In a recent television documentary The Genius of British Art (Channel 4) the novelist Howard Jacobsen reminded us of the beauty of eroticism in British art. In the same week Frieze Art in London’s Regents Park highlighted another aspect of sexuality: Voyeurism.
The difference appears crucial. Where eroticism involves at least two persons, voyeurism is a one-way relation. Where the erotic in art communicates sexuality as something to be enjoyed, to be cherished, and to be developed, the voyeuristic art reduces sex into a commodity. Where the erotic enhances our appreciation of sexuality, voyeurism reduces it to a mechanical act. Where the erotic addresses both sexes and all forms of sexuality, voyeurism is predominantly directed at men. In one sex and sexuality is celebrated – in the other reduced to a gasp.
Eroticism in art is infinite in its manifestation. Perhaps the most poignant is Portrait of Hélène Fourment (1630) by the Italian master Rubens of his young second wife. Here the fur-wrap, with its beautifully painted filaments, caresses every pore of her skin, her smiling eyes provocatively looking back at the painter – and at us.
Or in the French painter Pierre Bonnard’s numerous nudes of his wife where he captures her bathing, drying, and looking in the mirror. And in British artist David Hockney’s 1960s swimming pool paintings, where the blue water almost embraces his partner.
Or take the image of the nude woman on a bed. In Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) her look penetrates through to your secret thoughts. In another master, Diego Velazquez’s The Toilet of Venus (1651), inspired by Titian, the subject faces away, not even prepared to look at us through the mirror.
Edouard Manet scandalized 1863 Paris with his subject’s insolent look in Olympia. Francisco Goya’s The Maya Nude (La Maja Desnuda) of 1862, painting a real person in the nude for the first time in Spain reflects, to quote the French academic and author Jean-Marie Le Clézio, an unattainable look.
And arguably the most sensuous of all nudes is Bonnard’s post coital 1899 Femme assoupie sur un lit or L’Indolente languid and La Sieste(1990) of his future wife Marthe. This is erotic art at its best.
Yet the line between eroticism and voyeurism is not always clear. Paul Gauguin, for instance, was inspired by pornographic photographs he bought in Port Said. Some of the paintings of Georg Grosz, Egon Schiele or more recently Jeff Koons, and many of the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and Helmut Newton, to name a few, border on pornography. Additionally, it is difficult to ignore the apparent paedophilia of some of 20th century Polish-French artist Balthus’ paintings of young girls. So where is the line between one and the other?
Fast-forward to the present day, Frieze showed us an awful amount of sex, and little eroticism. There was an enormous amount of sex and elusions to the female sexual organ – I counted three women masturbating. Two women pose in a photograph behind a cake shaped like a giant penis, women enter clear water for no other reason than to titillate.
There is arguably paedophilia with a perfectly executed painting of a pubertal girl blindfolded on her knees, helpless. A man with an erection reading a book – probably pornography. Yes there is tenderness in a series of photographs of a lesbian couple, one of the few instances of love. Yet mostly the art at Frieze was sex without emotion.
A few miles away in London’s Berkley Square, Pavilion Art and Design exhibited the erotic drawings of Viennese painter Gustov Klimt (1862-1918) – yes and there were women masturbating. Yet unlike the work at Frieze, the viewer isn’t asked to observe through a peephole – the artist is there in the drawing, unseen but seen.
That is what separates the erotic from commodified soft porn. And there is eroticism galore in Picasso’s work where the painter and his model ask the viewer to share in their sexual excitement. Even the blatant sexuality of Egon Schiele’s drawings and paintings asks us to share.
What perhaps separates eroticism and voyeurism – over and above the issue of communication between the viewer and the viewed – is the intrinsic artistic value of the piece. This is a quality that cannot be commodified. Though clearly in the world we live in, where art is above all expressed as a medium of value, it requires a Herculean effort for the viewer to rise above the dollar sign and evaluate the work outside the marketplace.
Guest blogger Mohsen Shahmanesh
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