoted to
piss’s curative powers, wonders if we’ll see “centenarians restored to
youth by the regular ingestion of their own urine, food sources purified
by its deployment as fertilizer, and machines powered by reprocessed
piss.” In the meantime, he writes, piss risks becoming “the symptom of a
decline running inevitably to ruin, of an era trying to shed its old
skin.”

A pissing-Calvin decal.

Photograph by James Nesterwitz / Alamy

Consider, for instance, today’s most notorious pissing figure, his back
to us, feet splayed, hands busy facilitating nature’s call: Calvin, of
the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes.” Around 1995, decals featuring a
pissing Calvin began to show up for sale at college football games and
Nascar races. You could buy, say, Calvin pissing on the Ford logo, or
Calvin pissing on the Chevy logo, or Calvin pissing on the word
LAWYERS,” and slap him on your bumper to broadcast your disdain. The
decals were bootlegs—Bill Watterson, the creator of “Calvin and Hobbes,”
has refused to license his characters—but they proved popular, slaking
the public’s forgotten thirst for pissing putti. What’s more, the
image of Calvin peeing was nowhere to be found in the original comic: he
was a piece of fan art. Seeing his impish grin in the Sunday funnies,
someone had obeyed an irrepressible urge to stick it on a pissing body.

There’s a splash of the old magic here. The dormant image of the puttospoke to these bootleggers on an atavistic level. But, in the end, they
refused to hear his good and godly intentions, seeing his piss as a
vector of derision rather than as the effluence of a caring spirit.
Maybe this explains the hysteria that greeted the Calvin decals, which
have netted not only lawsuits but multiple arrests for indecency. People
could feel it: something was wrong with this picture. The boy’s urine
was never meant as a form of vengeance. A world where Calvin’s piss is a
benediction—that’s the world I want to live in.

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