by Rowan Pelling
The story of erotic art is nothing less than the history of human desire in all its ecstatic and torturous manifestations. It is the untold, limitless yearning that has fired the hearts of countless millions, stretching back to the dawn of time. It is a study of gratification and repression and of liberation and servitude – because for every person who is enraptured by sexual passion, there‘s yet another who finds their longings deemed verboten. For every lover who feels set free by sexual expression, there’s a counterpart who becomes its abject slave. And even if we deny ourselves the pleasures of the flesh, still our unruly libido drives us onwards. What is the urge to make art, if not the desire to leave a legacy behind as enduring in the world as any bloodline? As Freud so convincingly states, sublimated sexual desires are the life force that power our creativity – or, perhaps, not so sublimated desires. The works of art in this sale are unabashed explorations of human sexuality that are variously tender, ludic, impassioned, virile, camp, heartbreaking and transgressive.
A strange metamorphosis overcomes you in the contemplation of erotic art. The greater the implicit relationship between creator and subject, the more you find yourself pulled into a ménage a trois, where you, the viewer, become the third part of the love triangle: the necessary voyeur, who re-electrifies the long-gone moment with your intrusive gaze. I find myself emitting a sharp intake of breath whenever I contemplate the Man Ray photograph of a woman pressing a metallic hairdryer to her vulva. It’s still outrageous at first glance, like a disembodied robot phallus intent on invasion. Just as mordant is Wim Delvoye’s contemporary work, Pipe. An innocent-seeming X-ray revealed on further inspection to be the skull beneath the skin delivering a skeletal blow-job: Eros and Thanatos in their finest tango. But there’s wit at play here too; the knowledge that at base level the sex act (and our enslavement to it) is in some way absurd. Hence the pin-up and pop art in this sale, reminding us it’s vital to laugh at what is most serious in life.
The fear that lurks at the dark edges of eroticism is the question of whether excess will bore us – whether, indeed, sex will ultimately fail us. These issues are never more pertinent than in our sex-saturated internet age and the tensions are rife in Terry Rodgers’ reports from the frontline of high society – The Variable Frequencies of Restraint and The Act of Inevitability – where gilded youth act out scenes of joyless decadence. They serve as a modern morality tale that implicates all of us: to join their company would be to taste bitter disappointment, but even so we lust after their unobtainable beauty. It is a reminder that the stranger part of desire includes longing for what would thwart us.
What becomes clear as you ponder the arresting display of paintings, sculptures and erotic artefacts is that there’s no form of modern sexual behaviour that hasn’t already been perfected by our forebears. From the smouldering marble lovers of a second-century AD Roman sculpture, to the equally entwined pairings of Isoda Koryusai’s masterful Shunga, to the corals that are copulations on a intricate modern gold necklace, the instinct to intimacy is constant down the millennia – as is the impulse to depict it. A less natural urge, perhaps, has been the desire to supress erotic art. Many of the works on display in this sale would once have been hidden away in private collections for fear of censure, or worse. When looking at the ravishing Gustav Klimt sketch of a reclining woman, dreamily pleasuring herself, it’s worth remembering how many of the artist’s contemporaries, such as Egon Schiele, were deemed degenerate by the Nazis – and how hypocrisy tends to stroll hand in hand with moral outrage. When an exhibition of this supposedly corrupt “Entartete Kunst” was staged in Munich in 1937, over two million prurient souls came to see it.
The plain truth is most of us are fascinated by sex and the tempestuous force it exerts on our existence, but we often don’t know how to be at ease with that admission. It can take a lifetime to comprehend our own desires, let alone those of our fellow beings. Twenty-first century western society is largely at ease with same-sex love and marriage, but the homoerotic artworks in this sale would have faced a more uncertain reception when first finished. Take the surrealist artist Pavel Tchelitchew, who left Russia for the more bohemian environs of Paris, then New York City, to live and work amongst soul mates such as Edith Sitwell. His magnificent painting, Bathers, depicting three naked sun-worshipers on cliffs overlooking an azure sea is a paean to buttocks, thighs and the heavy droop of penises. It makes you realise how seldom you see the male body emphatically eroticised by comparison to the female. An imbalance Catherine the Great sought to redress: the outrageous phallic table offered in this sale, with its jaunty array of Rococo genitalia, is a faithful copy of one commissioned by the Russian empress. A starker, more sophisticated form of virility is evident in the inverted blocks of Antony Gormley’s arresting statue, Pole II, where masculinity is quite literally turned on its head and the discombobulated viewer almost misses the jutting erection.
Yet time and again we return to the female form, the curves and crevices that form the very backdrop of eroticism. As Sir Kenneth Clark wrote in his foreword to his book on the topic: “No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling... The desire to grasp and be united with another human is so fundamental a part of our nature that our judgement of what is known as ‘pure form’ is inevitably influenced by it, and one of the difficulties of the nude as a subject for art is that these instincts cannot be hidden.” And as many would argue, nor should they be.
Few artworks are as purely ravishing as Jacques Loysel’s great turn of the century sculpture, La Grande Nevrosé, which he jealously guarded in his studio throughout his lifetime. William de Kooning’s full-breasted nude is as sensual as Picasso’s gaping pudenda in Femme Erotique are hungrily animalistic. Photography as a medium often seems invented for the sole purpose of capturing women in erotic languor. Witness Helmut Newton’s towering goddess stripped naked – apart from the obligatory Newton heels – in front of the washing machines at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. The power dynamic between photographer and subject, dominant and submissive, is more explicitly played out in the tied-and-trussed portraits of both Araki and Ellen von Unwerth. Not that the female muse is necessarily the passive recipient of the artist’s gaze. Marc Quinn’s golden sculpture, Siren, has a yogically contorted Kate Moss aiming her groin at us like an all-avenging Kali. While Lynette Biadom-Boakye’s powerful semi-nude in First wields her dressing-gown cord like a harbinger of blood. But being discombobulated, perturbed and aroused all at the same time is a key function of great erotic art.
And what if erotic art takes erotic form and purpose and becomes a machine for loving? Such is the case with the exquisitely carved fantasia at the heart of this sale – the Païva bed. Believed to have been commissioned in the 1850s by the most renowned of nineteenth-century courtesans, la Païva, for her mansion in the Champs-Elysées (now the Traveller’s Club), its makers demanded an astronomical 50,000 gold francs. She then demanded they double their asking price and deliver something even more fabulous. And astounding it is, with its inflamed, darting swans and naked nymph astride the giant shell of love’s ultimate retreat – all carved from the finest Cuban mahogany. But la Païva never enjoyed the bed’s delights, since anti-Prussian sentiment meant she and her mining magnate husband, Count Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck, were forced to leave Paris. The abandoned bed was then bought by one of the city’s foremost brothels, an establishment beloved of Toulouse-Lautrec. It’s impossible to behold it without wondering what scenes of ecstasy must have unfolded on its softly mattressed stage.
To spend contemplative time with great erotic art is, inevitably, to find oneself seduced, just as surely as if la Païva herself had summoned you to her bed. At first you fall a little, but by the end you are thoroughly, brazenly undone – and glad of it. Life is fleeting, so why not reach for the “moment eternal” Robert Browning described in his poem “Now”?
Picture: BATHERS by Pavel Tchelitchew. Estimate 300,000 - 500,000 GBP
Graze on my lips
And if those hills be dry
Where the pleasant fountains lie
Shakespeare, from Venus and Adonis