Art & Photography / In Pictures

Ten Studies in Sexuality from Sotheby’s Erotic Art Sale

As the auction house mounts a sale exploring passion and desire across the ages, Holly Black selects the most alluring lots in honour of Valentines Day

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Lot 17 Robert Mapplethorpe, Bow and Arrow (est. £6
Bow and Arrow (Lisa Lyon), 1981Photography by Robert Mapplethorpe, Courtesy of Sotheby's

As much as we might want to ignore it at times, Valentines Day is the most prominently amorous day of the year. In honour of this starry-eyed occasion, Sotheby’s has explored representations of love, lust and sexuality with a collection of over one hundred lots, spanning ancient scrolls and Roman sculpture to modern sketches and contemporary photography, entitled Erotic: Passion and Desire. Whether you’re into explicit erotica, more nuanced nudes, sculpture, painting or furniture formed from phalluses, there’s something for everyone. 

1. Lot 17: Bow and Arrow (Lisa Lyon), by Robert Mapplethorpe (as above)

Mapplethorpe is more commonly known for his explicit portraits from the aptly named X series, or his studies of the male physique that were heavily informed by Renaissance painting. However, he also took a keen interest in photographing women, beyond his enterprises with Patti Smith. This image depicts the world’s first female body builder Lisa Lyon, holding a taught bow and arrow in perfect profile. “There’s something very sensual about her,” says photography specialist Brandei Estes. “She isn’t ripped and glistening like the women you see today, and some say Mapplethorpe loved her because she reminded him of Michelangelo’s sculpture.”

2. Lot 1: Ophelia, by Sarah Bernhardt

As well as being one of the greatest actors of her day, Sarah Bernhardt was also an accomplished and acclaimed sculptor, instructed by Roland Mathieu-Meusnier and Jules Franceschi. Bernhardt hadn’t yet played Shakespeare’s doomed heroine when she created this relief, but she had already established a morbid fascination with the erotic nature of death (she was known to regularly sleep in a coffin). This unashamedly erotic pose appears suspended in a state of rapture, with delicate flowers and lapping water picked out against the smooth contours of the flesh in exquisite detail.

3. Lot 5: Akt (Nude), by Egon Schiele

Early on in his career Schiele often asked his sister or prostitutes to pose, but by the time he produced this work in 1917 he had enough money to employ professional models. This change saw him move away from closely cropped, erotic studies that often held a more explicit social commentary, in favour of work that purely focused on accurately realising the human form. This powerful piece confidently etches the outline of an arched body in black crayon, offering precise realism devoid of any supporting context.

4. Lot 11: Bathers, by Pavel Tchelitchew

This highly charged homoerotic scene was painted for Tchelitchew’s lover Charles Henri Ford – seen on the left sporting an enormous pink hat – while the New York City ballet dancer Nicholas Magallanes takes centre stage with a strident, unabashed pose. The perspective is almost unfathomable, so it comes as no surprise to learn that this painting has been hung both upside down and on the ceiling at various intervals. Magallanes’ bronzed body seems to simultaneously tower over and fall into the azure sea, the sun highlighting his taught limbs, while his ferociously foreshortened companion on the right naps in the heat.

5. Lot 22: Le Lit de la Païva

This astounding mahogany bed is more akin to sculpture than furniture. With its enormous double-finned mermaid, rippling waves and shell motif it is reminiscent of the swan-drawn chariot of Venus – a fitting tribute to the supposed commissioner Esther Thérèse Lachmann (or ‘La Païva’ as she was known), one of the richest and most powerful courtesans of the Second French Empire. It was reportedly created for her mansion on the Champs Elysées, where she entertained the likes of Gustave Flaubert, Émile Zola and Eugène Delacroix, but it was never delivered. Instead it made its way to La Fleur Blanche, Paris’s most illustrious brothel and a continuous site of inspiration for Toulouse-Lautrec. It remained there (and has been photographed in an entirely mirrored bedroom) until the closure of all of the city’s maisons closes at the end of the Second World War.

6. Lot 53: A couple making acrobatic love on a lake, North India, Mewar, 18th century

This vibrantly pigmented watercolour shows two lovers in a seemingly impossible amorous pose. While two large pillows bolster the man, the woman appears to be contorted in a perverse backbend. “A colleague pointed out, she’s multi-tasking”, says Constantine Frangos, head of sale at Sotheby’s. “Look closely and you’ll see she’s brandishing a sword to ward off the crocodiles, while having sex.”

7. Lot 74: Reproduction of a table supposedly delivered to Catherine the Great

As legend would have it Russia’s renowned empress kept several secret rooms in her palace, decorated with flamboyantly erotic furnishings. Though neither the rooms nor objects survive a few black and white photos remain, and this table is a perfect replica of one pictured – save for the palette. “We really have no idea about the colours,” Frangos admits. “It could have been polychrome or bronze, so this is a modern interpretation.” The bizarre collections of genitalia impressed on every surface are verging on comedic and are certainly a celebration of overt vulgarity.

8. Lot 98: Untitled, (Hotel Rooms), 1993 – 1994, by Nobuyoshi Araki

Araki’s practice predominantly revolves around ideas of sex and death, with his most notorious images depicting women partaking in Kinbaku-bi, a form of rope bondage practiced in his native Japan. “It can be quite hardcore… but from what I understand, this form of binding is very intimate and consensual,” Brandei Estes says assuringly. Araki selected this portfolio of ten silver prints himself, showing a softer side to his practice. Taken from various sittings, there are a few of his wife, but also some beautifully poised shots of an unknown woman loosely bound on an unkempt bed, surrounded by the rigid geometry of tatami mats and paper screens.

9. Lot 99: First, by Lynette Yiadom Boakye

“The focus of Yiadom-Boakye’s work is not to portray anyone in particular but rather an amalgamation of different sources and memories,” contemporary specialist Marina Ruiz Colomer explains. Instead of falling into the traditional notion of portraiture this painting elicits a strong overarching sensuality. The figure stares directly at the viewer with a suggestive smirk, caressing and revealing their body while swathed in a warm, burgundy glow. It is a powerful – not to mention characteristically enormous – work that captures a much subtler eroticism than many of the other traditional nudes in this sale.

10. Lot 107: Male Magnetic Erotica, by Takis

This astonishing bronze features the bottom half of a male torso, legs splayed, while an invisible magnetic force suspends a cone directly above it. This unusual use of a traditional sculptural format married with abstracting is both jarring and intriguing, if not for its unusual aesthetic nature then its scientific accuracy. Takis is known for his playful subversion of the male and female form and the association between sexuality and literal magnetic attraction is deliberately overt in several of his works.

Erotic: Passion and Desire is on display at Sotheby’s until Wednesday 15 February. The auction takes place on February 16, 2017.

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