Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sexuality in Art

I wanted to write about the female nude in art. From the beginning to the present day. What is it about the female nude that makes this a perennial and inexhaustible subject? Some paintings of the female nude can be erotic whilst others can be merely suggestive ie Matisse. His nudes are mere cutout silhouettes. I felt the subject was too broad until I managed to get a handle on it. The female nude is the visual representation of sexuality. If not sexual in nature then there is no point to the female being shown nude. Others might argue that form is the primary concern, yada yada yada. Yes, form is an element but ultimately we could find more challenges in the form of a muscular male body.


Other nudes such as those of Ingres are sensuous because the skin tone is tangible to the viewer.
Michelangelo painted female nudes (see Sistine Chapel) that look like muscular men with tacked on breasts. The intention here is purely narrative. Yet other nudes that illustrate biblical stories or mythological episodes are clearly erotic in intent. The Birth of Venus by Botticelli seems to us today to bw:Botticelli's The Birth of Venuse interesting but erotic? I'm not sure. Maybe in his time it would have constituted the pinnacle of erotic art.

The visual representation of the female nude conjures up erotic feelings simply because the female is undressed.
The nude female in art is invariably young and attractive. There is no desire to look at a geriatric nude, bent double, arthritic and wrinkled.Of course there are always exceptions, see Lucian Freud.
This in itself explains the need to portray a female without clothes.It is to admire, to appreciate, to celebrate the beauty of the human figure.
In the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymous Bosch the nude figure is used to portray sin. Sin and sexuality seems to go hand in hand. Thanks to religion of course.
So we discover that explicit sexuality seems to be missing in western art except for the pre-Christian era. Look at the paintings from Pompei for example. The female nude is always used to imply sexuality. Even in paintings such as

The Rape of the Sabines, a popular subject amongst artists, Rubens' interpretation is more explicit in nudity but the theme is more concerned with movement and composition than explicit sexuality. There is naked female bodies, groping and struggle. The rest is left to the imagination.
It seems that if any erotic art did exist, it might have been destroyed by Christian zealots. In contrast, there is much to see in Indian and Japanese art. Other non-Christian cultures didn't seem to have a problem with sexually explicit (erotic) art. It appears to be a Christian/Western characteristic that we are obsessed with distinguishing between what is deemed pornography and art.

Another interesting aspect of the portrayal of the female nude is that not until Lucian Freud do we see a body that is less than ideal.
It's here that we come to a critical point of observation. Is Freud concerned with sexuality or merely breaking through the frontiers of convention? Maybe some viewers might find his nude figures of obese women erotic. I think it goes further that just an exercise in titillation.

To be continued...
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23 comments:

Jeannie said...

I've been pondering this post since you put it up. There's just so much there. When it comes down to it, commonplace, art and porn may be in the eye of the beholder.

I think it all depends on the mindset of the viewer which may be heavily influenced by their sex and orientation. For one, nudity may detract from the artistry while for another it enhances.

When I see Asian or Kama Sutra types of sexual drawings, I think of it more as educational art than pornographic art.

And what is really the difference between erotica and pornography?

Maybe judging the intent of both the artist and the viewer are necessary to make the distinctions - it's not a matter of whether a particular work is or is not based on it's own merit. Fashion and sensibilities change. Victorians put pantaloons on piano legs so young men wouldn't get aroused. They were excited by a "well-turned" ankle. What about fundamentalist Muslims? Are they more aroused by the modesty of the burka or the exhibitionism of the western whore?
Love American Style had a skit once where a man had a date with a porn actress who always wore gloves and never let anyone see her hands naked. His friend couldn't wait to hear about his friend's exploits, expecting wild abandoned sex. At the end of the evening, he finally asks his buddy who says wistfully - "I got to hold her hand"

FJ said...

Is Freud concerned with sexuality or merely breaking through the frontiers of convention? Maybe some viewers might find his nude figures of obese women erotic. I think it goes further that just an exercise in titillation.

So, we can agree on something again. In the words of Emerson, " In the true mythology, Love is an immortal child, and Beauty leads him as a guide: nor can we express a deeper sense than when we say, Beauty is the pilot of the young soul,"; but the 'Good' must be pursued with at least three sometimes incommensurable "ideas", and not merely the childish/oftern brutish guide of "love/desire" alone. One also requires a more manly courage, fortitude and judgement necessary to "stare into the abyss" so as to discern the truth inherent in the eternal nature of life and the universe and "listen" to his own voice of reason.

Some of the "sins" in Freud's subject are obvious through their manifestion in the subject's "appearance". Whereas those of Boticelli's Venus may be masked by an "appearance" of beauty and therefore much more difficult for judgement to discern.

We are all private charioteers, not merely individual horses. Plato, "Phaedrus"

The followers of Ares are fierce and violent; those of Zeus seek out some philosophical and imperial nature; the attendants of Here find a royal love; and in like manner the followers of every god seek a love who is like their god; and to him they communicate the nature which they have received from their god. The manner in which they take their love is as follows:—

I told you about the charioteer and his two steeds, the one a noble animal who is guided by word and admonition only, the other an ill-looking villain who will hardly yield to blow or spur. Together all three, who are a figure of the soul, approach the vision of love. And now a fierce conflict begins. The ill-conditioned steed rushes on to enjoy, but the charioteer, who beholds the beloved with awe, falls back in adoration, and forces both the steeds on their haunches; again the evil steed rushes forwards and pulls shamelessly. The conflict grows more and more severe; and at last the charioteer, throwing himself backwards, forces the bit out of the clenched teeth of the brute, and pulling harder than ever at the reins, covers his tongue and jaws with blood, and forces him to rest his legs and haunches with pain upon the ground. When this has happened several times, the villain is tamed and humbled, and from that time forward the soul of the lover follows the beloved in modesty and holy fear. And now their bliss is consummated; the same image of love dwells in the breast of either, and if they have self-control, they pass their lives in the greatest happiness which is attainable by man—they continue masters of themselves, and conquer in one of the three heavenly victories. But if they choose the lower life of ambition they may still have a happy destiny, though inferior, because they have not the approval of the whole soul. At last they leave the body and proceed on their pilgrim's progress, and those who have once begun can never go back. When the time comes they receive their wings and fly away, and the lovers have the same wings.


It's not surprising then that so few charioteers are "statesmenlike" enough to ever go on to master the quadriga.

Lexcen said...

Jeannie, your comment is much appreciated.
FJ, sorry to say I missed the sub-conscious connection between Lucian Freud and Sigmund Freud. I should know better. Of course Freud and sexuality go hand in hand like peaches and cream. Was it my Freudian slip?

Alice Gorable said...

I was speaking of Lucian, myself, although on first read I thought perhaps you were talking about Sigmund... so likely it's my own slip that's showing.

Alice Gorable said...

As for Bosch's painting, I think you need to cut him some slack. As the first 'surrealist', I'm sure that his sins of the "flesh" were born of Platonic silver-gold dialectic and mind-body dualism.

Lexcen said...

Alice, mind/body dualism? Yes, maybe that's where Christianity gets its dislike of sexuality. But to think of Bosch as a surrealist? He would be offended. His visions are very much real to him. Bosch is a moralist. Maybe he read too much of the Divine Comedy.

FJ said...

His visions were real to him? How surreal! All Dali did was paint what he thought was behind what Sigmund Freud saw.

Lexcen said...

FJ, I could say a lot about surrealism but this quote from wikipedia seems to sum it up,
: Surrealism, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.

FJ said...

It's a bad definition.

Automatism is merely one school of surrealism... the school subsribed to by the untalented commies that hated Dali's success.

FJ said...

Look at Dali's Gradiva's. If that's not Sigmund Freud, then nothing is. Take it from someone who has taken the time to actually READ Freud.

FJ said...

Here's an abstract on Freud's "Gradiva".

FJ said...

Dali's painting are x1,000 more interesting that the fake-authenticity inherent in the Frida Khalo cult.

FJ said...

btw- If you ever need described the process by which the "real functioning of thought" occurs, just ask. I've got the real answer to that one down pat. ;-)

FJ said...

You could use it (to confuse?) both "consciousness" AND "vision".

Lexcen said...

Interesting as the article on Gradiva might be, I still think it's tenuous connection between Dali and Freud. Dali was full of psychological issues, ie his dead twin brother. Dali was also sexually inadequate. No wonder he would have had an interest in Freud. The Great Masturbator sums up Dali. Coupled with the anecdotal story of how he masturbated himself in front of an unwary woman (Dali's personal version of sex) and you have the makings of a very interesting case study for Sigmund Freud. Look at Dali's paintings of melting clocks, impotence yells out at you. It's also interesting that Dali never painted anything erotic. Picasso was more comfortable with his own sexuality for example and he did many drawings and sketches of vaginas.

Lexcen said...

I don't have much regard for Frida Khalo. Maybe she's an icon for feminists?

FJ said...

Commies. One of Trotsky's hotsky's.

FJ said...

Tenuous? LOL!

Sorry, but Dali's reputation was savaged by his jealous commie rivals. You should spend more time examining his works and less reading bio's in Lefty-authored art books.

Unless of course, you're some sort of Marxist-Lenist, Hitler devotee or volunteer for the Abraham Lincoln Brigaid.

FJ said...

Dali never painted anything erotic? Gala was H-O-T!

Lexcen said...

FJ, my opinions on Dali are personal, how dare you accuse me of being a commie :-) My God, you are passionate about Dali. From a man's point of view I didn't find Gala erotic in the least. Botticelli's Venus is definitely more erotic. Even Caravaggio's youth's are more erotic. A naked Gala doesn't make her hot.

FJ said...

Yeah, but look at that staircase leading up to her! As Freud would interpret a staircase, open doors, and "chests" of drawers... Woo-hoo!

FJ said...

I know I'd love to get into her drawers.

FJ said...

Yep, the Commies sure love Frida. She's slated to be designated, "greatest artist of the 20th century".

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