• Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (1486)

    Erotic Art Controversy

    Erotic art has been around for centuries, yet never fails to cause a stir. From the classic reclining nude or the 1920s pin-up girl to today’s provocative prints or sexy “selfies,” erotica will...

    Erotic art has been around for centuries, yet never fails to cause a stir. From the classic reclining nude or the 1920s pin-up girl to today’s provocative prints or sexy “selfies,” erotica will always be a loaded topic of conversation. Are we too embarrassed to look at the human form, one of nature’s purest entities? Perhaps it is the blunt rawness of nudity that makes us uncomfortable. When we look at art, we are conditioned to judge certain works positively and other more explicit works with discomfort or disgust. For example, we may look at a nude poster of Marilyn Monroe as beautiful and iconic, while a photograph of an exotic dancer elicits a more lowbrow connotation. Why? It is almost as if society’s mainstream perceptions have pervaded the average person’s idea of erotic art or imagery who have come to see it as crude or even tasteless.

    Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (1486)
    Sandro Botticelli | The Birth of Venus (1486)

    Throughout history, similar reactions arose in response to certain works of fine art depicting the nude body. For the most part, cultures have a code for depicting nudity, often in the service of allegorical narrative. Hellenistic art frequently depicted nudity and on occasion used devices such as draping or a modest hand over the nether regions. Publicly visible Medieval European depictions of the nude body were mostly allegorical, and served as cautionary Christian narratives, whereas Italian renaissance painting and sculpture looked to the traditions of the Greco-Roman era for models, such as the allegorical Botticelli painting, The Birth of Venus (1486).

    The power of allegory is its supposed sublimation. This is why we often look at the dreamy goddesses of Titian or Botticelli with exalted reverence, but will not welcome erotic art photography or provocative paintings with the same appraisal. It seems that if an image is too contemporary or blatantly sexual, it is too raw and explicit for mainstream tastes—and that is where the line is drawn.

    erotic art painting of Édouard Manet, Olympia (1865)
    Édouard Manet | Olympia (1865)

    Explicit can mean more than simply the exposure of one’s most intimate regions, in fact it can be the lack of metaphor, of distance of sublimation. The date 1865 has long been considered a pivotal moment in the history of modern art, particularly the representation of nudity. It is the year that the French painter Édouard Manet exhibited his painting Olympia – painted in the tradition of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) as well as Ingres Odalisque with a Slave (1842). However, without the traditional device of literary or mythological allegory and with various contemporary symbols this was a shocking image. While the model for the picture was Victorine Meurent who also modeled for other paintings, it resembled pornographic photographs of the period, which surely would be recognized, but it was most of all her cool stare, rather than a welcoming smile, that made Olympia equal parts shocking and mesmerizing. Equally, contemporary audiences were astounded by the flatness of the modeling and color. It was obvious to the contemporary audience that this woman was a kept mistress or courtesan. Some critics point to the name Olympia as a common name for courtesans, and others connect Manet’s painting to the notorious renaissance courtesan Donna Olimpia Maldachini, or Marguerite Bellanger, a mistress of Emperor Napoleon III. Whoever this alluring woman may be, she has a confident self-possession and carelessness that disturbed so many of the viewers, some who said they felt trapped by her gaze.

    These boundaries were pushed further in the painting of a languishing nude woman by French painter Gustave Courbet – the infamous L’Origine du monde (1866) in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. This picture shows the artist’s mistress and model Joanna Hiffernan who is said to also have been the lover of the American painter James Whistler. L’Origine du monde was commissioned by the Turkish-Egyptian diplomat Khalil-Bey, who had become well known for his Paris erotic art collection. While the picture displays feminine genitalia with an unrelenting magnification, many critics feel it bears traces of the sumptuous painting of the Venetian school such as Titian and Veronese.

    Erotic art painting of Amedeo Modigliani, Reclining Nude Painting (1917)
    Amedeo Modigliani | Reclining Nude Painting (1917)

    Amedeo Modigliani also tested these barriers when he painted highly stylized reclining females who seemed to embrace their own sensuality, and made no move to cover their bodies. Modigliani made over twenty-six works of this type; the one shown here was made for his patron Léopold Zborowski. The reality is that there is a candid eroticism, a certain charge that caused some controversy when the paintings were exhibited in the window of the art dealer’s Berthe Weill’s gallery, their reflection of the liberal culture of Montparnasse so shocking that Weill was ordered to take the erotic art works down.

    A sumptuous explicit body is at the center of erotic art controversy.

    The difference between an allegorical nude and a sumptuous explicit body is at the center of controversy. An allegorical nude is associated with beauty and high culture, whereas the exposed body is associated with lowbrow eroticism. This is part of the distinction that creates the boundaries between erotic art and that which is scandalous. However, all of this raises the question why we see more explicit eroticism as shameful or distasteful and who decides?

    Perhaps we can liberate ourselves and be more honest about our taste. The reality is that arousal and sexuality are natural parts of being human. For this reason, if we shy away art that shows explicit sexuality and nudity, we are also denying the sexuality that is innate to our own being. In truth, erotic imagery is still and will remain an integral part of our humanity.

    Art Provocateur is the premier online gallery of erotic art prints.  Browse our galleries of 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.

  • Jean-Léon Gérôme | Phryne before the Areopagus (1861) Kunsthalle Hamburg

    Pleasures of the Male Gaze

    Pleasures of the male gaze; and in other words: men like looking at women. No surprise there. For males, the eye is the primary sense organ when it comes to appraising feminine beauty. Looking at members...

    Pleasures of the male gaze; and in other words: men like looking at women. No surprise there. For males, the eye is the primary sense organ when it comes to appraising feminine beauty. Looking at members of the opposite sex is, for the male, an instinctual act connected to the sexual pleasure that comes with the necessity to ensure survival of the species through reproduction. In the pursuit of pleasure the male’s scrutiny of the female is the preliminary step in an erotic dance. The next step, often criticized by the woman being “checked out” by a male, is the imaginative undressing of the female, revealing the pleasure to be had in her naked form.

    Alessandro Allori painting of Susanna and The Elders (male gaze)
    Alessandro Allori | Susanna and The Elders, Florentine (1535 – 1607) Musée Magnin, Lyon

    Looking steadily, intently and with fixed attention at a fellow human being of the opposite sex with the effect of raising the emotion of desire is a motif that has been very popular in western art. The strength of the emotion is a factor of cultural norms. Thus peeping or taking a longer and broader, forbidden look at a clothed or unclothed female, is for males a highly stimulating activity. In art, the eroticism of the illicit act of gazing becomes a visual stand-in for the act itself. A male looking at a picture like Alessandro Allori’s Susanna and the Elders puts himself in the position of the elders and in doing so achieves a measure of pleasure. The biblical event represented in this work is the failed blackmailing of Susanna by two lustful elders who have been driven wild to have sex with her. Their lust was raised by secretly observing her bathing in her garden.

    Giuseppe Cesari painting of Male Gaze: Diana and Actaeon (1602/03)
    Giuseppe Cesari | Diana and Actaeon (1602/03) Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts

    The arousal of male sexual desire through surreptitiously or accidentally observing, a naked female body was a subject of an understandably popular ancient Greek myth. The story tells how chaste goddess Diana bathing in a spring with her attendant nymphs was unintentionally seen by the mortal, hunter Actaeon. The sight of her naked form raised Actaeon’s lust. Diana, anticipating that he would be unable to control himself, dampened his ardour by splashing him with water. The magical treatment was very effective at “cooling his jets” because he was turned into a deer and torn to shreds by his own hunting dogs. The cautionary moral of this tale: don’t look at a naked female, especially if she is a goddess; does nothing to deter males from illicitly or accidentally gazing at females. It merely raises the stakes, adds danger to the act which ups the power of peeping to elevate lust.

    Jean-Léon Gérôme painting of the male gaze of Phryne before the Areopagus (1861)
    Jean-Léon Gérôme | Phryne before the Areopagus (1861) Kunsthalle Hamburg

    A specific kind of painting in western art that had the purpose of arousing male lust became popular from the 15th century on. Clothed in the garb of legitimacy by representing select, mythological and historical events, these pictures work because they simulate situations that are not dissimilar to those in the male imagination, where the thought of gazing at a female body may be almost as stimulating as the act itself. This suggests that erotic male pleasure and consequently the male obsession with the female body is entirely a mental construct. A work by the French 19th century painter Gérôme, is an example of pictorial stimulation of the male mind.

    The artist portrayed the trial for impiety of the Athenian, courtesan Phryne. It is intended to act as a pleasurable reflection on the effects of intent looking at a naked female body. In summing up the case for the defence, Phryne’s lawyer pulled off her robe exposing her to the eyes of the judges. They were, so the story goes, driven to pity by the sight. They did acquit her but it was probably not on account of pity but out of fear of condemning a rare beauty to death and thus depriving themselves of the potential of a lustful encounter with the courtesan.

    Don’t look at a naked female, especially if she is a goddess.

    The excuse or narrative camouflage employed to legitimize pictures of a male gaze at nude females has varied over time. In the early 20th century ancient myths were replaced by a number of pictorial fictions that reflected contemporary life. One of the most popular of these involved the kind of legitimate, concentrated looking at a nude model in the socially acceptable environment of an art class.

    Erotic in the male gaze still depends on notions of chance.

    With the evolution in sexual mores in the last half of the 20th century the requirement for a narrative context in the portrayal of a nude female in art disappeared. The ubiquity of representations in moving images, photography, painting and sculpture of the unclothed female body however, has not meant the end of storytelling in erotic image making. In large measure the erotic in the male gaze still depends on notions of chance and illicit or secret peeping. Hence the male gaze and delight in the interplay between concealing and revealing in fashion photography. The erotic intensity of this teasing of the male gaze is increased by role playing. This is thoroughly understood by women themselves who have since antiquity assumed roles as “vamps”, in effect, asserting their sexual power by working with the predilections of the male gaze.

    Art Provocateur is the premier online gallery of erotic art prints.  Browse our galleries of 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.

  • Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), Venus and Adonis (1485/90)

    Erotica & Provocative Art

    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.

    erotica painting by Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), Venus and Adonis (1485/90)
    Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) | Venus and Adonis (1485/90)

    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.

    erotica sculpture by Auguste Rodin, The Kiss (1882)
    Auguste Rodin | The Kiss (1882)

    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.

    erotica sculpture of its time by Henry Moore, Draped Reclining Woman (1957-8)
    Henry Moore | Draped Reclining Woman (1957-8)

    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.

    RJHB, New York (2015)

  • Jean Honoré Fragonard | The Progress of Love - The Lover Crowned (1771-73)

    Gifts of Erotica and Ancient Roots

    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.

    Jean Honoré Fragonard | The Progress of Love - The Lover Crowned (1771-73)
    Jean Honoré Fragonard | The Progress of Love – The Lover Crowned (1771-73)

    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 examples. 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.

    Turin erotic papyrus gift of erotica
    Turin Erotic Papyrus | Der el-Medina, New Kingdom, Dynasty XX (1186 – 1070 BCE)

    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 article 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.

    Centenary House | Roman Pompeii (79 AD)
    Centenary House | Roman Pompeii (79 AD)

    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.

    Villa of Mysteries (60 BC)
    Villa of Mysteries (60 BC)

    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 builds 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.

    RJHB, New York (2015)

  • Pablo Picasso La Douceur (1903) blue period

    Picasso and the Embedding of Eroticism

    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.

    Pablo Picasso La Douceur (1903) blue period
    Pablo Picasso, La Douceur (1903)

    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 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.

    The erotic played a significant role in Picasso’s exploration of himself.

    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 in to 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.

    Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)
    Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)

    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 catalogue 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.

    AC, Chicago (2015)