Girlhood as a Marriage of the Sacred and the Profane: Saturno Buttò

Contemporary surrealist painter Saturno Buttò was born in the Portogruaro district of Venice, Italy in 1957. He first began to exhibit his work in 1993, with his first monograph titled Ritratti da Saturno: 1989-1992 (Portraits from Saturn: 1989-1992), a play on his given name. This would be followed by Opere 1993-1999 (Works 1993-1999), Martyrologium (published in 2007), Blood is my favourite color (published in 2012) and finally Breviarium humanae redemptionis, which is currently available for purchase at his website.

Buttò’s portraits often juxtapose style and iconography taken from traditional Christian art with elements of modernity, surrealism and unapologetic sexuality, and this is no less true when the images are of children. The kids—usually girls—in Buttò’s work are both confrontational and loaded with mystery and metaphor. It would be quite easy for shallow and morally sensitive observers to dismiss these works as exploitative and shocking for the sake of being shocking, but that would be a grave mistake. It is the work of artists like Buttò for which Pigtails in Paint was first conceived, those artists who might be controversial and seemingly pugnacious in their depictions of the child’s body, but who nevertheless have something important and honest to say.

These pieces are rife with contradictions and paradoxes which strike at the true core of modern childhood, and girlhood especially, the young girl’s body politicized from so many different angles. In this early piece, we see a toddler girl, Linda, dressed as both a jester and a hamadryad, two personas which couldn’t be more disparate. A tassel suspends from her “trunk” like an oddly low-hanging phallus. In fact, there’s nothing intrinsically feminine about this little toddler. The only hint we have of her femaleness comes from the title of the painting. At this young age, children are fairly androgynous.

Saturno Buttò – Frau, Simon e Linda (1994)

Are they really angels? These little toddlers are dressed as putti, complete with wings attached by an uncomfortable-looking harness. Here we begin to see Buttò’s critique of the way society restrictively frames childhood, especially girlhood, for its own convenience. I suspect the fact that one of the toddlers is indisputably female is no accident either. If we were to move away from the subject of childhood for a moment, this portrait also shows us a realistic and unflattering view of womanhood, as we see Simon shaving her armpit to appease society. On more than one level this can be viewed as a feminist piece, as can many of Buttò’s works.

Saturno Buttò – Simon e tre bimbi (1994)

Here we have a masculine figure holding two more toddlers. Are they twins? Again, note the combination of jester apparel and plants on the children, subtly suggesting that nature is playful and innocent. One can almost think of these children as elves or sprites, beings associated with both nature and trickery, often depicted as children. There’s also something both godlike and satyric about the man in this image. Could this be Dionysus? The title of this peace, Domiziana-Domiziana, is somewhat mysterious. If we were to substitute an ‘o’ for the ‘a’ at the end of these words, we would have the Italian translation for Domitian, a Roman emperor known for his harsh policies and his ruthlessness which eventually led to his assassination. Domiziana would thus be a feminized version of the name, and given that it’s doubled, we can safely assume it applies to the little twins. Surely Buttò isn’t saying that these two little girls are vicious autocrats, is he? But then, toddlers are known for being cranky and demanding.

Saturno Buttò – Domiziana-Domiziana (1997)

It’s quite interesting to see that Buttò’s work thematically ages as many of his recurring subjects mature. Red is a carnal color, and the leather-upholstered throne, which has the little girl’s name on it, is both eroticized and slightly menacing. The little nude Lola herself, brightly lit and tracking something into the otherwise pristine throne room with her bare feet, confronts the viewer with her gaze, her miniature curled pigtails mimicking the horns on the back of the chair. Lola is a force to be reckoned with, and yet she is also vulnerable and defensive, as we look down on her from above, her body turned slightly away from us. Childhood is full of contradictions.

Saturno Buttò – Lola (2004)

This little girl, Solange is again patently feminine, her subtle curves accentuated by the harsh light, and she is also unquestionably a child. She is both confrontational—her eyes meeting ours—and somewhat coy, her face turning away from us. The purple cloak she holds provides a note of nobility as well as echoing certain representations of Jesus. This little girl is both holy in her innocence and sensual in her femininity. She has weight, gravitas. Unlike Lola in the last piece, we are on Solange’s level. Is this an erotic depiction of a child? It depends on how you define erotic. If you mean by that a blatant attempt to turn on the viewer, then I would say no, this piece is not at all erotic. However, to me eroticism is much more than just titillation.

Of course, most child nudes aren’t about eroticism at all, and anyone who sees lewdness in those is certainly projecting. The conflation of simple nudity with sex is mostly an American conceit and demonstrates a simplistic and uninformed view of art. That’s not surprising. Most Americans couldn’t tell their Picasso from a hole in the ground (yes, I’m aware I’ve used that joke before, but I’m quite fond of puns), and they don’t much care. It is all too often a badge of honor for Americans to show just how ignorant and uncultured they really are. Such nuance is beyond them. So they really struggle when presented with an artist like Saturno Buttò, who does invest an element of eroticism in his work but isn’t doing it to sexually arouse. I seriously doubt that Buttò is a pedophile, nor is his work featuring children meant to appeal to them. The idea here is to challenge those simplistic conceptions of the perfectly innocent child which often do more harm than good.

Saturno Buttò – Solange II (2004)

Solange again, this time in the role of the biblical dancer Salomé, who demanded John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Salomé’s salacious dancing done in exchange for John’s head is one of the most famous stories from the Bible and has long been a subject for artists to explore, one of the earliest presentations of the femme fatale in all of literature. It might seem bizarre to depict her as a child, but the fact is we have no idea what Salomé’s actual age is. Knowing what we know about Hebrew customs of the day and interpreting the language of the Bible quite specifically, there’s good reason to believe Salomé was actually a young girl around the age of 12. This puts a completely different spin on the story, doesn’t it? The belief that Salomé was a sultry and experienced woman who used her feminine wiles with some knowing evil intent is one that has developed over time, but the Bible does not actually support that view.

Thus, the seeming contradictions of Buttò’s Lolita-esque Salomé may not be as far removed from the truth as many may think, and that’s the point here. That and the fact that, while we adults may comfort ourselves with the notion that children aren’t thinking dirty thoughts, in reality they are not always as innocent as we might think. It’s interesting to read about the fantasies of young girls with respect to their blossoming sexuality, such as the ones presented in this article. To be sure, acknowledging that children may have a sexuality and that it is often complex is not synonymous with advocating its expression, certainly not with adults. But somehow our culture has arrived at this simple perspective that any intersection of childhood and sex is automatically abuse. It becomes very difficult, then, for artists like Buttò to present a full and honest depiction of childhood, or even of adult sexuality, which is usually rooted in childhood. That picture is left incomplete.

Saturno Buttò – Solange – Salomé (2005)

Danaë is a figure from Greek mythology. Prophecy said that she would bear a son who would kill his grandfather, Danaë’s father, King Acrisius. In order to prevent this from happening, Acrisius locked his daughter in a towering structure without doors or windows, the only entrance being through an open skylight. But naturally, Zeus, being taken with the girl’s beauty, comes to her as a golden rain (no golden shower jokes here, please) and impregnates her, and eventually the prophecy is fulfilled. A frequent subject of classical artists, images of Danaë often include Eros, the love god, who of course is usually represented as a small boy. In Buttò’s piece, it is a little girl  who stands in for Cupid, catching the raindrops in a chalice.

Saturno Buttò – Danaë (2005)

Solange was a frequent model for Buttò throughout 2006. In one we see her as a young saint. In the next, she wears a demonic mask. In the third, she is something between an angel and a demon, a creature which has taken on aspects of both. We can see, faintly, the outline of a uterus. This image can almost be viewed as a throwback (or perhaps a tribute) to the works of the Symbolist painters, for whom woman was both virgin and whore. Only, here the girl is too young to be a whore. The idea is that, beneath her seemingly innocent and childish facade, there lurks a creature on the precipice of sexual flowering. We can see her hips beginning to widen, to take their womanly shape. This is one of the most honest depictions of a preadolescent girl in contemporary art.

Saturno Buttò – Solange (2006)

Saturno Buttò – Solange Mask (2006)

Saturno Buttò – L’età dell’oro (2006)

Solange at the easel. We can almost picture her doing a self-portrait as she examines her own nude body in a mirror positioned somewhere to the left of the picture frame.

Saturno Buttò – Solange al Cavalletto (2007)

And here the girl is about to dig into a blood-red birthday cake. I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but I count only nine candles on the cake while the girl is clearly well past nine years—I estimate her age to be between twelve and fourteen here. Intentional or not, I think it hints at every parents’ fear that their child will blossom sexually well before their time. The black-streaked gray Elizabethan wig along with the freakishly organic chair and Buttò’s usual bright red palette gives this image a sort of Bride of Frankenstein feel.

Saturno Buttò – Birthday Party (2007)

Salomé again, even darker and more surreal than the last one. The child rubbing the bristles of the brush against her torso unconsciously echoes a similar scene in the stop-motion animated video for Prison Sex by the rock band Tool. Both the song and the video are about incestuous sexual abuse.

Saturno Buttò – Salomé (2007)

Buttò’s take on a Tarot card: The Star. It’s unfortunate he didn’t do the rest of them. I really would love to own this Tarot deck!

Saturno Buttò – La stella II (2010)

Saturno Buttò – Lola (2011)

Saturno Buttò – Lisa + Alice (drawing) (2014)

Saturno Buttò – Lisa + Alice (2015)