A sumptuously shimmering erotic photograph by the one of the greats of 20th Century photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson (previously featured in this series, see Dreams of Desire 50 (The Decisive Moment) of the Argentinian Surrealist painter, illustrator, fashion designer and writer, Leonor Fini. A fiercely independent woman renowned for her unorthodox personal life, Fini is credited with being the first woman artist to paint a male nude.
The School of Fontainebleau was renowned for their use of coded allegory and veiled erotic symbolism, and the most famous painting of the school, Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses soeurs la duchesse de Villars (Gabrielle d’Estrees and one of her sisters the Duchess of Villars) is certainly no exception.
In the foreground we are presented with a view of Gabrielle d’Estrées, the mistress of King Henry IV of France, in a bath with one of her sisters, the Duchess of Villars. Gabrielle is holding in her hand a ring, which some art historians believe is Henry IV’s coronation ring in her left hand, while her sister pinches Gabrielle’s right nipple with her left hand. The two central figures are painted in the usual Mannerist style associated with Fontainebleau, however in the trompe l’oeil background is a Dutch domestic interior with a woman sewing (again with her left hand) besides a fireplace, above which hangs a picture of a naked man, albeit with a piece of red drapery positioned in such a way to preserve decency.
This enigmatic work has been the subject of a number of interpretations. At first glance it does seem to be a very forthright representation of incestuous lesbianism, however the nipple pinch, the ring and the woman sewing what could be a layette for a child would suggest that the painting is more likely a symbolic allusion to Gabrielle’s pregnancy by the King. The repeated emphasis on left-handedness is also very unusual, as it carried entirely negative connotations in this period of history.
The first truly Modernist painting (though change had been in the air for some time), the radical break constituted by Pablo Picasso 1907’s study of a Barcelona brothel, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, led to Cubism and sharply divided critics.
Never before or after did Picasso spend so long on one painting as Les Demoiselles, drawing hundreds of preparatory sketches over a period of nine months. The innovation doesn’t lie with the content; the courtesan had long been a covert subject of Western Art before being explicitly identified as a prostitute by Edouard Manet’s Olympia, to becoming somewhat of a Bohemian cliche by the time of Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1890’s. Picasso’s claim to blazing, revolutionary originality lie in the form. First of all he throws five hundred years of accepted practise out of the window by abolishing perspective, then instead of the traditional curves we have the harsh angular, geometric poses of the women. Picasso signifies his reaching back in time and across continents with the Iberian mask (the figure on the far left) and the African masks (the two figures on the right) which lend a further disconcerting effect to an already confrontational, provocative painting. The bowl of fruit surrounded by the women seems ripe for Freudian interpretation, just one of many that the painting has been subjected to, including formal, feminist and esoteric.
Although at first Picasso only showed the painting to friends and fellow artists in his (quite extensive) immediate circle, it had a galvanising effect. George Braque further developed Cubism as a response to Les Demoiselles and it intensified the rivalry between Picasso and Matisse, who realised that the Spaniard had wrestled the crown of Modern Art from him with this incendiary work, never again to be relinquished. Andre Breton, who for all his flaws had a very keen eye for art (see my series The Surreal World for further information on his collection, Rapa Nui, Papua New Guinea, Haiti and Mexico) recognised in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon the definitive Modernist masterpiece, a harbinger of the violent, revolutionary menace of the unconscious and he arranged for its first publication in Europe in La Révolution surréaliste.
Despite the fact that Surrealism was involved in literature, illustration, painting, film, architecture, philosophy and politics, the area where it achieved its greatest impact and subsequent influence is undoubtedly the field of photography (see Dreams of Desire 2, 3, 21, Angel and many others for examples of Surrealist and Surrealist inspired photography).
This influence can be seen in the nudes of the French photographer Lucian Clergue, who at the age of 21 in 1955 struck up a friendship with Picasso that was to last until the great modern master’s death in 1973. Clergue’s nude photographs often feature the zebra effect which creates a distancing coolness and abstraction to the exposed flesh. The model (or models) are defined by the interplay of light and shadow. In other studies the model is placed in natural surroundings where the body merges into the landscape in the manner of Magritte.
The publication of Les Fleurs Du Mal by Charles Baudelaire in 1857 can rightly be judged as the birth of Modernity. Baudelaire’s innovation wasn’t in style or technique, but in the bold, shocking subject matter, (that would lead to obscenity trials) and its depiction of a sordid, urban milieu. As well as the poems themselves, Baudelaire as a perceptive art critic would have a great influence upon emerging young artists determined to break with convention and tradition, notably Edouard Manet (see Olympia Press: A Brief History of DBs which features his groundbreaking painting Olympia from 1863).
The great realist Gustave Courbet was directly inspired by Baudelaire’s poem Femmes damnees Delphine et Hippolyte (Damned Women Delphine and Hippolyte) from Les Fleurs du mal in his masterful erotic painting Le Sommeil (The Sleepers) from 1866. This provocative depiction of lesbianism with its compelling, and at the time completely new, realism led to a police report and removal for display when first exhibited in 1872. Le Sommeil was not subsequently allowed to be publicly shown until 1988.
1866 was also the year that Courbet completed a commission for his most famous erotic painting L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) with its graphic close up view of a naked woman’s genitals and abdomen. In February 2016 a Parisian court ruled that Facebook may be sued in France for removing the image from users pages.
(This is a revised version of a post that originally appeared here September 2016, in order for to fit in with the Dreams of Desire Series. If you like this post or my many other stories, poems, essays then my collection Motion No. 69 will be available for sale on 30th November 2017.)
The French Revolution had swept away the frivolous excesses of Rococo (see Dreams of Desire 64 (Boucher’s Odalisques) and two competing tendencies dominated French during the first half of the Nineteenth Century: the wild grandiose Romanticism of Delacroix and the somber, stately Neo-Classicism best personified by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.
Ingres painted a number of important erotic paintings including the Valpinçon Bather of 1808, La Grande Odalisque of 1814 and L’Odalisque à l’esclave from 1839, however his most famous painting is The Turkish Bath from 1862-1863, completed when Ingres was 83 years old.
Portraying a group of nude women in a bath at a harem, The Turkish Bath is suffused with a lush hothouse atmosphere that heightens the erotic charge of the painting. Ingres erotic works would have a major impact upon the Modernists including Picasso and Matisse while the Post Modernist German artist Gerhard Richter would base his painting Bathers upon Ingres’s masterpiece.
(Just a reminder to inform you that my book Motion No. 69 is available from November 30th 2017 from Amazon).
During the period when Baroque reigned supreme, overt eroticism all but disappeared from Western Art. It would take the emergence of Rococo, the florid, playful and frankly somewhat sluttish younger French sister of Baroque, to take art back into the boudoir.
Francois Boucher was one of the leading lights of Rococo and enjoyed the patronage of the prime mover of the style, Madame de Pompadour, the Official Chief Mistress of King Louis XV. As well as mythological genres scenes featuring Venus he painted two odalisques stripped of all allegorical trappings, the L’Odalisque Brune from 1745 and the L’Odalisque Blonde from 1752.
France was ongoing a vogue for the mysterious, exotic East during the Ancien Regime. Several libertine novels including Denis Diderot Les bijoux indiscrets (The Indiscreet Jewels) and Crebillon Fils La Sopha (The Sofa) are set in fantasy Oriental lands, partly to give full reign to the imagination but also to disguise the political satire on the luxuriant and decadent Court of Louis XV. Part of the attraction, for men anyway, were the stories of odalisques; mistresses or concubines in a harem.
Boucher’s L’Odalisque Brune from 1745 was reportedly a portrait of Madame Boucher , which led Diderot, Encyclopedist and somewhat risque writer of the above-mentioned Les bijoux indiscrets and La Religieuse (The Nun) to state that Boucher was prostituting his wife. L’Odalisque Blonde is a portrait of the courtesan Marie-Louise O’Murphy. King Louis XV was so taken with this painting that he arranged for Marie-Louise to become a petite maitresse (lesser mistress). At least one of her children was the King’s.
The Meiji Restoration in 1868 opened Japan’s ports again to foreign trade after 200 years of international isolation. Soon Japanese art and artefacts found their way to Paris and London which resulted in a craze known as Japonisme. Ukiyo-e, particularly the works of the masters, Hokusai, Hiroshige and Kitagawa Utamaro, would have a profound effect upon the first of all modern art movements, Impressionism.
Utamaro was renowned for his psychologically astute portraits of courtesans. Employing sophisticated compositional techniques of partial views, striking mannerism and subtle gradients of light and shade, Utamaro was collected by many luminaries of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, notably Degas, Gaugain and Toulouse-Lautrec. The serenity of his female studies were clearly a major influence on the ground-breaking female artist Mary Cassett.
Utamaro, like every ukiyo-e artist produced a large body of shunga. His sensitivity to female beauty combined with the intimacy and tenderness of many of the scenes portrayed rank among the finest examples of erotic art.
Katsushika Hokusai is undoubtedly the most famous ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) artist of the Edo period. Not only was he responsible for the single most famous Japanese artwork, The Great Wave OffKanagawa, his The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife is the most widely known example of shunga (spring pictures), the astounding Japanese erotic art that flourished between the 17th and 19th centuries.
What is striking about ukiyo-e is that every major artist of the period produced shunga, including Eiri, Utamaro, Kuniyoshi, Kunisada and Eisen. Although shunga was subject to periodic censorship by the shogunate, this didn’t seem to affect its widespread popularity among all classes of Japanese society. It was also a highly profitable venture for the artist who could supplement their income for months with a single painting.
Below are examples of Hokusai’s work, including The Great Wave Off Kanagawa as well as some brillitantly executed shunga.
One of the most famous portrayals of the female nude in Western Art, Diego Velázquez’s Venus at her Mirror, more commonly known as the Rokeby Venus, (so-called because it hung in the 19th Century at Rokeby Park, Yorkshire before becoming part of the National Gallery in London permanent collection), is a landmark of erotic art.
As Titian and Rubens were both connected to the Spanish court, it is likely that Velázquez would have been familiar with both Titian’s Venus of Urbino, and Rubens Venus in Front of the Mirror, which are cited as possible sources for the Rokeby Venus, however Velázquez was working in the severely censorious and repressive atmosphere of the Spanish Golden Age, where the Spanish Inquisition monitored art for immorality. Several Spanish Cardinals had called for the destruction of any artwork featuring nudity, but some Spanish courtiers and nobility held private collections of such work. Velázquez position as court painter to King Philip IV enabled him to become the first Spaniard to feature female nudity; it would be 150 years before another Spanish artist, Goya, would again take the risk, in his incomparable La Maja Desnuda.
As in Titian’s painting, Venus is shorn of her traditional mythological trappings, the only indicator that this is a mythological painting is the winged presence of her son, Cupid, who holds the mirror for her rapt self-appraisal. In a departure from previous representations of the Goddess, Venus is a brunette and is noticeably more slender than the fully figured versions of Titian and Rubens (especially Rubens). One of the most controversial features of the painting is the blurred face in the mirror in contrast to the precisely delineated derriere that is the focal point of the composition.
Outside of Spain, Velázquez wasn’t well known until the mid 19th Century, when he was discovered however he would have an important influence upon Modern Art. Manet, Picasso and Bacon are among those who have acknowledged their indebtedness.
The King of Kink, Helmut Newton (see Dreams of Desire 55 (Helmut Newton) knowingly references and updates the Rokeby Venus in one of his coolly fetishistic photographs from the late 70’s/early 80’s.