Sometimes You’re Nothing But Meat: A Deeper Look at the Infamous Piglet Picture of BFP

Thursday 15 September 2011, by Cécile Desbrun

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

When Boys for Pele was released in 1996, this picture by Cindy Palmano featured inside the CD’s booklet made quite an impression and provoked one of the biggest ’scandals’ of Tori’s career. The reaction was even more overwhelmed by the fact that Atlantic Records had the infamous pic made as a giant billboard and placed on Sunset Bld, to the shock of many residents and tourists. Conservative Christian people were of course shocked because the singer ’subverted’ the representation of the Madonna and child portraits while others didn’t necessarily conciously perceived the bitingly religious dimension but felt ill at ease with the picture, judging it erotic in an unhealthy way. So much that in England, the songbook featuring the photo in full page was withdrawn from the bookstores’ shelves.

This reaction is quite revelatory that Tori and Cindy Palmano put their finger on a sensitive point of people’s minds. Most people got it wrong because even though Tori is definitely sexy on this photograph, nothing of a sexual nature between her and the piglet is suggested. Instead, it’s more like she was giving back her sexual and motherly attributes to the bodyless figure of Mother Mary, and there lies all the brilliance of this striking piece of art. Let’s take a deeper look at its composition and dive into art history and the Quattrocento’s Renaissance to see how effective and articulate it is.

Tori’s third solo studio album, Boys for Pele, is a raw, uncompromising and powerful work of music that is now generally considered as one of the most important peaks of her career but provoked radical reactions on its original release. Simply put, people loved it or hated it and Tori was excited by this intensity because she felt that this is what a work of art should do if it has "any meat to it." [1] BFP was pretty much about “a woman who descends, who finds fragments in the unconscious to bring back into the light” [2], and reassess her intimate relationships with men. It’s about a woman not searching external approval from dominating men anymore but trying to find her own fire and passion inside herself. Tori drew heavily on religious, mythological and Jungian symbology and gave a very wild feel to her lyrics by writing them in a surrealist, free-association kind of vein and it is something that is powerfully translated in Cindy Palmano’s artwork for the album. The singer is pictured as a sexy and fierce Southern farmgirl that holds her own with the big boys by standing with a riffle in her hands on a few pics—including the cover shot— in what Tori’s stylist Karen Binns described as a "Gone With the Wind thing [3]" because of the Civil War connotation.

But more importantly, it was much more gothic and baroque than realistic and it created a strong imagery where typical Christian symbols were intertwined with representations of the American myth. Religion is one of the deepest and more intricate fondations of the United States as a self-created country, and it is an issue that clearly is core to Tori’s whole body of work: from her breakthrough album Little Earthquakes to today, she never ceased to question her home country’s relationship to the Christian Church through the prism of her own personal experience as a Methodist minister’s daughter and grand-daughter. She wrote brilliant and powerful songs addressing this subject over the years, but of all the snapshots illustrating her albums, this particular photograph is probably the most effective and thoughtful, embodying the whole problematic of her career. In this sense, it’s not surprising that 15 years later, she still gets questions about it.

The picture, of course, is a Madonna and child portrait and Tori often explained that it was "a Christmas card" for her dad. In her autobiography Piece by Piece, she wrote: "It started with the fact that my dad was really getting on my case; he was asking how I could stray so far away from Christianity and my roots that I couldn’t even do a Christmas song. I told him he would get me to do a Christmas card. And this was it. Maybe it was me saying, ‘I’m going to give all the good Christians something to think about’. People didn’t get that image, because most aren’t raised as intensely Christian as I was. Those who were might have understood that this was a Madonna and child, but one that brought in the non-kosher, the unacceptable, back to the fold." [4]

Tori always criticized the fact that in Christianism, the figures of Mary and Mary Magdalene were divided and became a paradigm inflicted on Occidental women instead of constituting one and the same figure in its double aspect, as it is the case in ancient mythologies, whether it’s the Summerian or Greek ones, for instance. Mary retains only her spirituality while the Magdalene is all about sexuality and there can be no wholeness since the body is considered as dirty and sinful. In the representations of the Virgin, Mary is most often pictured wearing a long blue coat that basically covers every part of her body except her hands and her face. Virtually, it’s like she had no body at all because her spirituality is the only thing that materialises her.

What made the Madonna and child portraits so important in the visual arts for over two thousand years is that it represents an impossibility, a paradox that is core to the figure of Mary: she is a virgin and a mother. As art historian Jean-Marie Pontévia wrote in his article “Vénus et Diane : Les filiations profanes de la figure de la Vierge à l’époque de la Renaissance," [5], such a representation deals with the "unthinkable" and it’s then no wonder that during the Renaissance era, painters made ’profane’ representations of it, giving more and more sexual and motherly attributes to Jesus’ mother, giving her that ’dirty’ B word: a Body. Because, as Pontévia explains, "that Occidental subconscious that tried to manifest itself is what the Virgin Mary represented the ellipse of, it’s the Woman." [6] By not having any clear feminine attributes except the distant softness of her gaze (that most often symbolizes sacredness in its purest form), it’s like those representations denied gender difference.

During the Renaissance era however, painters such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, Botticelli, Andrea Solario and many others made her more earthly: she had voluptuous forms, played with baby Jesus and was in touch with the material world. A lot of paintings even represented her breastfeeding her child. The Galactrophousas of Byzantine period were already breastfeeding their newborn, but the nipple was nowhere to be seen. Renaissance representations were way more explicit in this respect... and not vulgar by any means. In the meantime, representations of Venus abounded in this era, and they kind of supplanted Mother Mary by the way she was pictured in paintings and sculptures. Though naked - her hair or gentle hand often recovering her intimate parts - she was definitely represented as a holy being with divine attributes, her distant gaze being often very similar to the one usually attributed to Jesus’ mother. So there was a real shift between those two figures at this period.

This was a time where artists were finally allowed to claim their own style and make references to preceding art forms to weave it into a personal vision. People began to accept this as true and respectable art instead of only worshipping religious icons approved by the Church. They could see a painting and say, "It’s a Da Vinci" instead of "it’s a Madonna and child." This period is regarded as an important precursor of our current post-modernist era and it is no wonder Cindy Palmano made this photograph for Boys for Pele since Tori’s always had all those various influences she constantly weaves into her work to create both striking and personal sonic representations.

Madonna del Loretto by RaphaelThe Madonna and child portrait is evident in the composition of the photo: Tori’s in a barn, she’s holding a piglet instead of a baby in a very motherly and nurturing way and her distant gaze is representative of the way the Virgin is pictured in those paintings. This soft and distant gaze, that translates a deep feeling of sacredness is all the more ’shocking’ to a lot of people’s sensitivities because her blouse is wide opened, almost revealing her left nipple while she presses the little animal against her breast. The joining of the sacred and profane was nothing new in 1996, but the presence of the animal hit a sensitive cord in people they were most often unable to articulate. I was even shocked by my Dad’s reaction when I showed him the pic. My Dad is not conservative and religious at all, he knows quite a bit about photography, and likes very much provocative visual artists such as Helmut Newton, but he made a frown of discomfort at the sight of the picture then said, barely half-joking, "Well, there has to be a turn on for every taste, but it’s definitely not mine." I couldn’t understand his reaction in the first place: how could he not get it?

Then, after reading iconology and art history books for my master’s essay on David Lynch’s femmes fatales and going through Tori’s quotes about the pic and its ensuing mediatisation, I guess I got it. Beyond the mere fact that the photo references a very sacred religious representation in a provocative way—something that definitely is an important cringe-factor for conservative Christians— what gets most to viewers, I think, is the fact that the human baby was replaced by an animal, and not any kind of animal: one that lives in a farm, enjoys mud baths and is considered dirty and ugly. That pic tells us we are pigs, basically: not divine and pure little things but living beings attached to the earth. And even though a lot of people are not into religion or didn’t have a religious upbringing, our occidental civilisation was deeply influenced, and still is to this day, by religion and its representations.

Most of us have been breastfed by our mother and consider it as a normal and healthy thing, but our vision of what a mother is... it’s not that far from how we consider Mother Mary in a sense. We think of a mother as a pure being that is all about love, but thinking she had her husband kissing her breasts before giving birth, or even that she’ll make love to her man right after breastfeeding her baby, it’s a thought that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. And I even know some men who are deeply uneasy about watching their woman breastfeeding their baby: they can’t tell why, but it just disgusts them and they can’t handle the view.

How Jesus’ mother was turned into a sexless being by organized religion is obviously no stranger to this sort of reaction and Tori often addressed the subject in her songs as well as interviews. About the masturbation reference in "Icicle," where a young Tori touches herself at Easter while thinking about Jesus, she made the following comment to Hot Press in 1994:

“That was my act of defiance, of asserting myself against the oppressive force of religion which has always made women deny their sexuality. The concept is that Jesus Christ, through the Father, Son and Holy Spirit experienced life - the human form. Well, what I find quite inexplicable is that he could suckle at a woman’s breast yet not soil his dinky by having sex! How’s he supposed to experience life at the level of his dick, for Christ’s sake!”

“That’s the Church’s core denial of sexuality, right there, alongside the idea that Mary could give birth without ‘doing it’. It’s absurd. So when I say I want to ‘do it’ with Jesus Christ it’s not just that I want to sexualise Jesus, bring him down to our level, I want to breathe the earth into his lungs. He came from Heaven and we, as women, come from the earth. So it’s the idea of soil beneath the fingers, the notion of, ‘If this blood is sacred, then drink it’. That’s what it’s all about.”

For Tori, breastfeeding this pig was about "nursing the hidden, the shamed part" [7] inside each one of us, which fits the album’s theme of a woman exploring her shadow side. But, more than anything, this picture holds a special significance in the hearts of many fans because reuniting sexuality and spirituality, sacred and profane, has always been one of her greatest commitments, and this infamous shot is a striking example of how she manages to "marry the Marys" (Mary Magdalene and Mother Mary, the Prostitute and the Virgin) within her work and within her own being to embody a complete and balanced woman who owns her own shadow and fire.

The scandal that followed the release of the album amused her and she didn’t have the slightest regret about it: "I took a lot of heat for that photo, I guess, but I didn’t care," she wrote in Piece by Piece. "I was laughing my head off. I knew the power of that image and exactly how it would hit.”

Finally, about the extreme reactions her work provoks, she perfectly nailed it in an interview for the Georgia Straight in July 1996: "In general, there are extreme responses to metaphorical works because there’s so much room for interpretation. You know, I come from a heavy theological background, my father having his doctorate in theology and both his parents being ministers. Christianity is just one of many mythologies—and it is one of the homecoming queens, let’s face it—so you’ll find that within most of us. Whether it’s commercials or Disney or whatever, people use mythology to get you to feel guilty or ashamed or strong or afraid. Because I work from that place, it stirs people’s innate belief systems. Sometimes they hate me for it, because it’s much easier to blame me than admit that they’re a pig!”

Trivia

A lot of people have wondered about the photoshoot and the piglet over the years. Here’s what we know: all photographs from the artwork were taken at Breaux Bridge in Louisiana, where the album was mixed and some of the songs recorded. Piglets were born in the farm where the shoot took place and the one Tori nurses in her arms was 4 days old at the time, and the team named it Pig in reference to the hero of the movie Babe that was released in theatres in 1995.

Tori made the following comments about her experience of posing with the little animal: "Um, that day, the little critter was 4 days old. And he was with me for hours. And was scared, and hungry, and um, just kind of, ah, fell right in on there." (JJJ FM Radio - Australia - February 26, 1996)

Was suckling that pig painful? -D Tufnell, Hull

”There were moments, yeah. It was odd, I’m not really an animal person. I have heard of a woman, a marine biologist, who swam with dolphins and eventually her boyfriend realised she was having a physical relationship with this dolphin. And it wasn’t bestiality or a freak show on the Internet. When I was suckling the pig, I had feelings of wanting to nurture, wanting to be a mom. I wasn’t pregnant at the time of the shoot but I miscarried soon after that.” (Q, January 2004)


[1On the Street, January 1996.

[2Baltimore Sun, January 1996.

[3Piece by Piece, p. 281.

[4Piece by Piece, p. 280.

[5Jean-Marie Pontévia, “Vénus et Diane : Les filiations profanes de la figure de la Vierge à l’époque de la Renaissance“ in La peinture, masque et miroir, Bordeaux, Editions William & Blake Co, 1993, pp. 33-62.

[6Ibid, p. 39.

[7Shift Magazine, April 1996.