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
In the 2013 movie La Vie d’Adele-Chapitres 1 & 2 (Blue is the Warmest Colour), a masterful study of love, sexuality but above all else class, there is a particularly telling scene during the party at the beginning of Chapter 2. Invited to sit down in the home she shares with Emma, Adele is asked what she does by Emma’s friends. Her response that she is a teacher barely elicits acknowledgement and soon the conversation has turned to the Austrian artist Egon Schiele who the friend is studying for her thesis. Emma counters that though she likes Schiele she finds him too tortured, too dark and too obscure and she prefers Klimt. Klimt is dismissed by the art historian as ‘florid and decorative’. Adele looks lost and returns to her hostess duties.
Although it could be argued that the above exchange sets Klimt and Schiele in a needless competition when in real life they shared a mentor-pupil relationship (Klimt was 30 years older than Schiele), a close, long lasting friendship, muses (most infamously Wally Neuzil, who went from Klimt to Schiele and then back to Klimt again), and themes, most notably the female nude in overtly erotic situations, their art is markedly contrasting. Schiele gaze is uncompromisingly morbid, rawer and decidedly more edgy. Whereas Klimt, at least in the major paintings, is resplendent with gorgeous semi-abstract decorative motifs borrowed for Byzantine, Greek, Celtic and Egyptian art, leading it to be easily assimilated with bourgeois ideals of beauty. Regardless of this, Klimt’s work is undeniably sexy.
Klimt’s studio was populated day and night by cats and naked models. He never married and was rumoured to have fathered seventeen children on various lovers. His promiscuity resulted in syphilis which undoubtedly coloured his lush, decadent vision. He died in 1918 from complications arising from contracting influenza in the worldwide epidemic of that year that killed up to 50 to 100 million people.
Born into a fading aristocratic dynasty in Cork, Ireland, Bob Carlos Clarke was frequently referred to as ‘Britain’s answer to Helmut Newton’ (see Dreams of Desire 55 (Helmut Newton) for his provocative nude portraits which often featured the subjects wearing rubber and latex and involved in scenes suggestive of sado-masochistic ritual. Along with Newton he is the best exemplifier of what was known disparagingly as ‘porno-chic’.
After an unhappy childhood spent in boarding school in England Clarke had a hard time re-adjusting to 60’s Ireland, as he wryly noted in the introduction to his book Shooting Sex (2002), “The first decade was OK, but later it was no place for a libidinous adolescent, particularly a withdrawn Protestant boy in a land where all the hot talent was Roman Catholic and strictly off-limits” and he moved to England in 1970 where he became a photographer quite by chance. When he discovered that the girl at college whom he had an unbearable crush on was a model he brought a camera so that she could pose for him. It worked and he would later marry the model Sue Frame, however the union didn’t survive Clarke’s constant infidelities.
He would later marry for a second time to another one of his models, Lindsay, with who he had a daughter Scarlett. As well as his overtly sexual photographs Clarke also took extraordinary and voyeuristic documentary style photographs of drunken debutantes balls and images of found objects discovered on the banks of the river Thames.
In 2006 at the age of 56, Clarke, depressed with growing older in a world where the models remained forever 21 and by the emergence of digital photography of which he said made everyone think they were the next Cartier-Bresson (Dreams of Desire 50 (The Decisive Moment) threw himself beneath an oncoming train.
Known as the ‘King of Kink’ and the ’35mm Marquis De Sade’ , Helmut Newton was the most influential fashion photographer of the twentieth century. Famous for his highly stylised black and white photographs of beautiful statuesque women in perverse narrative scenarios, Newton has alternatively been hailed as a true original or vilified as a fetishist who presents the ultimate in the objectification of women.
Born Helmut Neustadter to a wealthy German-Jewish family in Berlin, Newton was an apprentice to the fashion and advertising photographer Yva (see my previous post Yva) from the ages of 16 and 18. Fleeing the worsening situation in 1938 Newton went first to Singapore where he led a playboy lifestyle, before moving to Australia where he served in the Australian Army for 5 years. It was in Australia that he met his wife of 55 years, June, who was also a photographer known as ‘Alice Springs’.
Newton rose to fame in the 1960’s where his photographs frequently appeared in the French Edition of Vogue. The startling fetishtic glamour shots of the seventies are charged with eroticism and a ritualistic, sado-masochist atmosphere. During the 1980’s and 90’s Newton was one of the most in-demand celebrity photographers, anyone who was anyone during that time had a portrait taken by Newton. As Newton was obsessed by glamour, celebrity and decadence (after all he grew up in the Weimar Republic) it was a perfect fit and his photographs define that image conscious era.
Newton died in a car crash after leaving Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles, which served as his winter residence for many years, at the age of 83. It was, as Karl Lagerfeld noted, ‘his last picture, taken by himself.’