Eroticism and Art, by Alyce Mahon

Eros has always inspired great art, from Boucher's beauties to Courbet's infamous crotch shot. But the line between porn and erotica isn't so easy to draw
Click to follow

This is a vast, endlessly expanding subject which combines art with sex, politics, censorship, gender studies and aesthetics. Which is doubtless why Alyce Mahon has restricted her canvas to roughly the last 150 years of Western art. No pre-history; hardly any classicism; no Central America with its huge output of erotic sculpture; apart from some clever pastiche from Japan, nothing from Asia with its erotic temple sculptures, the endless supply of erotic Indian miniatures and the dazzling Japanese eroticism/pornography of such masters as Utamaro and Hiroshige. All these are limiting factors but Mahon, despite her self-denying ordinance, is never short of stimulating material. The book is stuffed with the fruits of her wide reading as well as her viewing of thousands of paintings and sculptures.

She takes, as one of her principal texts, Georges Bataille's view that eroticism "presupposes man in conflict with himself" and that man's erotic urges terrify him (which is, to say the least, arguable) and that what is outrageous, or deemed to be outrageous, "exposes not just the true nature of eroticism but our human trepidation [my italics] when the erotic is given representational form". As always in any debate on this subject, question begging is to the fore. Who is man? Does man include woman? How do you/we define outrage? Are "we" terrified of the erotic? Is that why we like looking at erotic art, to be frightened rather than to be aroused?

Mahon's introduction is one of the longest chapters and is particularly wide-ranging, bringing in Foucault, Kristeva, Gloria Steinem, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine McKinnon. She tries to draw a clear line between eroticism and pornography, stating, rather sternly that "Pornography's sole intent is to stimulate sexually; it is an aid to sex or masturbation." Presumably she would applaud the view attributed to Mervyn Griffith-Jones, the haplessly inept prosecuting counsel in the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial. When asked what his usual criterion for prosecution over obscenity was, he said that he would lean back, put his feet on his desk and riffle through the pages; if he got an erection he would prosecute. An honest point of view if nothing else.

The advantage of the long introduction is that Mahon can, perfectly properly, stray outside, mostly before, her chosen period. She can examine Titian's "Venus of Urbino" of c1538, itself indebted to Giorgione's "Sleeping Venus" of 1510 and foreshadowing Manet's 1863 "Olympia". In all three of these masterpieces the artist's intention is, equally undoubtedly, erotic stimulation, a more or less "respectable" form of artistic endeavour through the ages, and one much employed in the period of her book.

On the whole she doesn't deal with much bad art where it is difficult to distinguish the fine borderline between eroticism and soft porn, particularly that soft porn so beloved by the Victorians who bought the luscious nudes of William Etty and the faintly ridiculous "period" pictures of Alma-Tadema. (Look at his "The Tepidarium", a study in "respectable" female group nudity whose ridiculousness only makes itself felt when one looks at Ingres' wonderful "The Turkish Bath", elegantly analysed by Mahon.)

Inevitably she reproduces Courbet's "The Origin of the World" of 1866, a fastidiously painted crotch shot, which is a hundred times more arousing than any Soho material. Mahon quotes Roger Scruton's view that this painting of a woman's "lower portrait" - shades of Turner and Ruskin - "which conceals the face but exposes the genitals must inevitably verge on the obscene."

To this mere male reviewer the Courbet is the most erotic female nude ever painted, even if it lacks such normally arousing appurtenances as a face, arms and some legs and feet. It is - and it's irritating that the doubles entendres seem ineradicable - a seminal work; of art, of eroticism, of the life force. And, given the line on male and female in Genesis, as well as prevalent 19th-century male attitudes in an essentially phallocratic world, how interesting that Courbet entitled this masterpiece "The Origin of the World". Would Michelangelo, whose well endowed sculpture of David, compulsory fig-leaf added later, which is reproduced (without its camouflage) opposite the Courbet, have been tempted to use the title for his masterpiece?

She also analyses a shocking detail of the early Quattrocento fresco by Giotto of "The Last Judgement". Three naked bodies hang from a tree branch, one suspended by his teeth, another by her hair and the third by his genitals. This is "erotic" only in that all three are being punished for their sins of the flesh but it can surely only be judged erotic in its appeal by extreme Sado-masochists. Mahon makes an interesting case for Mantegna's 1481 "St Sebastian" as a work of homo-erotic potential, particularly today for gay Catholic artists. Maybe so, but, apart from admiring Sebastian's impressive musculature, this immaculately composed, quasi-symbolical painting can be erotic only to those who need violence more than sex for their gratification.

Where Mahon is dead right is in her scrupulous account of Bernini's "Ecstasy of Saint Teresa", perhaps the most majestic and expressive female statue ever made. Bernini carved this masterpiece between 1647-52 and as Mahon writes, it "is a fantastic Baroque display of the mortification of the flesh for a greater sacred pleasure. It depicts that orgasmic moment when an angelic boy (now representing God rather than Eros) penetrates Teresa with his arrow."

A century before Bernini went to work on her she had written her autobiography containing a graphic description of both her torments and her ecstasy including the lines: "The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one can not possibly wish it to cease, nor is one's soul content with anything but God. This is not a physical, but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it - even a considerable share."

You don't have to be Sigmund Freud to believe that she experienced orgasm or to recognise the orgasmic nature of Bernini's representation of her face and body. In other words the Bernini is an unambiguously erotic work of art which the Giotto and the Mantegna are not. But the problem with the differing perceptions of Mahon, myself or anyone else interested in the subject - which must be most flesh and blood people who appreciate the visual arts - is that eroticism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The same image can be a tremendous turn-on for one person and positively emetic for another.

Some of Mahon's most amusing passages concern the 20th-century "adaptations" of much cherished old master paintings. Many of François Boucher's paintings are little more than chocolate-box soft porn, even kitsch. But sometimes you feel that he is painting for his own delectation rather than that of his patrons, even his most important one, Madame de Pompadour, the power behind the throne of Louis XV. When he is fully engaged there's no one else, not even Fragonard or Watteau, who can give such an erotic glow to female flesh. One would have to be brain dead not to be instantly in lust with Boucher's portrait of one of Louis XV's younger mistresses, Mademoiselle O'Murphy. The combination of her pose on a sofa, the expression on her face, the lushness of the fabrics which, with the reflected light of an invisible fireplace, set off her curves and skin tones, all conspire in Boucher's virtuoso hands to produce an erotic study which makes the airbrushed flawlessness of a hundred Playmates of the Month merely boring. She is indeed a mistress fit for a King, and Mahon has also reproduced an amusing 1997 pastiche by the Irish Michael Farrell called "Madonna Irlanda". Where Boucher painted to titillate, Farrell has subtitled his painting "The Very First Real Irish Political Picture" because he's making a point about Ireland "whoring" herself to Britain and her oppression by the Catholic Church. Where Boucher gives her bottom a delicate pink tinge, Farrell gives it large red patches as if she's just been spanked hard for someone else's pleasure, puts a voyeuristic self-portrait into one corner and in another, Leonardo's Vitruvian man, either covering his genitals with his hands or masturbating. The anti-Catholicism is marked by O'Murphy sporting a halo. Ireland being Ireland (in 1977 at least; it's a lot better today) the painting was bought by the Hugh Lane (Municipal) Gallery in Dublin but kept hidden for 10 years. So some jobsworth must have found it disturbingly erotic as well as politically unacceptable.

The pastiches of Manet's "Olympia" are also interesting. The erotic impact of the 1973 update by Mel Ramos is in fact, no doubt deliberately, much diminished by his use of a California blonde pin-up looking as if she's made of plastic. The other is by the gay Japanese Yasumasa Morimura who uses his own face and body to play both Olympia and her black servant. This has the added ingredient of our knowledge that Manet's model, Victorine Meurent, was said to be lesbian. As Olympia, Morimura's only concession to femininity by his naked person is a curly blonde wig. Is this pastiche erotic? Maybe, if one is gay. But it is certainly witty, genuinely funny and decorative to look at.

Much of the later sections deal with aggressive American feminist artists and others who set out to be transgressive as well. Male homosexual art, from Lord Leighton to Robert Mapplethorpe, gets a thorough airing and there's plenty of conceptual and performance material including Vito Acconci, naked, happily biting chunks out of himself and making his blood flow.

Inevitably in as wide-ranging and concise an account of the subject as this any reviewer will wish not to have seen some of the art and will bemoan the absence of his own favourites. Mahon is not afraid of including some exceptionally weird material, but it is at least never dull. My only real gripe is the absence of Sickert, who dealt so brilliantly with the dark side of Eros, Lucian Freud, whose female nudes are the most erotic English post-War paintings and Aubrey Beardsley, whose sexually uninhibited drawings are the only English works of art that compare adequately with the Japanese masters of the genre, sharing with them the obsession with wildly improbable gigantic phalluses.

But for a first book this is a considerable achievement. Finally, a mixed bouquet to OUP for producing a well designed, hardbound book with the vast majority of its more than a hundred illustrations in decent colour for only £20. But at whom is a great scholarly publishing house aiming a volume which refers to W B Yeats as "the Irish poet", Goya as "the Spanish Court painter" (which is in any case a barely accurate over-simplification) and Nietzsche as "the German philosopher"? You need to be reasonably well-educated to cope with this allusive and thought-provoking book; to need signposts like that you must be more or less illiterate.