Seven Works from a Ravishing New Book Celebrating Erotic Art

Pin It
Nobuyoshi Araki, The Look from Erotos, 1993Private collection, © Nobuyoshi Araki

The Art of the Erotic is a look at art’s historic depiction of erotica, comprising 170 works and 2,500 years

In a ravishing new tome, Phaidon offers a millennia-spanning survey of the eternal allure of desirous images. For humans have sought to communicate their lusts and longings – those essential stirrings of body, mind and soul – through art from the inception of every creative form. Introduced by journalist Rowan Pelling, a former editor of the Erotic Review who has since established The Amorist, and featuring 170 works, The Art of the Erotic aims to distil the essence of the ever-evolving nature of erotica – as opposed to the pornographic – as although many works aim to titillate, the erotic remains tantalisingly transcendent.

And so we travel through 2,500 years of history to the present day, via plates of paintings, photographs, sculptures, installations and performances, selected by Phaidon editors, beginning with a hand-painted Athenian cup from 470BC depicting an erastes (lover) and his eromenos (beloved); alighting upon pieces by icons from around the globe including: Michelangelo, Riza-yi Abbasi, Suzuki Harunobu, Joan Miró, Nan Goldin, Louise Bourgeois and David Hockney, interwoven with rarer delights by the likes of Carolee Shneemann, Tamara de Lempicka, Pipilotti Rist, Anselm Kiefer, and Anish Kapoor whose Hysterical Sexual, 2016, serves as a fitting coda.

1. Nobuyoshi Araki, The Look from Erotos, 1993 (above)

Originally featured within the acclaimed photographer’s Erotos book, this image of a striking, sole eye was selected over Araki’s better-known explicit works, such as those of rope-bound nude women, for its nuanced charm and mysterious air. 

2. Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Iris, 1926

Hailed as a groundbreaking depiction of female sexuality from a female perspective – one of the very first in the Western canon – despite protestations by feminist O’Keeffe, who hoped to evade being labelled a ‘woman artist’, the intimate focus on enlarged, abstracted petal-forms in rich, sensual hues are easily read as a welcome celebration of female sexuality.

3. Francis Bacon, Two Figures, 1953

The clear interplay between sex and violence conjures a volatile, impassioned atmosphere between the two male figures on the disheveled, isolated bed in Francis Bacon’s Two Figures. Created while homosexuality was still fully criminalised, the discreet mezzanine placing of Two Figures on its debut at the Hanover Gallery, London, was dictated by the fear of a police raid. 

4. Martha Nilsson Edelheit, Female Flesh Wall, 1965

With this arresting, vivid all-female mural, Edelheit hoped to make space for women’s sexual exploration while questioning the rise of pornographic imagery – directed at men, of course – during the 60s. On display at New York’s Byron Gallery, Female Flesh Wall was deemed obscene by certain viewers who took affront at the brazen depiction of women’s forms, as well as Edelheit’s self-representation as viewed in black and white, painting in a mirror.

5. Wolfgang Tillmans, The Cock (Kiss), 2002

Named for hedonist gay club night The Cock at Soho’s Ghetto, the close framed kissing couple symbolise the sheer joy of serendipitous nocturnal encounters enabled by temporary liberation from prejudicial social constraints. Following the hate-fuelled terror attack at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, the photograph was adopted as an emblem for sexual freedom by those wishing to show solidarity with the gay community on social media.

6. Mickalene Thomas, La Leçon d’amour2008

American painter Thomas drew upon Michelangelo’s famed Pietà and Balthus’ subversive The Guitar Lesson in her arranging of two female figures within this resonant acrylic, rhinestone and enamel-crafted piece. Yet despite her resultant submissive pose, the reclining woman’s gaze is confident – her sexuality wholly her own – which by turn, elicits the viewer to query centuries of women’s representation in art by men. And the lustrous image also serves as a challenge to the racism inherent to Western beauty standards, a common theme for Thomas as inspired by her mother’s troubling experiences as a black model in the 1970’s.

7. Betty Tompkins, Sex Painting #3, 2013 

#3 is taken from a series which explores female sexual desire by the US photo-realist. The composition stems from a tight crop of a vintage pornographic photograph by Tompkins, who is known for seeking out subject matter in illegally obtained hardcore magazines prior to stripping them of their male-focused makers’ original intent by painting vastly enlarged selections in her hazy, tender style.

The Art of the Erotic is out now, published by Phaidon.