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 LesFleurs 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.
Utamaro-Three Beauties of the Present Day
Takashima Ohisa using two mirrors to observe her coiffure night of the Asakusa Marketing Festival
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 TheDream of the Fisherman’s Wifeis 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.
I have concentrated in the Dreams of Desire series on erotic images produced by the various avant-garde movements that followed the great rupture with tradition that was Impressionism, especially the Symbolist, Expressionist and Surrealist movements. However eroticism had long been a staple of Western Art, notably in the Renaissance.
Although Titian’s painting bears the title Venus of Urbino, it is immediately evident that it represents a break from the numerous preceding pictorial versions of the Goddess of Love. This is a Venus that is shown in a domestic scene as opposed to the bucolic countryside, and she has been largely stripped of her standard allegorical and mythological accoutrements. The viewer is presented with a sensual and erotic image of a earthly woman (probably a courtesan); nothing more, nothing less.
Also startling in a painting almost 500 years old is the frankness of the steady gaze of Venus, a frankness that certainly invites comparisons with Manet’s Olympia, a painting that caused such controversy and consternation upon being first exhibited in 1865.
Another arresting erotic image by the master Surrealist photographer, Man Ray. I cannot accurately determine the date it was taken, however as it features his lover Juliet Browner (and later wife, they were married in a dual ceremony with Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning in Beverly Hills in 1946) and Margaret Nieman who was his neighbour in Los Angeles during the early 1940’s, 1942 would seem to be the likeliest year.
Man Ray frequently photographed his lovers in embraces with other women, notably Lee Miller and her room-mate Tanja Ramm (though not the photograph of Lee and Tanja having breakfast in bed, that was taken by Lee’s father) and later, Ady Fidelin with the ultimate Surrealist muse Nusch Eluard.
The totem-like masks were designed by Man Ray himself and certainly add an aura of strangeness and animalistic carnality to the scene. In the early 30’s in Paris, Man Ray had become involved with the Lost Generation American travel writer and occultist William Seabrook and had photographed several of Seabrook’s sadistic mise-en-scene involving masks. Seabrook’s sexual proclivities were also the subject of the extremely unsettling essay by Michel Leiris, The ‘Caput Mortuum’ or the Alchemist’s Wife, published in Georges Bataille magazine Documents.
In 1907 the seventeen year old Egon Schiele met the artist who he idolised and would continue to venerate to his death, Gustav Klimt (see Dreams of Desire 57 (Gustav Klimt), Dreams of Desire 53 (Judith) and The Succubus). Klimt was known to be supportive of inspiring artists, however he recognised the talent inherent in Schiele and he took a particular interest in his protege’s career, generously buying and exchanging his own works with Schiele’s drawings, organising meetings with potential patrons and arranging models to sit for Schiele.
Although Klimt’s influence is evident in Schiele’s early work, he soon found his own distinctive style. The heavily decorative elements of Symbolism, Art Nouveau and Jugendstil are gone and in its place is raw, naked Expressionism. Schiele’s females nudes, often featured in provocative poses are emaciated and sickly looking with a distorted line that renders the figures close to grotesque. It is true that after his marriage in 1915 to Edith Hams that the models are more fully fleshed, however the doll-like appearance of these later studies makes them even more disconcerting.
In 1918 after a brief, tumultuous life which had included being imprisoned for exhibiting erotic drawings and considerable controversy for his use of teenage models (who tended to be juvenile delinquents) Schiele died in the Spanish Influenza outbreak that was gripping Vienna at that time, just three days after his pregnant wife Edith had died and only 8 months after the death of his mentor Gustav Klimt.
Schiele, Egon. 1890ñ1918. ìZwei Freundinnenî, 1915. Gouache und Aquarell ¸ber Bleistift auf Papier, 48 ◊ 32,57 cm. Inv. Nr. 1915ñ933