400 Years of Exceptional Erotic Art

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Launch Slideshow

The Erotic: Passion and Desire sale in London on 15 February takes the viewer on a journey through centuries of exceptional works with the power to compel, shock and seduce. Rowan Pelling, Telegraph columnist and editor of The Amorist, has once again written the catalogue introduction for the auction and here selects 19 of her highlights from the sale.

Erotic: Passion & Desire
15 February 2018 | London

400 Years of Exceptional Erotic Art

  • Francesco Barzaghi, Phryne, 1868. Estimate £400,000-600,000.
    This ravishing sculpture captures all the erotic contradictions of the era in which she was created (1868) and also of the ancient Greek age in which the courtesan Phryne’s myth was born. On the one hand the infamous beauty protests her modesty with a hand fluttering over her mons Veneris; yet her other arm is stretched over her head, all the better to reveal the perfection of her breasts. The historical background to the work is also gripping. Phryne was charged with impiety and summoned to court, where the orator Hypereides (who happened to be one of her lovers) defended her. At the key moment of the case he suddenly tugged Phryne’s robe from her shoulders, revealing her dazzling physique. The jury were so dazzled they acquitted her – as do we.

  • Attributed to Sir Peter Lely and Studio, Portrait of Elizabeth Trentham, Viscountess Cullen, as Venus, circa 17th century.
    Estimate £80,000-120,000.
    This is a truly remarkable portrait . The subject and composition are ravishing in their own right, but it’s unprecedented to see a noblewoman of the Restoration period sprawled naked on a couch. That’s the sort of thing you might expect of Nell Gwyn, but not a viscountess. Furthermore, Elizabeth Trentham is gazing at the viewer with the most coolly lascivious of expressions, as if she can calculate your every thought and desire. She draws aside a curtain, daring you to look at a Palladian mansion, but knowing your eyes are fixed on her alabaster skin. Many art historians declare that Manet’s Olympia was the first nude to stare directly at the art lover, but two centuries previous to that work Lely executed an equally bold masterpiece.

  • Chris Levine, She's Light (Laser 3), 2013. Estimate £60,000-80,000.
    This portrait of Kate Moss has the same luscious glam-rock vibe of my favourite Roxy Music album covers – think Jerry Hall on the front cover of 1975’s Siren crawling naked across rocks by the sea like some strange amphibious creature, or the two weirdly luminescent beauties on Country Life. There’s an otherworldly quality to the image, as if it was shot under the waves and Moss was half-mermaid. I can’t help applauding for the hundredth time Moss’s chameleon talent for reinvention: there’s always a new facet to her allure.

  • Emile-François Chambon, Les Deux Amies Au Chat - Recto Scène Religieuse – Verso, 1927. Estimate £25,000-35,000.
    The Swiss artist was only 22 when he painted this canvas and it resonates with a young man’s craving to better understand the fantastical secrets of the female bedchamber. There’s a distinct echo of his fellow countryman and predecessor Henri Fuseli’s bedroom dreamscapes (the elaborate braids and jewels also bring Fuseli to mind). There’s a superficial softness to the tableau, which owes much to the drapes and palette, but the more you look the more sinister the painting appears. As so often with Chambon’s work, a cat becomes a sort of witch’s familiar and in this case a beady-eyed parrot too. Are the young women friends, or sexual intimates? Nothing is clear in this provocative, alluring tableau .

  • Gustav Klimt, Freundinnen (Girlfriends), 1913.
    Estimate £50,000-70,000.
    I can’t resist Klimt’s erotic sketches. There’s such resonant sensuality in the swift, driven, subtle economy of his line that somehow I prefer these works to Klimt’s ornate canvasses. You can feel the obsessive within him, making one version, then another, discarding them both, trying again and again to catch that perfect snatched moment of intimacy. And these two lovers , tenderly absorbed in one another, are intimacy incarnate.

  • Richard Avedon, Nastassja Kinski And The Serpent, Los Angeles, California, 1981. Estimate £50,000-70,000.
    This photograph pretty much formed the backdrop to my teenage years. Every art house cinema loving youth of my generation had a cherished copy and lusted after Kinski. No other photo was so copied or satirised – there is even a Lego version. I was in awe of the actress’s sangfroid in the photo, considering the 19-year-old was draped with a vast sinuous symbol of sin and wanton desire. 

  • Pavel Tchelitchew, Erotic Scene, 1941. Estimate £2,000-3,000.
    It’s curious that an ink sketch that’s so explicit can also have a genuine sweetness in its composition. The grouping took me to the term ‘daisy-chain’, which in everyday use signifies a child’s garland of daisies, but can also be used on the gay scene for a group of men interlinked in sexual pleasure. The cartoon-like quality of the illustration adds to the sense of Bacchanalian delight – which becomes all the more admirable when you realise it was composed at a time when such activities were verboten.

  • Robert Mapplethorpe, Eric, 1980.
    Estimate £7,000-10,000.
    I’d love to own a Mapplethorpe print . They’re such technically brilliant photographs; the depth and light so beautifully judged. On top of that, they’re such unabashed paeans to the glories of the male physique. It is far rarer to see the male physique eroticised in this way in our public galleries – but such a relief when it is.

  • Albert Pénot, La Femme Chauve-Souris, circa 1890.
    Estimate £18,000-25,000.
    There’s a touch of Henry Fuseli’s Nightmare in this arrestingly gothic siren descending from the air on bat’s wings. And deep down, doesn’t every man fear there’s something of the succubus in most women? That they will come by night and steal the essence of his virility. I love the way her hands are curved like the claws of a predator about to leap. Furthermore this highly idiosyncratic bat-woman was painted decades before illustrator Bob Kane dreamt up the caped crusader.

  • Man Ray, Mr & Mrs Woodman, circa 1928.
    Estimate £30,000-50,000.
    It’s hard to resist the puckish humour of the Surrealists; the sense a whole group of artistic collaborators are not only trying their hardest to create provocative art, but to make one another laugh. I love their appropriation of everyday objects and their swift transformation into something unexpected. Who ever imagined that wooden artists’ mannequins could be so mischievous?

  • Joé Descomps, A French Jewelled Parcel-Gilt Silver Cup, Paris, circa 1904.
    Estimate £10,000-15,000.
    This ornate chalice feels like it has come straight from the pages of an erotic fairy tale. The sort of cup Morgan le Fay might have handed to a knight before relieving him of his armour. There’s an artisanal boast in such an excess of elaborate detail: the boisterous relief of satyrs and nymphs and then the elegant cranes supporting all that bawdiness with their beaks. I suspect many people will share my wish to drink deep of this vessel.

  • Max Klinger, Young Woman On A Divan, circa 1880-85.
    Estimate £60,000-80,000.
    What an arresting sketch this is; brilliant on a technical level (all those different planes of the subject’s body, sunk amidst cushions that look like hills) and extraordinarily provocative. Klinger believed drawing allowed the imagination more freedom of expression than painting and there’s definitely something surreal in his forceful lines and delicate cross-hatching. Above all, I love the young woman’s skittish expression, impatient kicking foot and un-trussed state. The corset is just seconds away from slipping off entirely. And then there’s the fact that your eye is slowly, inexorably drawn down from the model’s knowing eyes to the soft curls of her pubic hair. This strikes me as being very much a pre-coital portrait. She’s teasing the artist into neglecting his endeavours.

  • Jean Decoen, Le Baiser (The Kiss), 1914.
    Estimate 80,000-120,000.
    Much as I worship Rodin’s The Kiss, I cannot help but feel Decoen’s version of lip-locked rapture is even more seductive. The lovers are more closely interlocked in this interpretation (far more flesh is touching) and the woman is halfway to reclining – there’s no doubt where the embrace will end. There’s something cinematic in the embrace’s dramatic intensity: the sculpture seems to anticipate the endless celluloid smooching of Rudolph Valentino and his leading ladies.

  • © Succession Picasso/DACS 2018
    Pablo Picasso, Homme et Femme Nus, 1971.
    Estimate £250,000-350,000.
    This ink and pencil sketch represents the maestro at his most bacchanalian. I love the goaty lewdness of the satyr-like man and the all-conquering genitalia of the woman. Somehow your eye is always drawn back to the enthralling, velvety aperture of her vulva.

  • Marlene Dumas, Kissing, 1994. Estimate £40,000-60,000.
    There’s a smudgy, blurred immediacy to these ink washes , which perfectly conveys the liquid urgency of erotic entanglement. Sex when viewed close up is rarely picturesque or tidy: it is a mess of intertwined limbs, hungry mouths and a desire to consume your sexual partner. In Dumas’s work it’s often hard for the viewer to tell if they’re looking at an act of love, or something more animalistic or, indeed, transactional. It’s intimate and impersonal at the same time.

  • Henri Matisse, Nu, 1928. Estimate £60,000-80,000.
    I often slightly prefer artists’ sketches to their finished work, especially when it comes to the erotic. Matisse’s swift lines are a masterpiece of perfect form; they capture the softly-sprawled moment of abstraction that is every woman’s prerogative in the boudoir. I love the fleshy expanse of the model’s thighs and the way her back is arched over a pillow in a semblance of sexual ecstasy. If I owned the work I would call her ‘the day-dreamer’.

  • Jacques Majorelle, La Belle Zohra, 1955. Estimate £80,000-120,000.
    I have rarely seen a portrait that encapsulates voluptuousness with such erotic authority as this one. Although the model’s reclining pose at first suggests a text-book odalisque there’s an iridescent coppery sheen to her skin and sphinx-like indifference in her expression, that suggests an alchemy – from woman into goddess – inviting adulation. The word Zohra means ‘flower blossom’ and Majorelle works the bloom of purple, gold and red into her burnished skin; she seems to be leaking colour onto the bed sheets.

  • Hans Bellmer, La Poupeé, 1936. Estimate £6,000-8,000.
    No one could claim Bellmer’s sculptures and sketches of broken dolls in a confusion of limbs and genitalia make soothing viewing. These are provocations and sexual nightmares, rather than seductions. But Bellmer’s line is so genuinely and fiercely inimitable that you are drawn into the dark vortex almost against your own will. You enter the artist’s subverted Coppelia world of sexual chaos and transgression. It is hard to know if his work could exist without Sigmund Freud, or if Freud came into existence so we could begin to interpret Hans Bellmer.  

  • Yves Clerc, Origine du Monde, Hommage à Courbet, 2016. Estimate £8,000-12,000.
    I make pilgrimages to the Louvre to gaze at Courbet’s magnificent portrait of a woman’s vulva, so I was bound to love this homage. At first glance you feel you are looking at a cave within some brightly-lit, alien canyon (perhaps a lost scene from the great sci-fi novel Dune), but then you slowly realise this terrain is unmistakably, almost shockingly yonic. Just look at those labial folds! Courbet’s masterpiece reveals the body as intimate landscape, Clerk’s canvas shows landscape transformed into the body’s most intimate aperture. Eroticism aside, this work revels in the jewel-bright exuberance of acrylic and would glorify any wall.

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