Are movies the new boudoir art?


Back when royal courts were major art purchasers, painters like Francois Boucher, Rubens and many others got to exercise their sexy muscle on behalf of their royal employers, painting titillating works based on mythology. Many of these erotic paintings (some specifically for the boudoir) now sit in major art museums around the world, a reminder that the erotic in art once had great appeal for patrons who liked a little (or a lot of) sensory pleasure in their paintings and sculpture. As Jonathan Jones said recently about old master paintings in Britain’s National Gallery: “A great painting can be shockingly carnal. It can be pornographic. Oil painting is the greatest come-on ever devised…”

Rubens, Peter Paul The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus c. 1618 Oil on canvas 88 x 82 7/8 in (224 x 210.5 cm) Alte Pinakothek, Munich
Rubens, Peter Paul The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus c. 1618 Oil on canvas 88 x 82 7/8 in (224 x 210.5 cm) Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Nowadays, erotic art is more of a niche player and the art market (the closest thing to a royal court that we have) prefers its sexy in air quotes. Marilyn Minter uses hard core porn photographs and transforms them into glittering, wet-and-wild bauble-fests. They are not so erotic when she’s done with them but way “sexy,” hip and commercially viable.

Marilyn Minter, Split, 2003,  C-print
Marilyn Minter, Split, 2003, C-print

When I emailed a bunch of Philadelphia artists recently to ask what was the most erotic art they’d seen and why, mostly I got no responses. One artist, Christopher Davison, demurred. Davison makes pretty darned sexy works himself, (his drawings of male and female nudes interacting in dark, eerie forest settings were a staple at the former Jenny Jaskey gallery). “While it would seem like I would have something meaningful to contribute on this topic I am actually not the best person to provide feedback,” he said, adding “Strange but true!”

They're On Their Way  Flashe, watercolor, acrylic ink, gouache on Rives BFK 22" x 30"  2009
They're On Their Way Flashe, watercolor, acrylic ink, gouache on Rives BFK 22" x 30" 2009

Gabriel Martinez, a mischievous artist known for his autobiographical works — and for a recent series of sexually-charged masturbation photos featuring anonymous men’s legs and feet at moment of orgasm — wrote back “I will think (hard) about this one…” Then he slipped away into the ether never answering the question. But Proximity Gallery owner and artist Janel Frey responded immediately and directly naming Philadelphia artist, Pete Checchia who, she says, “captures women in a very sensual and complex way.”

Gabriel Martinex, Self Portraits by Heterosexual Men (Anonymous), 2007.  c-print
Gabriel Martinex, Self Portraits by Heterosexual Men (Anonymous), 2007. c-print

Artist and FLUXspace co-founder, Chris Golas, sent in an anecdote from his own life. While a student at Tyler he did a performance that was arguably erotic. He stood behind a shower curtain half-naked while a woman slapped him after her hands in different colored paints. Golas said “My intent was not to make erotic work but as I reflect on the experience it clearly had meaning that bridged into a certain eroticism for me. This particular performance could border on fetishism as well.”

Pete Checcia, Photo collage
Pete Checcia, Photo collage
Chris Golas, photo from a performance
Chris Golas, photo from a performance

Artists now don’t seek to titillate per se, but still the erotic will out especially in work by those who court the unconscious mind, like Louise Bourgeois, Lisa Yuskavage, Pipilotti Rist, Patty Chang, R. Crumb, Paul McCarthy, Philadelphia artist Tony Ward, Andy Warhol (films) and Marcel Duchamp (Etant Donnes) for starters. There are more of course.

Louise Bourgeois, photo by Robert Maplethorpe
Louise Bourgeois, photo by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1982

These artists all work in a narrative tradition and use figures or figure fragments (Bourgeois) and their works might give off a pleasurable erotic charge along with whatever other message is there. Warhol is in a class all his own with experimental movies that are sensual (Blow Job, Sleep) and those that are sexually explicit and close to porn (Blue Movie).

Andy Warhol, Blowjob
Andy Warhol, Blowjob

But postmodern erotic art usually has a conflicted sexuality. Pleasure is subsumed under oozing gooey messes (Paul McCarthy, Santa’s Cholocate Shop); or it’s accompanied by embarrassment (R. Crumb). In the case of Duchamp’s Etant Donnes — on view in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s permanent collection — the erotic is tempered by a dose of pure weirdness as you look through a peephole at the work and what’s portrayed — the lower half of a nude woman on the ground, her legs splayed, one hand holding aloft a lantern and an eerie waterfall in the background — is creepy and inexplicable.

R. Crumb drawing
R. Crumb drawing

Artists now might deny the erotic in their art. Louise Bourgeois said “I wouldn’t say my work is erotic, even though this side of it seems obvious to many people.” Tony Ward, on the other hand, in an interview with Corey Armpriester on artblog, embraces sexual imagery as a way to put human sexuality into the art history canon. But even this artist — who shows with Sande Webster Gallery — seems to waffle on the erotic charge of his works saying he’s “looking for a means to express the art of it (human sexuality) not the sex of it.”

Photo by Tony Ward

Feminism took some of the sexy out of art by attacking the male gaze and by empowering women to make works about their own sexuality. Many early feminist works are angry, and while graphic, not sexy. The Visible Vagina at Francis Naumann Gallery which Andrea told you about recently, exposes many feminist works focused on the female sex organ. But as with much feminist work eroticism wasn’t the point of it and it doesn’t seem to be the byproduct.

Marcel Duchamp, Etant Donnes
Marcel Duchamp, Etant Donnes

But even before feminism, abstract expressionism and minimalism — both about as sexy as Benjamin Moore paint chips — put eros on the shelf.

Lust Caution, Ang Lee's movie about the Japanese occupation of China.,_Caution_(film)
Lust Caution, Ang Lee's movie about the Japanese occupation of China has scenes that feel like they're based on Japanese Shunga drawings

Photography went where painting and sculpture wouldn’t go and nude photography is our latter day erotic art. But more than that, today’s erotic art is the movies. Films may be the closest thing we have to Rubens, Boucher, Caravaggio, Bronzino. Movies use narrative– often extremely over the top dramatic — and add romance and the erotic scene or two. Art house movies are full of that mixture. These movies deliver erotic content without irony. It’s seriously sensual stuff, just like the old masters used to provide.

So if movies are how we get our erotic art it’s not a bad thing. It’s just another example of pop culture taking over what used to be in art’s domain — or art ceding something it didn’t want to deal with to pop culture, which very much wants to deal.  Hollywood sells sex because sex sells.

>>Etant Donnes, on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gallery 183, Modern and Contemporary Art, first floor. 26th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway Adults: $16 Seniors (ages 65 & over): $14 Students (with valid ID): $12 Children (excluding groups) ages 13–18: $12 ages 12 & under: Free First Sunday of each month: Pay what you wish all day.

>>The Visible Vagina, to Mar 20. Francis Naumann Gallery, 24 W. 57th St., Suite 305. NY NY 10019. 212 582 3201.


andy warhol, ang lee, chris golas, christopher davison, erotic art, gabriel martinez, louise bourgeois, marcel duchamp, marilyn minter, movies, pete checcia, r. crumb, rubens, tony ward


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