This painting shows the unresolved forms of a male and female, their individual bodies softened and blurred into one. It is one of Jones’ first explorations of the idea that ‘there are elements of male and female within everybody’s character.’ The ‘intermingling of the sexes’ is a recurring theme in Jones’ work. Other pieces that take up this idea include his print series ‘Concerning Marriages’ (Walker Art Gallery) and ‘Man Woman’ (Tate collection).
Jones was influenced by the writings of Carl Jung (1875 – 1961) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) on gender and creativity. Both implied that the union of male and female qualities, the active and the contemplative, were essential for artistic creativity. ‘Hermaphrodite’ can be read as a metaphorical self-portrait of Jones's own artistic quest. The artist went on to develop his understanding of Jung and Nietzsches’ theories and to use sexual imagery in his work as a direct analogy for the creative act.
The term hermaphrodite was historically used to describe people with ambiguous genitalia or gender. Its origins lie in Greek mythology and the story of Hermaphroditus, a child of the gods Hermes and Aphrodite. Born a male, he was the object of the nymph Salmacis’ affection. Her desire for him was so great that she asked the gods to merge their bodies so they would never be parted. Ovid (born 43 BC) described the fusion of their bodies in his epic poem ‘Metamorphosis’; ‘they were not two, but a two-fold form, so that they could not be called male or female’.
Today the word hermaphrodite is considered misleading and problematic when used to describe people. Instead, the term intersex is used to describe someone whose sex falls between the two expected patterns of male and female.
Allen Jones was born in Southampton. He studied at Hornsey College of Art, 1955-9, then at the Royal College of Art until 1960 when he was expelled for ‘excessive independence’. As a young artist, Jones was at the forefront of British Pop Art but is now best know for his erotic and fetish-like explorations of the female figure.