Erotic art is often viewed as taboo. But the philosophy of erotica plays an important role in portraying, capturing, and accepting humanity.
While the 20th and 21st century saw an attempted suppression of the philosophy of erotica, it continues to be an important and celebrated artistic style. In all the biggest art galleries around the world, nude art is prominently on display. Of course, it is not without erotic art controversy and its history.
Embracing Human Nature Through Erotic Art
Descartes and Hobbes are proponents in an attempt to suppress erotic art. They believed that erotic desire was subversive and detrimental to the modern age. That our natural longings and lust would distract from advancement.
Art, however, is subversive. It provokes an emotional response triggered by our basest desires. Erotic art, in this way, is perhaps the most honest artistic style – appealing to our natural impulses and selves.
An attempt to suppress these desires is denying who we truly are. Whereas embracing erotic art allows for us to reach a true expression and acceptance of self.
Plato took it a step further. The word “erotica” comes from the Greek word “eros,” meaning love or passion. For Plato, the pursuit of eros was a means of ascension.
He proposed that humanity’s true desire is for immortality. We seek immortality through procreation, a means of continuing the self. In this way, eros transcends human existence. As such, the pursuit of erotic art is not only in harmony with our base nature, but a means of achieving our true desires.
The Fallacy of Immaculate Perception in Art
Immaculate perception is the idea of aesthetics that are completely void of desire. Philosophers like Kant and Schopenhauer deny erotica from art because they elicit an emotional response by invoking lust. This is a fallacy because all art derives a response through provoking desires.
Nietzsche defends the erotic. Art for the sake of aesthetics is a pursuit of beauty. The ultimate result of all beauty is procreation, “from the most sensual to the most spiritual.” Art devoid of desire is art devoid of aesthetics.
Philosopher Richard Shusterman emphasizes that sexual experiences and expressions are themselves aesthetic. As such, erotic art is an undeniable art form. He also found that the philosophy of erotica as important in the study of somaesthetics.
Somaesthetics is the study of bodily perception, performance, and presentation. It emphasizes the concept of the body beyond the physical. The incorporation of erotica creates mindfulness of the body’s desires.
Erotic art goes beyond physical. It communicates emotions and feelings that invite a response, with or without including nudity. Sensual and sexual pleasures are evoked through erotica and provocative art.
The collection and display of erotica can evoke passion, setting a tone amongst lovers. Or it can provoke an emotive and reflective response. Philosophy of erotica can be empowering, sexual, or romantic, but in all forms, it is a source of honest aesthetic pleasure.
Erotica is a term applied not only to literature and art, but media, objects, costume and performances that arouse, titillate and excite.
Examples of erotica span from what some might consider purely...
Erotica is a term applied not only to literature and art, but media, objects, costume and performances that arouse, titillate and excite.
Examples of erotica span from what some might consider purely pornography, to the literary delights of the ancient Roman poet Ovid and Shakespeare such as Venus and Adonis. The assessment of what constitutes erotica varies and fluctuates culture-to-culture, era-to-era.
In post enlightenment European culture, erotic art that provokes sexual feelings is often belied as too distracting because it does not sublimate ideas, but rather evokes feeling that some see as self-interested or out of control. One might wonder if this is more a problem of the critic than the audience of erotica in general.
People continue to collect and enjoy erotica despite censure.
Art is not always about intellectual deconstruction, for centuries it has been used to illicit feeling, of religious devotion, of horror and moral outrage, of national pride, of cautionary moral tales and for so long as intimate devices for sexual stimulation. Ironically, people continued to collect and enjoy erotic art despite censure, and artists continued to create and construct such works.
Provocative Art: It is amusing to note that dictionaries of the English language often include the definition of provocative as a drive to annoy or irritate.
Consider that those artists who dare to make provocative art and refuse to adhere to aesthetic standards regarding “obscenity” may do so not only out of pure obstinacy but also rather of very personal aesthetic vision and a certain amount of courage.
While some might see provocation as an ugliness, it can also be sublimely beautiful. Suppose it depends on one’s definition of sex and sexuality.
Think about the famously popular late nineteenth-early twentieth century French sculptor August Rodin, who has long been considered the first modern sculptor. This seminal artist defied common models of finished polished depictions of nudity. Using the device of stone carving emerging from raw stone, Rodin created explicit and provocative visions of sexuality that defied not only cultural expectations, but created an illusory world of the artist’s studio. Ultimately, we can connect this to the “modern” vision of artistic primacy.
Rodin’s sculpture provokes, and is the paradigm for sensuality, provocation, and the power of representational art to inflame, to provoke imagination. And yet, within this aesthetic we see, not only the physical act of two lovers intertwined, straining soft marble curves contrasting with the unfinished edges of stone, arching muscular torso, we see another kind of power, of physicality, that of the artist, masterly carving from stone, provoking admiration, a sense of the power of virility and art.
The influence of Rodin is seen in much of modernist sculpture including Aristide Maillol, Henry Moore, and Henri Matisse. Rodin’s way of working is also seen in the sensual depiction of the erotic human body in photography and drawing particularly gesture, line, texture, and form.
Maybe today it's easy to succeed in the art of erotica, if by that for an artist, is meant to make an exhibition and find their name in the newspaper. But what really separates some artists from all...
Maybe today it’s easy to succeed in the art of erotica, if by that for an artist, is meant to make an exhibition and find their name in the newspaper. But what really separates some artists from all others is the ability to be noticeable without being aware that they have achieved this level of recognition. Despite numerous painters, who are lovers of paintbrushes and tempera, there are artists who have driven their passion for digital and photography. One of them, the rarest among all, is Jan Saudek, a renowned Czech photographer.
“There are too many imitators – I do not want to show the way to anyone anymore.” – Jan Saudek
Born in Prague in 1935, several years just before World War II, Saudek is forced to face the consequences that will follow only because of his origins. His father was Jewish and many of his relatives ended their lives in a concentration camp. Jan and his brother were also deported to the camp, separated from their father, who shared the same fate with their sons. All of them survive this period. Stuck between memories of murdered children, the sound of shots, a person’s last breaths and his dreams, Jan begins to explore the possibilities and the magic of photography. In 1950 he got his first camera, Kodak Baby Brownie. This was the beginning of the art war lead by Jan against the political system, his family and his lustful dreams.
To understand his erotic art, you need to glance into the deepest and darkest parts of his being. He is like a house with many floors and windows, each one offering a different view. Jan Saudek is the second child in the family, and as he said, “he is predestined to spend all his life as No. 2.” Saudek yearned for physical love since his young years. He lost his virginity at 15, with a girl who was also a virgin. His life is filled with failed relationships, passionate relationships, ruined marriages and separation from his children. Saudek, like any conscious artist, has managed in his own way to fight against the military and the communist regime. Often, he had no opportunity to express his views through his works because they were banned. Traveling to the USA was the first step that led Jan to succeed. He explored all forms of art but mostly focused on his unique life companion: photography.
Jan Saudek has the courage that many of us dream of.
Life experiences, passions, and interests are transferred to the works of Jan Saudek. He creates paintings and photos that speak of: the beauty of life, childhood, dreams, desires and unfulfilled plans, human nature, body and nudity, love and hate, sexuality and sexual attraction, passion, sadism and masochism, domination, melancholy, depression and doubts, life and death, fantasies hidden in the human mind. The works of this extraordinary artist could be the new art genre that has not been named yet.
Eroticism in the works of this Czech genius is shown through the human body and nudity. Jan Saudek has the courage that many of us dream of. Through his photographs, he depicts the female body the way it is, no uniformity, no stereotypes or rules. The female body is presented as a figure of femininity. Sex, penetration, defloration and making love are not taboo for Jan Saudek. Rather, he revives these moments by putting emphasis on the most intimate parts of the human imagination. What other people were seeing as prohibited, incompatible and kitsch – Jan Saudek has used it as the foundation of his art. In the late seventies, his black and white images gain a new dimension; Saudek began to use techniques, which included color, tinting and hand painting. Using bold colors, Saudek reaches a climax in displaying his individuality. His works not only depict nudity; they themselves are nudity. They are honest, open, without fear or embarrassment to show what lies in the mind and soul of an artist or a simple man. Many of the models in the pictures were his wives, girlfriends, lovers, and children.
The representation of women and the female body is easily noticeable in Saudek’s photographs. He exalts the naked body of a woman in a sophisticated, erotic way. Often it can be aggressive, even grotesque. The female sex organ, its utilization or purity is shown with unprecedented passion. Some of his photos show details of masochism and sadism, sexual domination of masculinity that owns the female body – all this without the intention to harm the woman. Rather, he loves all women beings through his sincere art. The male body is also represented. It is solid, tight and good-looking. The man in the work of Saudek adores the woman; he is experiencing sexual delirium, he enters into an unknown world of sexual fantasy and lust.
Another detail that must not be missed is the vacant room (chambre libre) that Jan uses when making portraits and expressions of his dreams, capturing the moment of imaginativeness. The room is empty; there is no furniture, only details, and a model. Often, the room would have cloudy walls that take one’s mind to the farthest dreams using colorful carpet, skulls, cradles, sex toys, artworks, mirrors, and props.
Saudek gives you a peek into his genius mind, and from his life experience brings us controversial beauty through erotica.
Art Provocateur is the premier online gallery of erotic art prints. Browse our erotic art gallery for limited edition and one-of-a-kind artwork. We have the largest selection of erotic and nude art from both established artists and rising stars.
The difference between nude and erotic sculptures evades many. While both are artistic and often explore human themes and bodies, they have a feel and purpose altogether different. The biggest differentiator is that erotic sculpting is done with the purpose of the erotic arousal of the audience.
“I know it when you see it,” is a common phrase for those struggling to verbalize the difference between nudity and erotica. Usually, what they’re seeing (or feeling) is the intention of the sculpture. Erotic sculptures are designed specifically to arouse.
Nude sculptures, on the other hand, aren’t made with the intent of causing erotic arousal. They are simply the unclothed human form. The subject’s nudity may be a study of the human form, an indication of vulnerability, or any of a number of themes.
Some of the best-known nudes throughout time, for instance, are the Greek heroic statues. In these, the nudity was part of the heroic image of Greek gods and characters. Although the statues featured characters with ideal bodies, there is no intent of arousal.
In a heroic pose, these statues may impress and even celebrate the human body. But they lack the suggestive nature of erotic statues. Nudity alone does not equate eroticism.
Whether partial or complete, all nude sculptures require some degree of nudity. But, just as not all nude art is erotic, not all erotic art is nude. Although erotic sculptures often involve nudity, they don’t need to be.
It’s not uncommon for erotic sculptures to create arousal through suggestion. On their own, body sexually-oriented body parts such as the lips can spark arousal. It all depends on how they are presented. Full, pursed lips invite thoughts of erotic encounters.
In the same way, a fully-clothed body can be sexually suggestive. This can be caused by the statue’s expressions, posture, clothing, situation, or a combination. For example, a vulnerable pose can be sexually suggestive, as can lingerie and intimate apparel.
One of the difficulties in separating nude and erotic sculptures is that they can have similar themes. While they may have different intentions with these themes, how they are perceived by the audience can alter whether they are seen as erotica.
Beauty, for example, is a common theme amongst both art styles. Often, the purpose of nude sculptures is to explore or demonstrate the beauty of the human form. It may portray the entire body, or have a more specific purpose.
For example, Michelangelo greatly admired the beauty of the human torso. Pope Julius II is said to have asked Michelangelo to complete his famous Belvedere Torso with arms, legs, and a face. Michelangelo refused, claiming it was too beautiful to alter.
His reverence of the torso, however, does not display itself as an erotic form. Erotic statues may similarly focus on singular body parts. But they are presented in a way as to arouse the viewer.
The difference isn’t always obvious though. Sculptures of focusing on female breasts or genitalia, for instance, are often perceived as erotic. However, legs can go either way and may evoke something in some that weren’t the artist’s intention.
Another theme that can confuse intent is fertility. Some of the oldest surviving statues are about fertility. The famous Venus of Willendorf figurine depicts fertility in a way that is hard to argue as erotic. But not all statues are as clear in intent.
Assyrian figurines associated with the cult of Inanna (a goddess credited with early BDSM), for instance, have invited controversy. The figurines depict a man penetrating a woman. Historians have strong arguments on all sides for whether the intent is to arouse, to ask the gods for fertility, or both.
In Peru, Moche pottery may have had an intent of fertility. However, it clearly has erotic intents. They sculpted erotic scenes, such as fellatio, into their pottery. This act is sexual, but not serving the purpose of propagation provides a clearer suggestion of erotic intent.
Different postures can also be suggestive of different ideas to different people. A submissive or vulnerable posture can be sexual in nature, but it could easily be intended as representing benevolence or humility. The artists’ skill will generally make the difference, but it can fall to the whim of the audience’s frame of mind.
Perception & Erotic Sculptures
While the artist’s intent is the main differentiator between erotic and nude sculptures, perception is just as important. Perception falls victim to times, locations, and social acceptance. The difference in whether nude art is perceived as erotic art can depend on where, when, and who it is presented to.
When we look back at the Ancient Greeks, for example, we saw nude art was widely accepted. The statues were nude, but not necessarily viewed as erotic. If one were to travel to Egypt, Persia, or Assyria during this time, the same statues would be perceived differently.
In these places, the nude form was viewed as more perverse, and would certainly not be seen as heroic. When Assyrian art depicted nudity the naked people were victims, whipped and enslaved.
The acceptance of erotica in popular society tends to fluctuate over time. During times when it is less acceptable, nudity is more easily perceived as erotica.
Christendom, during the early middle ages, is one of these periods. During this time nude art became rare. Depictions of nude men and women were considered obscene and/or erotic in nature, regardless of the artist’s intent.
This trend continued until the late middle ages, with Donatello’s David being credited as the first nude sculpture since antiquity. In this time nudity in art was accepted and didn’t automatically qualify it as erotic.
As with all art, the meaning of nude art is easily altered by the individual who perceives it. Even inside the same culture at the same time, individual views can change perception between nudity and erotica.
Michelangelo’s David is generally recognized as the most famous statue in the world. The statue depicts full-frontal nudity. This statue has been celebrated as an incredible artistic achievement for half a millennia. Yet, it’s presentation has been seen as obscene by many. As recently as 2016, Russian residents held a vote on whether to cover the privates of a copy of the statue.
As well, David’s genitals were covered for viewings by the Iranian president and Queen Victoria. While some people are outraged by the cover-ups, seeing a censorship of art, others still see this famous piece as obscene due to its nudity.
So we may use the artistic intent to simply differentiate erotic sculptures from nude. But, the ultimate decision seems up to the audience. For us, the crucial element is to find a piece that suits your own particular tastes and sensibilities. Explore our erotic sculpture gallery today.
BDSM artwork is truly provocative. Both inside and outside of BDSM culture it receives strong reactions with its evocative imagery. Although often misunderstood historically, in recent years it has become...
BDSM artwork is truly provocative. Both inside and outside of BDSM culture it receives strong reactions with its evocative imagery. Although often misunderstood historically, in recent years it has become increasingly chic to add BDSM art to collections.
Themes of BDSM Art
The main themes of BDSM artwork include an exchange of power, empowerment, gender, and sexual fluidity. It is an evocative and erotic art style that has emerged from underground culture.
At its core, BDSM art is about power. Practitioners derive pleasure from an exchange of power, whether giving up control or taking control. This theme is exemplified by the acronym:
During the past 50 years, another theme has emerged. BDSM artwork has become a symbol of empowerment. It helped to spurn the female sexual revolution, as well as revolutionizing gay culture. This combats old misconceptions of BDSM art as being anti-feminist and heteronormative.
Gender & Sexual Fluidity
For decades, BDSM has been ahead of the curve on ideas of gender and sexual roles and identities. It moves outside of concepts like straight, gay, transexual, and traditional gender roles. The gender and sexual fluidity in BDSM disrupt traditional binary identities and roles.
A Brief History of BDSM | Timeline
The concepts of BDSM has been a part of human culture dating back to the eras of pre and protohistory. Throughout this timeline, it’s often part of underground culture, with occasional resurgences into more mainstream society.
~4,000 BCE Mesopotamia
The goddess Inanna dates back at least as far as the Uruk period in ancient Mesopotamia. The “Queen of Heaven,” Inanna was the goddess of love, procreation, sensuality, fertility, and war. She is said to have whipped her human followers, driving them into a sexual frenzy.
~500 BCE Greece
In ancient Greece, BDSM played a role in sexual culture. It dates back to at least the 5th Century BCE. The Spartan men and women included ritual whipping for sexual pleasure in the Tomba Della Fustigazione (Tomb of Whipping). The walls of the tomb are decorated with artwork depicting BDSM.
1500s AD Europe
More modern examples of BDSM artwork started popping up in the 16th century. Erotic art and literature gained popularity. The imagery consisted of whipping and reversals of power roles for sexual pleasure. Servants were featured dominating their masters and mistresses. BDSM art started to pop up in England, France, and Germany.
In 1789, the Marquis de Sade released the controversial book 120 Days of Sodom. His work in erotica transformed BDSM artwork. The works were graphic and polarizing to much of society. But they also introduced ideas of sexual pleasure from beating, humiliation, rope bondage, and cutting. The realm of BDSM art was expanded by de Sade’s works.
The introduction of Japan to BDSM as an art dates back to the late Edo period. Kinbaku, “the beauty of tight bonding,” came into being as an erotic art. The ropework used geometric shapes to contrast the natural shape of the submissive’s body.
Following the First World War, people needed a release. The war had taken its toll on Germany physically and financially, and the people needed a release. For many, this release involved joining clubs where BDSM was practiced. The rise of fascism forced this culture into the underground before the Second World War.
Late 1940s USA
In the wake of World War Two and the terror of the Cold War, BDSM once again became a form of release. The underground BDSM scene began to grow in America with the distribution of magazines like Bizarre. In this magazine, BDSM photographer, John Willie, established the basis of the modern aesthetics of the genre.
BDSM photography featured models in high heels, leather, latex, corsets, rope and leather bondage. It also resulted in the rise of the pin-up girl.
Betty Page, the Queen of the Pin-Ups, was the most prominent model of this new style of BDSM art. She was an icon of the strength of femininity and of embracing female sexuality. She is often credited as being the catalyst of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
In the modern period, this is when BDSM began to transition from the underground to an artistic phenomenon and movement.
The 1990s did a lot to bring BDSM to mainstream society. The emergence of the internet led to many people’s first exposure to BDSM and a spike in its popularity. As well, artists like Marilyn Manson brought attention to the lifestyle and art form.
The release of 50 Shades of Gray. It’s not hardcore, and it’s certainly not the pinnacle of literature – but its success signifies acceptance of BDSM art by mainstream society. The novel quickly became a best-seller and was adapted into a successful movie in 2015.
BDSM was no longer just for underground culture, it had been adopted by soccer moms around the world. It showed the world was ready to accept BDSM art, not as a perversion, but as a fulfillment of a sexual and personal fantasy.
The gift of erotica has a long history, and such items have been considered symbols of beauty, pleasure, and admiration. The word erotica has so many connotations and often evokes images of explicit...
The gift of erotica has a long history, and such items have been considered symbols of beauty, pleasure, and admiration. The word erotica has so many connotations and often evokes images of explicit content, and yet, it can take so many other forms: small ceramics, murals depicting the secrets of ancient cults, 18th-century allegorical pictures, etching, paintings, contemporary photos and so much more.
To understand that there exists an entire world of erotic poetry, novels, and images that without being explicit are definitively erotic and provocative, we only need to turn to literature or art for example. In terms of relatively modern times, one merely has to think of classic books like D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or 18th-century French painter Jean Honoré Fragonard’s sublimated depictions of garden dalliances like The Lover Crowned, a picture commissioned for the French King Louis XV, by his famous mistress Madame du Barry.
And so this brings us to the fact that one particularly fascinating part of this history is its connection to gift-giving. In Western culture, erotica was a favored tribute for one’s lover, courtesan, mistress, or partner in many historic periods. Poems were written for lovers, allegorical sculptures made, paintings dedicated to a mistress or wife. Collections were acquired.
This tradition stems from ancient times, and in the Greco-Roman period included totems, amulets, decorative objects, mosaics, sculpture, vase painting, murals, and manuscripts. Even though it exists in fragments, we can still see glimpses of erotic acts in this ancient manuscript. Once called the first men’s magazine, The Turin Papyrus is a treasured example of the ancient taste for the erotic.
It was a favorite practice to give one’s lover an art object, such as pottery decorated with scenes of provocation and sexual acts. Whether gifts or articles of amusement or mythic symbolism, ancient people commonly owned phallic talisman and apotropaic sculpture signifying fertility and fecundity in fields, a motif that has not lost its power to amuse and excite. In fact, in Roman culture, the fertility god Priapus was very popular, and we know of artful examples of provocative amulets such as phallic images found in Pompeii, even seen in lamps, mosaics, architectural decoration, and tombstones.
How did this tradition and sensibility carry through time? There was a certain uninhibited celebration of pleasure in ancient erotica, wall paintings in homes and ceramics reveal explicit scenes of people coupling in various combinations, the strength of which seems to have sustained its appeal and presence. In the 18th and 19th century excavations uncovered previously unknown examples to the great delight of many.
Erotic and provocative art has always been a form of currency with a value of pleasure.
And of course, its exceptionally interesting nature may have allowed ancient erotica to be preserved and collected. After all, sexuality is always appealing. Yet, we should be mindful that giving erotica was more than a suggestive or lewd overture. Erotic excitement was endowed with a sacred character largely because of its association with the cult of Dionysus, god of fertility as well as pleasure. Examples of this celebration of erotica are seen in the great pictures of sex acts in the Villa of Mysteries, c. 60 BC, including the picture of a female initiate being whipped by a priestess.
While of course there was diversity among the eras and regions of the ancient Greco-Roman world, not to mention individuals who produced or purchased the artwork, much of the cultural attitudes during this period are distinguished by attitudes towards sexuality and the artistic expression of sex as positive if not sacred, and so the gift of erotica had the most complimentary of associations. The formal attributes of ancient erotica are seen in modern artwork as well.
Today, we might consider that as part of this legacy, contemporary artists who make erotic art hold an equally holistic and sumptuous attitude to sex, sexuality, and themes of desire. This aesthetic and outlook build on a legacy of complex and historical depictions of desire.
Collecting erotica, erotic art, and provocative art has always been not only popular, but a currency, not to mention the absolutely delightful value of pleasure and titillation, and is truly, the greatest of compliments.
Always one to make waves with his art, Picasso made one of the biggest splashes of his career in 1916, with the debut of a large, provocative canvas at a leading modern art exhibition. His colleagues and...
Always one to make waves with his art, Picasso made one of the biggest splashes of his career in 1916, with the debut of a large, provocative canvas at a leading modern art exhibition. His colleagues and critics celebrated the painting as the dawn of Cubism, an innovative painting approach that secured Picasso’s position in the pantheon of artistic greats. While it heralded a new era in artistic ingenuity, it was more importantly also an erotically charged work. Known today as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907, Museum of Modern Art), this composition depicted a brothel scene filled with nudes.
Picasso invoked erotic themes throughout his career, from tasteful nude studies to more sexually explicit vignettes. During the early years of the twentieth century, the erotic played a particularly significant role in Picasso’s exploration of himself. This exploration of eroticism as a means of self-reflection opened new doors for artistic innovation. It gave new intensity to images with sexual implications and revealed their potential to be powerful reflections of one’s own experiences. So, while Picasso is firmly established as a founder of modernity, he can also be credited with creating a new place for eroticism in twentieth-century art.
At the turn of the century, Picasso, barely in his twenties, began experimenting with different approaches to painting. The first half of the first decade of the twentieth century was dominated with his experimentation with color through his Blue Period (1901-1904) and Rose Period (1904-1906). It is during these years that one can sense the initial impact of the erotic in Picasso’s paintings. In 1903, for example, he completed a small oil painting entitled La Douceur (1903; Metropolitan Museum of Art), a boudoir picture that is rendered in the cool blues typical of his Blue Period. It is also a rather suggestive image, both in that Picasso painted a particular sexual act being performed and also that he used his own self-portrait to depict the recipient of this sexual favor. He positions himself as somewhat detached from the act that is occurring, instead of propping himself up and gazing rather confidently at the viewer. While this posture can be seen as Picasso’s quotation of his art-historical heritage (The Metropolitan, for example, draws parallels between this pose and that seen in some compositions by Francisco Goya, one of Picasso’s idols), it also suggests a certain level of bravura and biography on the part of the artist, as he was a rather wanton youth.
Picasso’s shift toward experimentation with composition and form in late 1906 and early 1907 resulted in the development of Cubism, an artistic approach that generally involved the breakdown of figural and material forms into geometric planes or facets of color. Even while undergoing these more technical innovations, Picasso continued to incorporate erotic references. Indeed, some of these earliest Cubist explorations focus on compositions of women with amorous or erotic connections. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a prime example, as it reveals five prostitutes supposedly staged in a brothel interior. Their naked bodies are rendered as facets, or planes of color, while their faces dissolve into a certain level of asymmetry or disfigurement. This is most pronounced in the two right-hand figures, whose faces were reworked into emulations of African masks. The grittiness of this masked figure in the foreground is exacerbated by her rather vulgar squatting position as she looks directly out at the viewer.
The erotic played a significant role in Picasso’s exploration of himself.
While Picasso could be examining his own profligate sexuality here, one can also say that this painting reflects Picasso’s own tumultuous relationship with model-turned-lover Fernand Olivier. The two had met and fell in love in 1904, but their liaison was plagued with jealously that resulted in consistent bickering and, eventually, their separation. Picasso’s love for Fernand, and perhaps also his desire to better understand her, is reflected pronouncedly in his early Cubist works, and it seems not coincidental that it was when Picasso and Fernand parted ways in 1907 that he returned to Demoiselles d’Avignon and changed the two women on the right into masked figures. While only Picasso knows exactly why he incorporated these changes, one can suggest that he did so in direct response to Fernand’s departure. Thus, the eroticism of the scene is tempered with Picasso’s personal frustration between sex, love, and life.
For more discussion of Picasso’s erotic art, please look to Picasso Érotique, the comprehensive catalog from the 2001 exhibition organized by the French Réunion des Musées Nationaux that featured over 350 works on an erotic theme from Picasso’s oeuvre.