Art and Sex-Ed: Brancusi, Princess Marie Bonaparte, Freud, clitorises and orgasms
Constantin Brâncuși, “Princesse X” (1915-16)
For the longest time I thought this was a sculpture of a beautiful, minimalist phallus. Turns out it’s meant to be a portrait of Princess Marie Bonaparte of Greece and Denmark, great-grandniece of Napoleon, Prince Philip's aunt, and heir to the fortune of Monte Carlo. Apparently Brancusi really disliked her, calling her “vain” and believing she was obsessed with sex. He denied that the sculpture had any phallic associations—it was actually pulled from exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris (1920) because some deemed it too obscene to show to French heads of state.
Marie Bonaparte was a curious woman who was also super-rich. She married Prince George in 1907 and it was a sexually unfulfilling situation. Because she was unable to orgasm during missionary, she believed she was “frigid” and consulted with Freud, who promoted the theory that orgasm achieved by clitoral stimulation was “immature” and that the ideal kind of orgasm was achieved only by vaginal penetration.
By 1924, frustrated with her difficulties and wanting to seek physical solutions rather than psychological, she started to conduct and publish sex research under a pseudonym. Marie was convinced of the importance of the clitoris in orgasm but the science wasn’t there yet. In her research she measured the distance between clitorises and vaginas in 243 people and collected data on their orgasmic experiences. In 1927 she decided to have a surgeon conduct experimental surgery on her, to move her glans clitoris closer to her vagina, but after surgery she still found herself “frigid”. It’s likely that the surgeries left scarring and actually contributed to a decrease in sensitivity.
Her insistence on the importance of the clitoris was groundbreaking, but unfortunately the lack of scientific knowledge around orgasm and her pursuit of idealized sexual fulfilment led to unnecessary, unsuccessful surgeries. We now know that the clitoris is generally the primary anatomical source of sexual pleasure, that its full structure extends deep into the body and that it may also be the source of “vaginal orgasms” via internal stimulation. We’ve come around to the understanding that sexual response is individual, and that idealizing outcomes can create its own set of problems. Sex educators today place emphasis on exploration and play, being present in your body, finding your own pleasure and learning and communicating what feels good to you.
NB: We use publicly available research sources but we are not doctors or health professionals ourselves. Sources - McCouat (2015) "The Controversies of Constantin Brancusi Princess X and the Boundaries of Art", Art In Society (1), Wallen, Lloyd (2010) "Female Sexual Arousal: Genital Anatomy and Orgasm in Intercourse", US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (2), Cryle P., Moore A. (2011) “Relocating Marie Bonaparte’s Clitoris. In: Frigidity. Genders and Sexualities in History” (3). Image - Pinterest.