Barking up the Wrong Tree

J.H.Moesman, The Felled Trunk, 1973. Collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

I can see why they didn’t put it in the show. It’s not made from our moment. It’s not a #metoo-era masterpiece. Quite the opposite, in fact. But there are no facts, only a lithograph called The Felled Trunk by J.H. Moesman that I can’t unsee. He made it in 1973.

Snap—I close my eyes and hear her groan. I think the sound might even be orgasmic. Her pleasure—or is it her pain? That muscular tear that severs her trunk from the tree stump. On a hill above her stands a headless torso, like a scarecrow to ward off predators. This lithograph is pervy and pornographic but also somehow bang on.

‘How would you describe that?’ I asked my boyfriend, sprawled on the couch half-asleep watching Squid Game.

He looked over at my screen. ‘Trunk. Bark. Mermaid. Tits.’

I was meant to write this column about Magritte, specifically The Listening Room. It’s a personal favourite. In an otherwise cordial and polite room, Magritte has painted a giant Granny Smith apple. But I can’t hear a thing when I look at The Listening Room. 

Whereas, The Felled Trunk won’t shut up. It’s in the depot in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. One-hundred-and-eighty other works from the collection are on display at Te Papa, including some Magrittes. (Not The Listening Room, but other deadpan delights like The Empty Picture Frame, a painting of a painting of a brick wall. Oh Magritte, you kidder!) I loved Te Papa’s show Surrealist Art, reviewed it, then found The Felled Trunk at home alone later, on the couch, surfing the net.

J.H. Moesman was allegedly the only real Dutch surrealist. He worked as a draughtsman for the railways and was ‘almost’ a celebrity in his lifetime. But he had a bad attitude—anachronistic, contrarian—that moan, that split trunk, her head thrown back, spine arched, like a Sweet Valley High twin, that one erect nipple. So pointed. Moesman had a sense of the weight of her breast, as though cupped by his hand and tested for quality. (Perhaps the tunnel in the background is for a train—the trunk felled to clear new track.) Moesman also has a fine sense of bark’s geometry, the ridges that emboss the tree. I can’t quite count the dark rings inside the trunk, but I imagine she’s about twenty-three.

J.H. Moesman was sixty-four when he created The Felled Trunk. In his lifetime, his work was banned from exhibition for indecency. At Te Papa, his 1932 oil painting Afternoon—an earlier offender—is hung on a chocolatey wall. A rope frames the canvas; the melting white torso inside it, obviously feminine. I felt curious so I Googled him later. Then I felt curiouser.

The Felled Trunk is a time capsule addressed to me. Somehow, it held the key to my biggest conundrum. Everyone who knows me knows about my mermaid obsession. But what does the mermaid mean?  Magritte had famously reversed the problem in The Collective Invention, but that just wasn’t sexy. However, Moesman cut the problem down to size. He’d eliminated the fish tail and exposed the felled log as a landlocked siren. Her thirst unquenched, she was stumped. But sexuality is vexing. I should know. (The ecstasy is in the tail. A mermaid has to get off by herself. )

The Felled Trunk is about desire. But whose? And, if desire is wrong, what will ever make it right?

So much of what I hold dear about art is bound up in surrealism—the idea that symbols are leaking through the subconscious and only artists can see them and make them chime. Art is unbidden, shameless even when shameful. Also Sex is embarrassing, but best when it stays sexy. Something Moesman knew intuitively. 

Decades ago, when I worked in a strip club, I met a photographer who wanted to take my picture. He told me he was first inspired by nature—trees!—but, once he hit puberty, his attention shifted. Sensing an opportunity to create something akin to The Felled Trunk on my own terms, I said yes. But the portraits we created were literal, illustrative of nothing, bland. In Moesman, I sense a kindred spirit.

Artworks don’t analyse themselves. And I know it’s not right to bring so much attention to bear on a misogynistic or perhaps just juvenile print. But Moesman has made an artwork that cracks open the female orgasm—interior yet invasive, private, personal, even when loud or QUIET. The Felled Trunk looks like she’s on top, but she’s not.

On the couch, my boyfriend woke up in front of Squid Game, looked over and said, ‘She’s doing a yoga pose.’

‘Which one?’, I asked. ‘Cobra’, he said. ‘But put upward dog. Everyone knows that one.’

originally published for my Art News New Zealand column, The Listening Room, Spring Summer 2021.