How Was the Language of Eroticism Applied to Creativity?
With Reference to European Examples
‘The fin-de-siècle, more than any other period in the history of art, has been identified as a time of sexual licence and decadent extravagance.”
It was fin-de-siècle, the end of the 19th century, and artists were looking for something new and refreshing. Art Nouveau was a style which tackled society’s morals and views through sculpture, paintings, printing, jewellery, etc. Key features of the movement included whiplash motif (curviness of a sculpture or illustration), attempts of being different and the use of movement which is a symbol referring to moving forward creatively and in general in society. This fin-de-siècle had a positive outlook because of major technological innovations and countries in Europe were re-evaluating their national identities. A major theme in Art Nouveau was eroticism, which was expressed subtly, symbolically, and boldly. Eroticism tends to be about arousal, excitement, and desire. Erotic images are different to sexual images in the way that eroticism is personal, symbolic, and subtle while sexual images are in-your-face and are social.
During the Art Nouveau movement, sex workers were praised, unique to the period, as the female form was celebrated and like many artists, Gustav Klimt paid sex workers to model for him whom were featured in his sketches. Klimt’s private work was released after his death in 1918, which included a vast amount of unseen sketches. It is rare to find men, children, architecture, genre, etc. in Klimt’s sketchbooks, it shows his admiration or perhaps obsession of the female form. His sketches of the female form were often either references for a painting or to study the anatomy. Sketches such as Recumbent Semi-Nude from the Right (1914/15) or Two Nudes Lying on their Backs (1905/06) shows Klimt as an observer rather than projecting the male gaze onto them. It can be compared to ukiyo-e (which roughly translates to "pictures of the floating world") in which Japanese artists created prints of daily life—which included sex and young women undressing. It has often been described how Klimt frequently isolated his models by drawing only their outlines. While his paintings, like Hope I, engage with the viewer, the drawings do not usually give occasion for direct communication between the woman and the viewer at all so the viewer feels separate from these models. The sketches could be interpreted as the women accepting their sexuality which is so taboo in Western society, although it is subtly showing the viewer that the subjects emotional gestures are introverted and nearly always restrained. Klimt cast a light on these women and showed, through observation, that it’s normal and part of daily life for them. It can be argued that he did not project the male gaze onto them, even though they were exposed, he just normalised nudity and a woman's sexuality through his erotic sketches which is how it relates to ukiyo-e.
It was not only his personal sketches that were erotic, Klimt used the female body in his paintings often symbolically. Danae (1907/08) is a good example of an erotic painting used symbolically. In Greek mythology, Danae was locked away by her father, King Acrisius because of a prophecy describing that he would never have a son but Danae would and her son would be the death of King Acrisius. To prevent her from ever becoming impregnated, he locked her away in a bronze chamber never to see the light of day again. However, Zeus lusted for her and came to her in a golden shower which came down into her womb and impregnated her with Perseus. The painting Danae shows us the purple fabric which represents her lineage.
“the parted lips and legs, the closed eyes, the rolled-down stocking on her ankle, the red hair and diaphanous purple veil are all indicative of Danae's sensual experience.”
She is receiving pleasure from Zeus, his presence is represented with the golden shower between her legs. Her thigh is the main focus of the painting with her breast peeking behind it, this makes the erotic image powerful in the way that it is not brazen but shows a sort of delicacy, a thigh is an erotic body part the way hands or shoulders are to some people. It is subjective and not sexual and with the added symbolism of Danae’s backstory it adds more eroticism into it. Mythology was often applied to erotic paintings to add a meaning or story behind it and with context it can be more arousing.
Gustav Klimt mentored young artists and one young artist who sought him out was named Egon Schiele (1890-1918). He was known for his self-portraits and his nude portraits, of himself and of the female form. His portraits were raw with sexuality and the nudes were often twisted and had expressive, bold lines. Even though sex and sexuality themselves were taboo in Western society, Schiele went beyond just these themes and went into how eroticism can show the vulnerable, the imperfections and also the gaze towards young girls.
Schiele was arrested for 24 days for having children exposed to pornography in his studio however charges against him for luring children from their homes for his art were dropped. There were many sketches of teenaged girls though, Standing Nude Girl (1910) showed the viewer a Lolita-esque illustration with the girls looking:
“physically immature, thin, wide-eyed, full-mouthed, innocent and lascivious at the same time”
It is disturbing but this is classed as eroticism in the way that it is subjective. Frank Whitford, who wrote a small book about Egon Schiele, said he was forced to ask questions about Schiele such as
“Did he make them because he was sexually aroused by young girls? Was he aroused by them because he feared adult women? Did he draw them because they appealed to certain collectors with unusual appetites who were prepared to pay good money for them?”
There has been a sort of obsession with young girls in society for a long time so it is not surprising to see them as the subject in erotic art. In Standing Nude Girl we can see that the girl has "blossomed," in her pubic area there is blood and this could mean that Schiele interpreted a period as womanhood and therefore saw no taboo or problem with using a girl in erotic art.
It is not often that erotic art pieces show the male form, even more surprising to see the artist engaging themselves with the subject matter in the erotic piece. In Self-portrait drawing a nude model in front of a mirror (1910):
“Schiele sits, his eyes directed away from his model, while we, actually in Schiele’s position, see her both from the back and as a reflections, from the front”
The viewer is supposed to be Schiele in the way he is positioned, it is as if he is looking at himself in the mirror and not the model, so this involved the viewer more. The illustration is very bold and engages the viewer with the model’s intensity, she looks slim, small- but firm-breasted, she looks invitingly at us, her dark eyes, her lips sensuous and full. Eroticism is often very inviting, the woman in the image is blossoming in her sexuality, she knows the male gaze is on her and the interaction is what keeps the viewer involved and adds onto the eroticism. Some feminist critics argue that the very term "erotic art" is understood to imply "erotic for men." It can be argued the model in the illustration is not liberated in the way her expression shows because the artist is male and therefore it is his decision on how he is portraying her. Although, it must be remembered that this is a modern perspective since feminism was not a prominent movement when this sketch of Egon Schiele had been illustrated. The male gaze is a hugely applied in eroticism because of heteronormativity and the power men held during this time period. Another perspective could be that the female form is finally being celebrated rather than shunned and sex workers are being admired in the art society and the women are choosing to be part of the male gaze so it is indeed a form of liberation.
Because of Japan opening its borders, the rest of the world were able to experience their art. As mentioned above, ukiyo-y was printmaking that expressed daily life in Japan which included prints that showed sex in a pleasurable context. Some of these prints were distributed in Europe and artists like Gustav Klimt and Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) were in possession of them, Beardsley was heavily influenced by the Japanese prints. He was closely connected to the fin-de-siècle because of his infamous grotesque prints and his shunga influenced work (shunga is a part of ukiyo-y and it translates to "spring" which is a euphemism for sex.) Oversized genitals was a device Beardsley used in a number of his illustrations for Juvenal’s Lysistrata, an example of this is his print of Cinesias entreating Myrrhina to coition (1896). The picture depicts Cinesias chasing his wife, consumed with desire and the viewer can see this since the most prominent body part in the illustration of Cinesias is his:
“enormous erect penis – it is the length, and almost the thickness, of his torso – and its grotesque size, in combination with the fact that Cinesias is otherwise dressed […] is an effective symbol of the severity of the sexual deprivation caused by the strike.”
He is pulling down her veil which brings attention to her body being slightly revealed so not only is there heightened eroticism but:
“this also appealed to Western artists because of the decorative possibilities this provided.”
Although it is very bold eroticism, it can be seen as symbolic or metaphorical because of the context about the strike and showing that a man is only human and has animalistic desires.
Not only did illustrations explore eroticism but so did physical items like jewelry, sculptures and interior. There are two examples of jewelry, one is subtle and symbolic and one is very obvious in its sexual language. The first example is Corsage by Alphonse Mucha and Georges Fouquet (1896), the person on the corsage is surrounded by open flower buds and they typically describe the sexuality of a person in art history terms, the open buds are a metaphor for female sexuality. The woman plays with two open flowers which means she is well aware of what she is doing. She is playing with the viewer but does not gaze at them. It suggests a tone of innocence but implies she has opened up a bit and wants to explore her sexuality.
The other example is Orchid Hair Ornament by Philippe Wolfers (1902), in Japanese art (and in European art since the time of the Ancient Greeks), the orchid represented sheer beauty, and the symbol was revived in Europe as part of the Japonisme movement/influence. Women would wear hair ornaments and such with an orchid because it could have also been a sexual metaphor for a vagina. The blossoming vagina would be a woman showing her sexuality. Women at the time would wear these accessories/jewelry and artists would include flowers and such to hint at sexuality through erotic arts. Some were more obvious than others, eroticism was used as innuendos and as a joke between the educated or some women would wear it as a way of saying they were sexually active and were willing.
Upper-class and middle-class households owned many kinds of decorative objects that included eroticism. There was a kind of dominance in the household with the cabinet handles (an example of one is by Jules Desbois) that "demanded" to be grabbed can be seen as a playful symbol at the time but with modern societies hindsight now it can be seen as a disturbing, patriarchal symbol where men fondle a woman who is part of the furniture, she was perceived as an object. Sexuality was still seen as a taboo so with small details on the furniture like this, it was subtly frolicsome. Another example of eroticism in the home is the armchair by Rupert Carabin (1896). The wooden chair looks normal from the front but from the back there is a woman taking part in BDSM with two cats on the arms of the chair leering at her. The cats are a symbol of the male sexual drive, it is a recurring theme of eroticism being for the male pleasure. However, the woman on the chair looks to be consensual because her arms are untied and holding onto the straps so this implies that she is giving enthusiastic consent so again, it is a playful detail on the furniture.
To conclude, eroticism was applied to many forms of creativity including illustrations, furniture, interior, and jewellery. Some forms of eroticism were subtle, some symbolic and some provocative. Eroticism is very personal to the viewer and the artist in the way that it is subjective, in the chosen form of media the artist can expose what they find erotic and the viewer may identify while others may not. Some people’s arousal can be completely disturbing to others, for example, the speculations of Egon Schiele and his arousal of teenage girls. Eroticism was also used symbolically for mythology and politics, to name a couple themes, in the Art Nouveau movement. There is debates amongst people on whether using the female form was a feminist theme or not but it must be remembered that feminism did not have its name yet. What can be agreed on is that Art Nouveau, and the major component being eroticism, was revolutionary in the sense that artists were experimenting and pushing boundaries and taboos. Eroticism was applied to different mediums of creativity as a sign of moving forward and looking for something new in the fin-de-siècle.