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.
I propose a motion:
To elucidate the principle
Of absolute pleasure;
You may demur and say,
Well, that it is incompatible
With the fundamental nature
Of ultimate reality,
Or at least suggest
Tabling an amendment.
But just give me a night,
To capture a moment
An imitation of eternity,
To turn you on—To turn you out:
Upside down, round and round,
Within 360 seconds
I would take you
Beyond the Seventh Heaven,
Transport you higher still
To the abyss of the Empyrean,
That realm of fire
That burns deep inside
Between your spreading thighs,
I will accept the invitation
Of your parted lips
And swollen nipples:
Then pause— —
— — just for a while,
Not longer than a series
Of hammering heartbeats,
Because I’m cruel like that
And I want to be sure,
That you want me
As much as I need you,
So that when we
Are finally indivisible,
And I have seeded you
With the light of supernovas
And the unbearable heat
Of a million blazing suns
You come —
— not with a scream
But with the softest
And most heartrending of sighs
For after such pleasures,
There will be no sequels
And no tomorrows
Of such agonising intensity.
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.
In 1946 Marjorie Cameron had re-located to Pasadena, California after serving with the US Navy during WWII. While waiting in line at the unemployment office she met an old acquaintance who suggested that she had to visit ‘The Parsonage’, the huge house of a ‘mad scientist’, Jack Parsons.
She took her friend up on the offer and went to ‘The Parsonage’. What she didn’t know was that ‘The Parsonage’ was the headquarters of the Agape Lodge, a branch of Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis, and its leader, the ‘mad scientist’ and rocket propulsion engineer Jack Parsons had been engaged in the Babalon Working with science fiction writer (and later founder of Scientology) L.Ron Hubbard for the previous weeks. The Babalon Working was based on the sex magic theories of Crowley and was an attempt to conjure up an incarnation of the archetypal feminine principle named Babalon or The Scarlet Woman.
Cameron was a flame haired beauty and they immediately fell in love, holing up in Parsons bedroom for two weeks. Parsons declared that the working had been a success, and proceeded onto the next stage, which was to conceive a Moonchild with the Scarlet Woman, while L.Ron Hubbard stayed on to record the effects the sex magic was having on the astral plane.
Although they never had a Moonchild, they married in 1946 and Parsons introduced her to Thelema, Crowley’s ‘New Religion’. At Parsons urging she went to England in 1947 to visit Crowley but he had already died in a Hastings boarding house with less than a pound to his name before she arrived. Parsons would die in a laboratory accident in 1952.
Cameron was very much at the centre of the L.A occult and avant-garde scenes for the rest of her life. She appeared in Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration Of the Pleasure Dome, as the The Scarlet Woman (unsurprisingly) and Kali, and Curtis Harrington’s The Wormwood Star. She was also a talented artist, as the above and below illustrations demonstrate.
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.
On James Joyce’s 40th birthday, February 2nd 1922, the Paris based American owner of Shakespeare and Company Sylvia Beach published Joyce’s controversial novel Ulysses, excerpts of which had already been the subject of obscenity trials in the United States. It was immediately banned in both the US and the UK, a ban that was to remain in force for over a decade. However in France, where the book was printed and published, Ulysses was freely available as the French authorities had decided that they couldn’t possibly rule on the possible obscenity and artistic merits of a book in a foreign language.
Jack Kahane, born into a wealthy industrialist family of Jewish origin in Manchester, England and living in Paris with his French wife saw a business opportunity. Kahane was himself a novelist of mildly racy lightweight novels, however he had bigger ambitions and so he founded the Obelisk Press (with a suitably phallic logo).The business model was simple; he would buy out the rights of a novel that was encountering legal difficulties at a bargain basement price and then issue his own edition, with half the cover emblazoned with a BANNED IN…thus ensuring healthy sales from the prurient and/or curious travellers passing through Paris. Mixed in with the heavyweight avant-garde novels that included works by Cyril Connolly, Lawrence Durrell, Anais Nin and re-issues of the D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Radclyffe Hall’s early lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness were novels of a much more dubious literary pedigree, in other words pornography. Kahane’s greatest succes de scandale however was undoubtedly the publication in 1934 of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, with its bold language and sexually explicit descriptions.
Kahane whose health was ruined by his experiences in WWI died on the day that WWII was declared. His son Maurice stayed in Paris and changed his name from the Jewish Kahane to his mother’s maiden name Girodias and took over the family business of publishing DBs (dirty books). It is not sure how he survived the war in occupied Paris, though it was probably a combination of his wily charm and his instincts as a born survivor, instincts that there were to serve him well in his eventful and strife-filled life.
After the war Girodias expanded operations of the Obelisk Press, however the publication of Henry Miller’s Sexus set off a storm of outrage in France that resulted in obscenity trials and imprisonment. Although he managed to get out of jail Girodias was bankrupt and he had to surrender control of Obelisk. This setback, however, only spurred Girodias on and soon he was launching a new venture entitled Olympia Press, so-called because of its similarity to the name of his father’s Obelisk Press and the famous Manet painting of 1863 (see above) of a courtesan whose bold stare confronts the viewer that caused such a sensation on its first showing.
After a particularly cold and difficult winter Girodias came across a group of hungry British and American expatriates writers for the literary review Merlin. He suggested that the best way for them to earn a crust was to write DBs (under preposterous pseudoymns) for his new series the Traveller’s Companion. The group included the brilliant Scottish writer and later Situationist Alexander Trocchi, John Stevenson, Iris Owens and Christopher Logue. Girodias would pay $500 upfront and a further $300 if the title was reprinted. There was no question of the author getting royalties.
Following in the tradition established by his father Girodias also published avant-garde fiction. As well as works by Henry Miller he published Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, William Burrough’s The Naked Lunch, Pauline Reage’s (pseudonym of Sadean scholar Jean Paulhan’s lover Anne Desclos) The Story of O which is undoubtedly the classic text of sado-masochism, Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s erotic romp Candy, Jean De Berg’s (a pseudoymn of Catherine Robbe-Grillet, wife of the founder of the nouvelle roman Alain Robbe-Grillet) The Image. The OlympiaPressalso commissioned the first English translations of De Sade’ s 120 Days in Sodom and Philosophy in the Boudoir.
Unsurprisingly, given the incendiary, explicit and subversive nature of the work published and Girodias’s unfortunate habit of failing to pay his authors, resulted in numerous, ruinous legal difficulties. He was involved in protracted disputes with Nabokov, Terry Southern and the author of The Ginger Man, J.P Donleavy who eventually brought the Olympia Press after a twenty year legal battle in a supposedly closed auction. The collusion of the French, British and American authorities led to his prosecution in 1964 for publishing The Story of O that led to a year in prison, a $20,000 fine and a ban from publishing for twenty years, the most severe penalty ever imposed in France.
After a brief spell as a nightclub owner he moved operations to New York where he holed up in the Chelsea Hotel (where else) and published Valerie Solanas radical feminist pamphlet the S.C.U.M Manifesto. Solanas became convinced that Girodias and Warhol were in a plot together to screw her out of money and on the day she shot Warhol she first appeared at the Chelsea Hotel intending to shot Girodias, but as he was out she then went in search of Warhol (this is at least Girodias’s account, however as a natural self-promoter and consummate con-man it is not necessarily to be believed).
Girodias was 71 when he suffered a heart attack while giving an interview for Jewish Community Radio in Paris, resulting in Girodias dying on air. Although Girodias undoubtedly was a deeply flawed and somewhat unscrupulous individual, he published books no other publisher would even look at and he dared to take on the courts and the censors. Girodias, carrying on the work of his father changed the cultural landscape of the mid-twentieth century inexorably.
Voluptuaries of all ages, of every sex, it is to you only that I offer this work; nourish yourselves upon its principles: they favour your passions, whereof coldly insipid moralists put you in fear, are naught but the means Nature employs to bring man to the ends she prescribes to him; hearken only to these delicious Promptings, for no voice save that of the passions can conduct you to happiness.
Lewd women, let the voluptuous Saint-Ange be your model; after her example, be heedless of all that contradicts pleasure’s divine laws, by which all her life she was enchained.
You young maidens, too long constrained by a fanciful Virtue’s absurd and dangerous bonds and by those of a disgusting religion, imitate the fiery Eugenie; be as quick as she to destroy, to spurn all those ridiculous precepts inculcated in you by imbecile parents.
And you, amiable debauchees, you who since youth have known no limits but those of your desires and who have been governed by your caprices alone, study the cynical Dolmance, proceed like him and go as far as he if you too would travel the length of those flowered ways your lechery prepares for you; in Dolmance’s academy be at last convinced it is only by exploring and enlarging the sphere of his tastes and whims, it is only by sacrificing everything to senses pleasure that this individual, who never asked to be cast into this universe of woe, that this poor creature who goes under the name of Man, may be able to sow a smattering of roses atop the thorny path of life.
Marquis De Sade-Philosophy in the Boudoir 1795
I have included the above dedication to Philosophy in the Boudoir in full (see The Moment for further information concerning the libertine tradition that it is the culmination of) to give a taste of the style and concerns of the Divine Marquis (see Citizen Sade,Yet Another Effort, and The Passionate Philosopher)As the title suggests, Philosophy in the Boudoir features a lot of sex and philosophical conversation yet it remains the most accessible of his major works, with very little physical cruelty (well, at least until the shocking, Grand Guignol ending) and contains many examples of fine, though somewhat, black humour. However it is the Marquis De Sade, so it is not for the squeamish as the language is frequently coarse and crude, while it contains vivid descriptions of sexual practises that are still shocking today, over 220 years after its initial publication.
Philosophy in the Boudoir describes in seven dialogues, the sexual and very unsentimental education of Eugenie (as critics have noted, the very name is chosen with care) over two days by a group of libertines: Madame De Saint-Ange (though they is nothing remotely saintly or angelic about her) whose boudoir is the setting of the piece, Saint-Ange’s younger brother Le Chevalier (who is involved in an incestuous relationship with his sister) and the archetypal libertine Dolmance., who is often thought to be somewhat of a self portrait of the Marquis himself.
All the characters, as is often the case in De Sade, are bisexual by principle. Dolmance provides most of the philosophy, stating that religion, morality, modesty and compassion are all absurd notions that stand in the way of the ultimate and only goal of human existence: pleasure. Saint-Ange and Dolmance further elaborates to Eugenie that it is impossible to feel true pleasure without pain. Sex without pain is like food without taste for De Sade.
Eugenie proves to be a quick and enthusiastic learner. In the middle of the fifth dialogue all the characters take a break to listen to Dolmance read out a pamphlet he found in the street, the famous Yet Another Effort, Frenchman, If You Would Become Republicans, which is a distillation of De Sade’s philosophy and hopes for Revolutionary France. De Sade devotes a lot of time to beseeching the Republic, now that it has deposed of the tyrant on the throne to banish forever the worship of God. Only then can they truly become Republicans. Once the dead hand of religion has been lifted, then morality surely has to follow. De Sade argues that theft should be applauded as private property is a source of evil. Prostitution will be encouraged and adultery by both sexes is permitted. There should be no law against homosexuality as it both natural and normal. The death penalty must be abolished. Basically De Sade upends every moral precept of the age and declares the less laws a State has, the better. He then goes on to warn that if these innovations are not followed then France will relapse and become a monarchical society again (he was right on this point).
After this lengthy discourse, the narrative resumes towards its jaw dropping denouement, and the reader is left to ponder the radical and horrific nature of De Sade’s thought. I will leave the last word to the man himself, who, for all his many faults and inconsistencies, possessed a lucid self-awareness.
“Either kill me or take me as I am, because I’ll be damned if I ever change.”