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Pissing Figures 1280-2014

Part of ekphrasis
Translated by Jeff Nagy

Jean-Claude Lebensztejn’s history of the urinating figure in art, Pissing Figures 1280–2014, is at once a scholarly inquiry into an important visual motif, and a ribald statement on transgression and limits in works of art in general. Lebensztejn is one of France’s best-kept secrets. A world-class art historian who has lectured and taught at major universities in the United States, his work has remained almost entirely in French, his American audience limited to a small but dedicated group of cognoscenti. 

First introducing the Manneken Pis—the iconic little boy whose stream of urine supplies water to this famous fountain and is also the logo for a Belgian beer company—the author takes the reader through a semi-scatological maze of cultural history. The earliest example is a fresco scene located directly above Cimabue’s Crucifixion from around 1280 at the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, in which Lebensztejn’s careful eye locates an angel behind a pillar who looks like he is about to urinate through a hole in his garment. He continues to navigate expertly through cultural twists and turns, stopping to discuss Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 film Teorema, for example, and Marlene Dumas’s 1996–1997 homage to Rembrandt’s pissing woman. At every moment, Lebensztejn’s prose is lively, his thinking dynamic, and his subject matter entertaining. 

In this short and poignant cultural history, readers not only find the care for detail that has made Lebensztejn into one of the greatest European art historians, but also the rebelliousness that makes him one of the most interesting intellectuals of our time. The first widely distributed book of Lebensztejn’s in English, Pissing Figures 1280–2014 is simultaneously published in France by Éditions Macula.

“A curious journey through art history and one that’s worth the trip.”

– Hrag Varnatnian, Hyperallergic

“The book, in a rangy, fluent translation from Jeff Nagy, is a record of what Lebensztejn calls our ‘diuretic fantasies’?of the lore and lust surrounding urine, sacred and profane.”

– Dan Piepenbring, The New Yorker

“...[Lebensztejn] elegantly reveals how artists have repeatedly used our queasiness in the face of bodily functions to transgress narrow-minded cultural norms.”

– Alexxa Gotthardt, Artsy

“In the book Pissing Figures – an academic volume with an aptly deep-orange cover – art historian Jean-Claude Lebensztejn unpacks the complexities of urination in Western art.”

– Staff, 032c

“amusing, memorable books”

– Jonathon Sturgeon, Artnet

“The books in the series seem designed to slip into your back pocket - slim, spartan, and compact, sporting uniform covers consisting solely of typeface in black or white, with a matching horizontal bar across the top, against a solid color.” 

– Thomas Micchelli, Hyperallergic

More books in this series: ekphrasis