As Victorian ideas of female decorum gained strength, the cello remained a man’s instrument until around a century later when use of the spike, or endpin, became widespread. This gadget, extending the end of the instrument and secured by a thumbscrew, enabled the cello to rest on the floor. Pioneering soloists such as Guilhermina Suggia and Beatrice Harrison could now opt for the open leg hold, becoming the first female cellist icons ahead of the exuberant Jacqueline du Pré.
The female performer’s physical relationship with the instrument is unlike any other. Artists have seized upon the common visual association between the form of the cello and the female body, which has inspired thoughts of a symbiosis of the musical and the human body, as in Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres(1924). The image is a visual pun on Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ La Baigneuse de Valpinçon (1808) and a reference to that artist’s secondary talent as a violinist. Although it depicts a violin, the proportions of Man Ray’s mistress, the model Kiki of Montparnasse, correspond so closely to that of a cello that Le Violon d’Ingres instead reinforced the connection between this instrument and the body of a woman. The director of the 1971 film Secret Fantasy also noticed the resemblance!
The visual association between the female body and the instrument legitimises the cello’s most bawdy associations. The proximity of the instrument to the performer’s genitalia intrigued Salvador Dalí, who depicted the literal fusion of performer with instrument in Topological Contortion of a Female Figure Becoming a Violoncello (1983).
The performer’s body is deformed into a geometrical mass that is closed in on by two halves of a cello. Arms and legs stem from the woman’s torso, directing the bowing hand towards a crotch. The symmetry of the image suggests that, were the metamorphosis complete, the performer’s genitals and the cello’s bridge would meet at this central point.
The onanistic undertone in Dalí’s painting is a recurrent theme in representations of female cellists. The interchangeability between cello and performer frequently culminates in masturbation, connecting the solitary act of musical practice to private sexual pleasure. In his book Singular Pleasures (1988), Harry Mathews draws on the figure of a young cellist practising in her bedroom to sketch a gentle erotic fantasy: ‘Her legs are spread; her left hand pulls back the folds of her vulva; her right hand is drawing the tip of a ’cello bow over her clitoris in fluttering tremolo.’
Similarly, George Miler sees the cello’s bow become an extension of the performer’s arm in his dark comedy The Witches of Eastwick (1987). Here, a malevolent tempter explains to a frustrated cellist that she will be unable to play her instrument until she learns to play herself. The scene offers an overload of visual stimulation: as a performance of Struycken’s Peodora rises to a climatic end, the cellist consumes herself in orgasm before her cello falls to the ground and self-combusts! With her selfhood reflected in the cello, her musical liberation allows her to reconstitute a repressed sexuality.
The female cellist has been used as a shortcut to meaning, satisfying sexual and social fantasies simultaneously, disguising titillation under the pretext of aesthetic appreciation. However, in recent years this image appears to have lost some of its suggestive power. The figure of the daring, independent modern woman that the cello helps sustain has – thankfully – become more common, and in so doing has lost some of its lure. We are also, perhaps, more relaxed about seeing a woman open her legs following the sexual revolution. In a culture where very little is left to the imagination, the playful eroticism of the cello is no longer tantalizing enough, graphic enough, or radical enough. Where once the image of the female cellist was a reflection and substitute for female nudity, it has now been overpowered by an erotic culture that bombards viewers with debased images of naked women themselves.
By John M. Gómez, a London based writer who contributes to The Arbuturian, Wax Poetics, and Songlines.