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.
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
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.