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January 2019
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At one point in 2009, the Royal Academy of Arts hosted three exhibitions, all of whose advertising posters promoted a remarkably similar set of concerns. It was as though the artistic establishment of London had decided to drop all pretence and actively publicise the aesthetic imperative of having sex with fish.

One of these shows was dedicated to John William Waterhouse, that man who was born too late to be a pre-Raphaelite so took it upon himself to produce works of a simpering moistness that would be recognised as mawkish even by Edward Byrne-Jones. A sweep through Waterhouse’s paintings reveals that his favoured subject was a pale, fragile-looking girl, preferably in an attitude of helplessness, illness or death.

The image selected for the Waterhouse poster was that of a particularly fishlike mermaid. Arranged in an artful cheesecake pose expressly calculated to arouse the late Victorian ichthyophile, she epitomises the intention behind the invention of the pervasive mermaid legend – that of providing a plausible cover for the prevailing sexual desire for fish. Clearly, the Royal Academy of Arts approves.

waterhouse

The blockbuster labelled ‘High Art’ was exemplified on the poster by Henry Fuseli’s subtly titled Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent. The viewer gains a serpent’s-eye view of Thor’s imposing form as he hauls what is clearly an eel with studio modifications into the boat. According to the legend, the craven giant Hymir, whose boat Thor had commandeered, cut the line and allowed the serpent to escape. Thor, however, killed it with his hammer. Thor’s hammer is, rather obviously, a euphemism for the big swinging dick of Norse virility.

high-art

A more reasonable interpretation of events is that Hymir, wishing to prevent a nauseating sexual attack on a large but innocent eel, attempted to release the creature. Thor, however, intent on slaking his lust, went ahead with his attack. He probably boasted about it in the bar at Asgard.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) was the last and most enduringly popular of the masters of ukiyo-e, the art of the floating world – the Japanese woodblock print. The show at the Royal Academy presented pieces from the collection of Arthur R. Miller. This is not the Arthur Miller who married Marilyn Monroe. The sex objects in this show were rather cooler.

The poster abandoned all subtlety. Here it was, a red, muscled giant, forcibly inserting himself into a shapely koi carp. This is not an unusual subject for ukiyo-e and stems from the legend in which Kintaro, the legendary Heian-period warrior, engaged in his titanic struggle with the quintessential enormous fish. It is the energy of the image. The naked, red determination pitted against the shock of the fish. It can see the inevitable coming. It does not understand how the power in this relationship has changed so violently but it feels the invasion of this thrusting man into its very being.

kuniyoshi

This was a period in art history that may never be repeated. The artistic celebration of joyous piscatorial grinding, presented from three very different points of origin. A time when you could walk down Piccadilly and be confronted with pictorial proof that having sex with fish was no longer to be marginalised. Thank you Royal Academy. You know not what you did.

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