‘Erotic: Passion & Desire’: A Look At Sotheby’s Upcoming Auction February 2017

By Lucia Hawkes

There are the materials themselves, fluid, viscous, wet or moist, slippery, fleshy and organic in feel; spreading, thickening or thinning under the artist’s hands. Could they be compared to the primal ooze, the soft underlying mud, from which all life has sprung? To nature?
— Thomas Hess (1972)

‘Slippery’, ‘moist’, ‘fleshy’ – Art historian Thomas Hess’s lexical field is enough to make anyone sweat – is he describing a porno or an abattoir? Neither. The ‘primal ooze’ Hess discusses is in reference to Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning, who, in Hess’s description, becomes a God-like figure, creating life with his bare hands (and paintbrush) – a miracle worker. De Kooning’s imagery is laden with monstrous women: fanged, big-breasted, wide-eyed, grimacing creatures. Pablo Picasso, similarly, produced a wealth of fearfully angular and sexually threatening females – associated with a primitive underbelly of society. In an essay entitled ‘MoMA’s Hot Mamas’, published in 1989, Feminist art historian Carol Duncan had already highlighted the problematic institutional strengthening and normalising of de Kooning and Picasso’s reductive imagery – its placement upon a pedestal of canonical genius;

A direct appeal to and privileging of the male viewer. Duncan challenged the accepted canonical representations of the female body by proposing a reconsideration of the museum system and its reinforcement of gender inequality.
Countless artists have been associated with describing art as ‘erotic’ – a countless number of them being men. Previously, artists such as Picasso and Gustav Klimt had made claims about the fundamentally sexual and erotic nature of art-making. By aligning art with eroticism, Klimt and Picasso thus highlighted a sensuality involved in both the production and consumption of art objects. We gaze, we touch, we feel; the artist moulds with a creative force akin to the throes of sexual passion.

Admittedly, there is certainly something intriguingly intimate and divulging about ‘art’, and, perhaps most profoundly, its ability to elicit an inescapable vulnerability within the artist, sitter and viewer. In her writings on the relationship between art and modern day ‘porn’, art historian Kelly Dennis describes the animating potential of ‘touch’: “the gesture simultaneously acknowledges the power of the image to move our own flesh.” Speaking in 2000, in an interview conducted by art critic David Sylvester, American minimalist artist Carl Andre also explicitly re-emphasised the inherently erotic drive associated with the artistic act: “Art is an erotic relationship with the material world which can be shared with others. I’ve said for many many years that all art is erotic.” Andre’s statement – and Klimt’s and Picasso’s for that matter – begs the question: is this concept of ‘eroticism’ a fundamentally masculine one? When did eroticism appear in visual culture? And why?

The representation of sexual themes has a rich historical past and is by no means a modern phenomenon. As early as the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic period, cave paintings depicted erotic scenes – speculatively, pertaining a ritualistic purpose. Prehistoric copulation and large carvings of female genitalia have also been recently discovered in England, symbolising fertility and fecundity. Even amidst the ruins of Pompeii a variety of phallic objects, symbolising the ‘procreative power of nature’, have been unearthed. In the Hellenistic period, the God of shepherds ‘Pan’ was repeatedly used as a motif of sexual virility. Etruscan pottery, dating from the last quarter of the sixth-century, also boasts a multitude of decorative sensual scenes. Furthermore, erotica became available for private use, enabled by the invention of the printing press in fifteenth-century Germany. From this, multiple copies of the same image could be reproduced and disseminated, allowing artists such as Sebald Beham, for example, to create intimate and titillating engravings.

An eighteenth-century libertine, the Marquis de Sade produced perverse erotic literature; illustrations of de Sade’s writings convey scenes of sodomy, cruelty and orgiastic brutality. He seemingly paved the way for a new ‘sado-masochistic’ sexuality, fiercely disapproved of by contemporary French society. Ironically, the Victorian age – whilst repressive and morally righteous – saw the advent of ‘pornography’ and photographic erotica. It seems projections of sexuality are in constant flux – yet persist as an integral part of visual culture.

So what does Sotheby’s auction have in store?

Featuring as part of the collection is Gustav Klimt’s Liegender Halbakt Nach Rechts (Half-Nude Reclining to the Right) of 1914-15, part of a series of sketches Klimt produced at the beginning of the twentieth-century. Having reviewed the showcased items – albeit only a limited selection revealed by Sotheby’s – Nude Reclining, personally, sparked the most intrigue. Delving deeper into Klimt’s series – made up of images entitled Nude with Spread Legs, Naked Woman and Kneeling Male Nude – I uncovered a wealth of small, simple, and yet, extremely powerful studies. Anxious, jagged and frail – Klimt’s enraptured bodies convey moments of heightened ecstasy. The figures coil and retract, reach and fondle, writhe and twist in pleasure. There is something strangely sinister, however, in the skeletal, malnourished men and women – exposed and splayed as the embodiments of a perverse erotic desire. Their spindly bodies seem to evoke a vulnerability and exposure which transcends that of mere physical nakedness.

Admittedly, Klimt’s sketches provide an insight into female realm of erotic play, discovery and expression, and – although rather intrusively – revel in the varying contours of the female form; from this perspective, they are not totally misogynistic. They serve to celebrate a female sexuality previously repressed. The women in Klimt’s sketches are observed to be intently absorbed in their own pleasure; eyes closed and lips pursed, they quiver at le petit mort – the ‘little death’ of orgasm.

Significantly, Klimt’s sensitively rendered sketches seize a moment of ‘modern’ sexual revolution. The writings of Sigmund Freud, according to Cambridge scholar Alyce Mahon, “gave a new psychological insight to the subject of sexual desire and repression”, around the time of the Viennese Secession. Images of the sexuality were thus infused with a sense of psychological anxiety and often symbolised the ever-present threat of mortality. Alongside Klimt, and also featured as part of Sotheby’s auction, Austrian artist Egon Schiele produced similarly raw sketches. Schiele’s angular figures are, however, even more brutal in their representation – more intensely skeletal, deathly and dark. With the advent of Freudian psychoanalysis, sexuality thus became the product of a deeper, contestably more disturbing and hitherto untraversed internal territory. Contrasting with the aforementioned celebratory and lustful artefacts produced by ancient civilisations, twentieth-century sexuality was seemingly tainted by a threateningly ‘modern’, industrial world. The previously voluptuous, exaggeratedly fertile, female forms became sharp and cruel; piercing canvases with an uneasy sense of disease and destitution.

Examining Sotheby’s collection, one can’t help but notice the overbearing number of exploitative representations of the female body – the majority of which have been produced by male artists. This concept is a key issue within Feminist art historical discourse, which sought – and continually seeks – to dispel an inherently masculine mythology of the ‘genius’ artist. Alongside this, feminism has exposed and partially unravelled an artistic canon based upon patriarchal ideals and desires. How, then, does Sotheby’s 2017 auction figure in terms of its engagement with contemporary concerns surrounding gender and sexuality? Whilst Sotheby’s collection itself remains shrouded in mystery – to be fully unveiled on the 16th of February 2017 – twenty items from the auction have been revealed online.

Interestingly, the art objects span from ‘Antiquity to the present day’ – from seventeenth-century Japanese Shunga to British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s sinister painting First, completed in 2003. Interestingly, in 2013-2014, the British Museum staged an exhibition solely dedicated to the art of Japanese Shunga, entitled: “Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese art”. The exhibition curator, Tim Clark, described this seventeenth to eighteenth-century sexual phenomenon as presenting an unaffected and natural ‘mutual attraction and sexual desire’ between lovers; a visual culture which encouraged homosexuality, female sexual expression and shared fulfilment. Although considered taboo at the time, Shunga jars dramatically with contemporary Western portrayals of eroticism. Other non-Western artefacts up for sale at Sotheby’s include an eighteenth-century miniature entitled: ‘A couple making acrobatic love on a lake’, originating from Mewar, North India. Perhaps a return to the light-hearted, harmonious illustrations of Japanese Shunga and eighteenth-century Indian erotica would be beneficial – a relief from the often brutalising, objectifying and simply false pornography proliferated throughout society; its influence being a dangerous one in affecting perceptions of sex and intimacy.

What else can we expect from Sotheby’s auction? Notable works featured in the auction also include Lucian Freud’s Blond Girl (1985) and Man Posing II (1985), Marc Quinn’s Maquette for Siren (2008), Robert Mapplethorpe’s ‘Bow and Arrow’ (Lisa Lyon) (1981), Pablo Picasso Nu Couche (1972), Anthony Gormley’s Pole II (2012), a nineteenth-century carved mahogany bed, Helmut Newton’s ‘Domestic Nude III: In the Laundry Room at the Chateau Marmont Hollywood’ (1992) and, intriguingly Ettore Sottsass ‘Shiva Vase’ designed in 1973 – noteworthy for its minimalist aesthetic and phallic shape. It seems a vogue for the erotic has also cropped up across the globe, most flagrantly in Melbourne’s ‘FECK:ART’ – ‘an erotic art competition’ which “encourages artists of all mediums to unleash their inner degenerate by submitting artwork that Turns Us On.” The Australian gallery playfully and provocatively displays lurid works, which often border on the plain pornographic. Yet, whilst FECK:ART encourages artists to produce confrontational and provocative work, the gallery simultaneously stimulates debate and conversation about sexuality in contemporary society – a conversation certainly worth having.