I s there any form of art that quickens the senses with such immediacy as the erotic? Or that exposes the self as starkly in its most covert appetites? When you observe the evocation of desire, crystallised in the curve of a thigh or an ecstasy of tangled limbs, a fine thread of sensuality is spun between artist and art lover.
The pang of yearning can feel so sharp, so freshly minted, that centuries and whole millennia collapse as the viewer is transported by lust’s flame to the eternal present. Indeed, to gaze upon Gustav Klimt’s sketch of Lovers Lying Seen From the Right is to slip inside the bedroom and inhale the sweet civet stench of sexual rapture. The most intimate of encounters is brought centre screen, making us all complicit in the drama. Every work in Sotheby’s second Erotic sale acts as a time capsule, speeding us to the moment when longing first arose.
If there’s a heart-stopping immediacy to each individual image, the composite artworks form nothing less than a history of human sexuality in all its slippery ambiguities. A backwards-forwards dance of carnal expression, frustration, liberation, prurience and censorship. In the 21st century it’s hard not to dwell upon our own sexual mores: the anxiety over gender and power dynamics that underlies so many erotic encounters.
Paul McCarthy’s filth-encrusted doll, Dirty Dotty, with her exposed breast, penis and defiant, jaunty hands on hip, seems an apt symbol of our age’s ceaseless angsting about who we are and what might be acceptable to claim for ourselves. We live in a time of unparalleled sexual freedom in the western world, yet mistrust what we’ve unleashed. Transgression can be pleasurable, but invites the danger of exploitation.
What’s striking to the modern art lover is how far we’ve travelled from the erotic certainties of the first issue of Playboy (1953) – now a road map to the lost kingdom of the post-war libertine. Marilyn Monroe was the magazine’s first cover girl and a breathy editorial declared, “She is natural sex personified.” The subtext was clear: sex itself is natural. A pent-up public still recovering from austerity measures was gradually embracing Alfred Kinsey’s ground-breaking reports into sexual behaviour in the human male and female: lust was universal, experimentation normal, a significant proportion of the population was gay and women could and did experience orgasms.
The comparative innocence of that first Playboy makes a fascinating contrast to the later reputed excesses of Hefner’s bunny mansion – which would appear to have more in common with the exuberant brothel couplings depicted on a 1st Century AD fragment of Roman terracotta. Sexual expression is reliably cyclical down the ages: periods of licentiousness are followed by ones of restraint.
So it seems only apt that the image of Eve loomed large over this sale, with the tantalising contradictions she brings in her wake: helpmate, spare rib, matriarch and temptress, catalyst of our exile from Eden. The erotic radical, that chose sex and shame in preference to enforced blamelessness. To contemporary, secular society Eve represents the constant attempts by authoritarian regimes to curb female sexuality. It’s a welcome emancipation that in this sale she was represented by two of our era’s most forceful beauties.
The portrait of Nastassja Kinski draped around by a serpent by Richard Avedon is so iconic it feels like the backdrop to my teens. No self-respecting male existentialist of the 1980s was without a reproduction of the image and most women I knew aspired to her sphinx-like poise. Rankin’s And God Created Eva is more sculptural and defiant. Eva Herzigová wears the serpent like a superhero’s cloak, while its head points straight at the shadowed outline of her vulva. Sex has not rendered her supine; it has made her invincible.
Both photographs have the hallmark of intimate collaborations; the modern muse controls her own image and erotic projection. This is never more evident than in images of Kate Moss, who brings a fresh facet of her myriad self to each project. Chris Levine’s lenticular print She’s Light has a dreamy, sub-aquatic quality: Moss is half-mermaid, half early Roxy Music album cover. The edgy Croydon waif has vanished entirely. But then female autonomy was the enduring theme of this sale, found where you least expected it.
Take Jack Vettriano’s noir canvas Scarlett Ribbons. The silky restraints don’t indicate submission; instead, like the raw red gobbets of meat that lure hawks from the sky, they’re the snare offered by a more cunning predator. Equally powerful are Francis Picabia’s stylised homages to the nude pin-ups in French glamour mags of the 1940s. His bathing beauties are detached provocateurs, taunting the hapless male onlooker.
But the most powerful image of female provocation in the sale is almost certainly the rendition of Elizabeth Trentham, Viscountess Cullen, as Venus, attributed to Sir Peter Lely and his Studio. The painting subverts every assumption of 17th century English portraiture. It’s exceptional to view a nude this brazen, without a scrap of cloth to protect her modesty (as there is in Lely’s portrait of Nell Gwyn as Venus), but unprecedented to see a naked study of a British noblewoman of this era. Since the Viscountess was an heiress in her own right, it seems probable she commissioned the work for her own erotic ends and delighted in such wanton transgression.
It’s fascinating to contrast Trentham’s sultry goddess with the decorous, love-struck version in Jacapo Amigoni’s epic Venus and Adonis, executed a century later. Amigoni’s Venus is a blushing study of romantic entreaty, while Trentham’s haughty immortal surrenders to nobody. The unabashed triumph of physical allure is the signature message of this sale and nowhere more apparent than in the realm of sculpture. The undulating lustre of Francesco Barzaghi’s marble Phryné is as ravishing to the modern eye as the 19th century spectator’s. Yet the courtesan’s classical perfection also evokes the ancient Greek world – a time when myth and history merge.
Phryné was put on trial for impiety, but when the court was on the point of declaring her guilty her defending counsel (and lover) Hypereides pulled away her gown, revealing a physique so perfect the jury were stunned into dismissing all charges. Barzaghi’s statue recreates the coup de théâtre and dazzles the viewer into instant submission. It’s hard not to recall the story of Pygmalion as you ponder the exemplars of physical splendour captured by sculptors down the centuries.
The unabashed triumph of physical allure is the signature message of this sale and nowhere more apparent than in the realm of sculpture. The undulating lustre of Francesco Barzaghi’s marble Phryné is as ravishing to the modern eye as the 19th century spectator’s. Yet the courtesan’s classical perfection also evokes the ancient Greek world – a time when myth and history merge. Phryné was put on trial for impiety, but when the court was on the point of declaring her guilty her defending counsel (and lover) Hypereides pulled away her gown, revealing a physique so perfect the jury were stunned into dismissing all charges. Barzaghi’s statue recreates the coup de théâtre and dazzles the viewer into instant submission. It’s hard not to recall the story of Pygmalion as you ponder the exemplars of physical splendour captured by sculptors down the centuries.
It seems natural master craftsmen would fall in love with their creations, sighing the raw minerals into life. That sense of alchemy haunts Frederic Leighton’s softly burnished masterwork, The Sluggard. The youth’s languid stretch, with jutting hips and tilted hips, is tantalisingly true to life; lazy provocation animates his every gesture. The subliminal message: beauty has the capacity to make slaves of us all. No wonder Leighton’s companion piece in the Tate Collection is An Athlete Wrestling with a Python. The struggle against temptation is near constant – unless we simply capitulate to those sinuous, enfolding coils.
What you see in such complex art narratives is Eros’s triumph over the banality of pornography. A true work of the sexual imagination comes from the core of the artist: it functions on multiple levels and seduces its audience in diverse ways, piquing our curiosity and ensnaring us as surely as Scheherazade's story telling. Just consider the juxtaposition in this sale of two very different depictions of the Emperor Hadrian’s lover Antinous.
The Italian bust in white marble is a magnificent homage to the statues of antiquity, while Robert Mapplethorpe’s modern take on the imperial paramour is altogether more puckish. The photographer places a spot-lit statue of the second century Antinous amidst folds of heavy drapes, as if anticipating the curtain that must fall on his doomed splendour.
It’s all too easy to understand Mapplethorpe’s mordant humour. Gay lovers have long been stalked by the spectre of prejudice, prosecution or downfall. Even in Hadrian’s age, homosexuality was only acceptable if one partner was a youth and many believe Antinous was murdered to spare the middle-aged Emperor’s blushes as the youth approached his 20th birthday. Yet the most satisfactory eroticisation of the male physique often arises from the work of gay artists, expressing appetites that could not always be articulated in public.
The portfolio of erotic sketches by Keith Vaughan, composed before the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 (which decriminalised private expression of homosexual acts), are almost painful in their unspoken plea to live out verboten fantasies. These cocky studs with jutting buttocks and rock-hard erections are the male counterparts to Francis Picabia’s sun-drenched bathers: mid-20th century versions of Olympia’s gods and goddesses, who demonstrate the sway movies and magazines hold over our desires.
So many serious seductions were offered in the sale that it was a relief to stumble across the more comedic ones, reminding you of Bette Davis’s declaration, “Sex is God’s joke on human beings.” Picasso’s Trois Nus Assis is a deft, droll look at three off-duty graces gossiping, heedless of the effect their breasts and pudenda will have on passing interlopers. It’s refreshing to see such a macho artist equate vivacity with sexuality. But for a first class visual gag you turn to Mel Ramos’s H. Upmann sculpture, where a smirking, naked pin-up straddles a giant cigar. She gives the lie to the apocryphal quote attributed to Sigmund Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” In Ramos’s world the phallic symbolism is harder to dismiss.
But then being teased is an integral part of Eros’s tango. More questions are raised than answered by the artworks in Passion & Desire. What has provoked the knowing smile lurking at the corner of Max Klinger’s Young Woman on a Divan? Is it simply mischievous satisfaction that the angle displays the enticing cleft of her vulva? I’ve long suspected filling in elisions with our impudent imagination is what gives erotic art its enduring allure.
There’s no tale of passion so unique we won’t override it with our own desires, no myth of love so complete we can’t infiltrate a personal narrative. Erotic art offers every willing aficionado the theatre of seduction at its most involving.
We are currently accepting consignments for Erotic: Passion & Desire Online auction, 5-12 February 2019.
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