21 Apr 2021

Eroticism & Art

Unframe London

Eroticism & Art

We explore six of our favourite erotic artworks, dating from 1615 right up until 2021.

For centuries, humans have taken to erotic art to communicate their lusts and longings. As a genre, erotic art pulls on the essential and intuitive stirrings of body, mind and soul. Eroticism is powerful, as it has been for many years and erotic art is there to prove this exact notion. Historically, art rapidly became a way in which to awaken our sensibilities. In turn, art provided a place to explore human senses and habitual impulse. Erotic art provides grounds for open discussion, spiritual awakening and poignant sensual discovery. As a medium, it visually documents the concealed and the unspoken of. The distinction often found between erotic art and pornography can be difficult to differentiate. However, erotic artworks tend to be subtle in their portrayals, suggesting rather than stating.

We will explore six of our favourite erotic artworks, dating from 1615 right up until 2021. We’ll delve into both the overtly sensual and the alluringly subtle work of Georgia O’Keeffe, Nobuyoshi Araki, Guido Reni and Unframe artist Peter Spanjer, to name just a few.

O'Keeffe Erotic Art
‘Blue Flower’, 1918. Georgia O’Keeffe. Courtesy of Paul McCartney

Shifts in the art world

In many ways, it is clear that the rise of psychoanalysis and postmodernism were huge factors within the field of eroticism in art. Tension, as well as irony, sincerity and a shift in tradition sparked the use of the new visual imagery seen in so much art. As these traditions in the art world shifted, artists began to create much more straightforward representations. These consisted of romance but above all, romantic impulse through interpretive and sensual artworks.

“The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire.” Audre Lorde

By the 20th century, artists had grown tired of the unambiguous celebrating of the human figure. Instead, the aggression and brutality of sex took precedent in visual art at the time. An example of this is the work of Egon Schiele. His tormented torsos and warped sensual forms were embodying the anguish of modernity.

Guido Reni
‘Saint Sebastian’, 1615. Guido Reni. Courtesy of Meisterdrucke

Guido Reni’s ‘Saint Sebastian’

Italian Baroque painter Guido Reni’s subject of Saint Sebastien depicts the story of the Roman soldier, eventually condemned to death by the Emperor. He was given this predicament due to his role is aiding the Christians. The composition shows Saint Sebastian’s curved torso punctured with various arrows. Reni’s depiction of the tragic figure was one of the most revered in the 19th century. At the time ‘Saint Sebastian’ was painted, nudes were commonplace amongst both religious and renaissance painting.

In this example, the 17th century painting depicts Saint Sebastian as young and beautiful. The shade and tonal patina of his torso is sensual and curved to face the viewer. Nowadays, the painting is a true cliché of queer iconography, evoking ideas of murderous fantasies and martyrdom. Without a doubt, Reni’s painting prods our sensibilities, although the subject is severe. When related to the time of its creation, Reni’s depiction is nothing other than seductive.

Egon Schiele
‘Untitled’, 1918. Egon Schiele. Courtesy of Frieze

Egon Schiele’s ‘Untitled’

According to a number of art historians, radical artist Egon Schiele used the technique of continuous drawing to create his fluid and loose figure drawings. During this process, Schiele would retain constant eye contact with his subjects, creating an intimate and close atmosphere. In this case, he would often develop an in-depth and detailed relationship, visible in the way he depicted them. Schiele chose to draw his sister, wife, lovers and prostitutes from the streets of Vienna making the portrayals often sexually charged.

Schiele’s depictions of the naked form are intense but perfectly skilled and although warped and abstracted, the figures are visually realistic. Through his subject matter and the way in which he drew, Schiele’s drawings are undoubtedly erotic. Schiele’s drawings and paintings are unapologetically focused on nudes. In turn, he contorts the imagery to heighten sensual and emotional tension. At the time, police confiscated many of his artworks as they were deemed too sexually explicit.

O'Keeffe Erotic Art
‘Black Iris’, 1926. Georgia O’Keeffe. Courtesy of Another Mag

Georgia O’Keeffe’s ‘Black Iris’

Known as one of the most ground breaking painters in female painting, Georgia O’Keeffe portrays the female form in all of its glory. Rather than erotic subjects or naked form, O’Keeffe used flowers to evoke sensuality. Suggestiveness is key and above all, O’Keeffe uses female genitalia as the primary subject for almost all of her vast body of work. As a feminist, she hoped to avoid being labelled as a ‘woman artist’, however her use of the female form is what defines her career.

‘Black Iris’ can immediately be read as an innovative depiction of female sexuality but from a female perspective. Despite her protests of it not being seen as feminine, the feminist artist’s paintings are read as a celebration of sexuality. In contrast to those discussed, as an artist she revels in the suggestive and the coyness to erotic art. Although in many ways her paintings are explicit, in the end they are always concealed and hidden by her overarching subject matter of the flower.

Francis Bacon Erotic Art
‘Portrait of Henrietta Moraes’, 1963. Francis Bacon. Courtesy of Culture Whisper

Francis Bacon’s ‘Portrait of Henrietta Moraes

For artist Francis Bacon’sPortrait of Henrietta Moraes‘, the artist depicts an immediate and sexually charged nude. His painterly, smudged technique distorts and gives movement to the viewer’s reading of it. However, the recognisable details are sensually portrayed in each rounded curve and each hint. As he eludes to a naked form, Bacon surrounds his figure in a lustful red which contributes to the viewer’s immediate focal point. The carefully constructed mood in this particular painting is visibly invaded by the lax but purposeful sweeps of paint.

Bacon’s portrayal of his subject Henrietta Moraes evokes strong sensuality through the brutal physicality of the paint. In a similar way to Schiele, there is a visible bond and closeness between him and his subjects and the quest to capture the erotic.

Nobuyoshi Araki.
‘The Look from Erotos’, 1993. Nobuyoshi Araki. Courtesy of Philip Lepage

Nobuyoshi Araki’s ‘The Look from Erotos’

There are widely fluctuating attitudes toward the portrayal of flesh, throughout different periods and between many cultures. Photography became a medium where artists would experiment with elements of the reveal within eroticism. Monochrome photography by Japanese contemporary artist Nobuyoshi Araki harks to examples of surrealism. In contrast to those discusses, Araki uses body parts to elude to sexualised imagery, most often genitalia.

In ‘The Look from Erotos’  (1993), Araki uses the motif of a woman’s eye yet in it’s final image it has more sexual energy than an adult magazine ever would. The medium of photography reinstated sex in art, allowing viewers the knowledge that what they were seeing was real. Many artists had already begun to be voyeuristic in their approach, rather than appreciative. In turn, this allowed for new lines of inquiry and curiosity amongst artists.

Eros 35

Peter Spanjer

Eros 35

Print, 2020

100 x 70 cm

Peter Spanjer’s ‘Eros’

For his ‘Eros’ series, artist Peter Spanjer chooses gay & black adult films as the subject of these vibrant prints. Importantly, in his process he uses the video as the starting point to extract stills from, once he completes this he destroys the film. For Spanjer, the medium becomes something that is interchangeable and that adapts through his making process. As an artist, he focuses on fluidity in his practice as he moves across different media to find what is right for each work.

Within ‘Eros’, crucially Spanjer aims to confront his own sensitivities through research on self evaluation and engrained cultural narratives. Spanjer’s work mostly challenges an internalised belief system, and in particular he tries to pull apart ‘ideas of blackness’ within the contemporary art world. For Spanjer, he focuses on the journey of collecting the imagery as a process in itself. Spanjer creates his erotic print work from a very personal place whilst he addresses personal resolutions. He uses conflict and resolution as two ideals to work from, his interest lying in standing with conflict and addressing it. For these newer additions, Spanjer intended the works to be far more explicit than they became, due to the nature of the imagery he used. An equally important aspect to his process, is to analyse the original source to a point of eventual abstraction.