The 10 best works of erotic art: a response to Jonathan Jones

October 12, 2014 § 2 Comments

I have never before written a blog post in anger. But there’s a first time for everything.

So what’s got me so het up?

A week ago I came across a column by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian on the ten best works of erotic art.

Now what you need to know about me and Jonathan Jones is that even on a good day, he infuriates me, to the point that I generally avoid reading him because I don’t particularly enjoy getting pointlessly angry. His criticism is, for the most part, lazy, pompous and ignorant. Much of it perfectly illustrates Barthes’s definition of ‘blind and dumb criticism’. His exhibition reviews often read as if he didn’t actually see the show but just decided to write about what he imagined it was like, and it always conforms to his prejudices; his writing in general reads like that of someone who hasn’t cracked an art history book in years and – an even worse sin, in my view – someone who does not look at art with sensitivity, curiosity and a desire to understand, with open eyes and open mind. (I have never understood why the Guardian, which boasts a fleet of thoughtful theatre, music, literary and architecture critics, can’t find someone to do similar justice to the visual arts.)

So now you know why I normally give Jones a wide berth. But then the other week I was innocently perusing the Guardian and clicked the link to the fatal article before I realised what I was doing. And, much as you can’t look away from a car crash, I kept reading.

By the time I got to the end, I was seeing red – as an art historian, as a woman, as a feminist, as a thinking person who doesn’t like to have my intelligence insulted. Where to begin? The blatant sexism? (Not a single one of the artists Jones chose was a woman.) The blatant heterosexism? (Yes, two of the works he chose ostensibly depict pairs of female lovers, but if Jones had bothered to do his research he would have known that the drawing by Egon Schiele actually shows a woman and… a doll. Well hey, JJ, if that’s what floats your boat…) The ham-fisted interpretation of his choices? (How on earth can he plausibly argue that Jeff Koons’s Made in Heaven is erotic? Cheap, nasty, cynical, yes – erotic, hell no.) Or maybe more than anything, the extreme narrowness of his definition of what makes an erotic work of art, which, based on his list, is a naked man and woman (or two women, but – perish the thought – never two men) very graphically getting it on. What a sad and limited way to look at one of the richest and most complicated aspects of human experience!

But rather than simply get mad at Jones, I decided to get even. Top 10 lists are by their very nature reductive, but with that caveat in mind I put together a riposte to his. (I did actually agree with a handful of his picks, as you’ll see below, but not always for the same reasons.) Here it is, in no particular order – comments, additions and disagreements welcome and no disingenuous attacks of the vapours please – you should have known what to expect…


Utamaro, Lovers in an upstairs room

1. Kitagawa Utamaro, Lovers in an upstairs room, from Poem of the Pillow (1788)

One of the most extraordinary shows I’ve seen in recent memory was the British Museum’s 2013 exhibition of shunga (Japanese erotic prints): hundreds of gorgeously realised images of couples making love with a lack of shame or inhibition that one seldom finds in western art before 1900 (although there are obviously some exceptions to that rule, some of them included here). The majority of them are quite explicit, sometimes comically so, but to my mind some of the most powerfully sensual shunga are those that hide more than they reveal (quite literally, in this case – the way the woman’s leg is veiled by a swathe of gauzy fabric is stunning) – and Utamaro’s Poem of the Pillow just might be the best of all.


Raimondi after Giulio Romano, I Modi

2. Marcantonio Raimondi after Giulio Romano, I Modi (The Positions) (1524)

I Modi was one of the most scandalous sets of prints ever produced – a set of sixteen engravings illustrating different sexual positions. So scandalous, in fact, that the entire original edition was destroyed by the Church, and of the second edition, only these nine fragments survive.

This is another overlap between Jones’s list and mine, but I’ve chosen I Modi for a different reason: I would argue that the fragmentary, censored version is probably a lot more erotic than the original. Rather than spelling everything out, the fragments force your imagination to try to fill in the missing pieces. And isn’t the imagination the most potent erotic force of all?


The Chamber Idyll 1831 by Edward Calvert 1799-1883

3. Edward Calvert, The Chamber Idyll (1831)

William Blake may have written eloquently (and radically, for his age) about sexuality throwing off the shackles of religious and societal guilt but it was his follower Edward Calvert (one of the artists who called themselves the Ancients) who gave it the most perfect visual expression: a young man and woman undressing for bed on their wedding night, the cottage interior (not least the overflowing basket of apples) and the surrounding pastoral landscape echoing and underscoring the innocent sensuousness of the pair. The most surprising thing about this exquisite print? It’s tiny – a mere 4 x 7.5 cm. And the small scale, which forces you to look very closely in order to take in every detail, heightens the intimacy of the scene.

The Chamber Idyll is not only Calvert’s masterpiece, it’s also the last print he ever made. Perhaps he feared – or realised – that he would never be able to surpass it.



4. Caravaggio, John the Baptist (1602)

Caravaggio isn’t the first artist to transform John the Baptist from ascetic saint to object of desire (Leonardo got there before him) but he may be the most audacious. He stripped away anything that might have indicated that we’re meant to read this figure as a desert prophet (indeed, the painting is also known simply as ‘Youth with a Ram’) and left a Roman urchin revelling in his own nakedness and blasting us with an impish, knowing grin. Even the traditional lamb has been swapped for a ram – an ancient symbol of lust. And you can practically feel the heat of Caravaggio’s gaze on his flesh.

(Honourable mentions: the Warren Cup, which didn’t make the cut because doubts have been raised about its authenticity; any number of Greek vases, because I had no idea where to begin narrowing down the choice…)


Rembrandt French Bed

5. Rembrandt, The French Bed (1646)

Despite the trouble Marcantonio Raimondi landed in with I Modi, sex was far from being a rare subject for art in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – it’s just that it was usually given a mythological cloak of erudition and respectability. If you saw a man and woman entangled in bed, it was likely to be Mars and Venus entrapped by Vulcan.

That’s what makes Rembrandt’s etching so effective – and affecting: it’s not a couple of randy gods, it’s two ordinary people you could meet in the street, people who aren’t divinely beautiful and who have to contend with everyday annoyances (in this case, a cold room – they’re still half-dressed). There’s some speculation that the couple are Rembrandt himself and his common-law wife Hendrickje Stoffels, but I don’t feel it matters – surely the point is that they could be anyone. They could be us.


Beata Beatrix c.1864-70 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882

6. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix (c. 1864-70)

Sometimes less is more, and if Rossetti isn’t the first artist whom one thinks of as exemplifying restraint, maybe he should be. Beata Beatrix is an elegy to his recently-deceased wife (and fellow artist) Elizabeth Siddal, depicted in the guise of Dante’s beloved Beatrice at the moment of death. But it’s a highly symbolic death – she’s seated in a garden flanked by Dante and an angel, a bird dropping a poppy into her open hands. She’s usually described as being in spiritual ecstasy, and yes, her expression is ecstatic: closed eyes, open lips, straining throat… does Rossetti mean to show us the moment of death or ‘little death’?

Proof positive that a fully clothed figure can be every bit as erotic as a nude, and then some. (And a great example of Rossetti turning his limits to his advantage – Venus Verticordia, his one major attempt at a nude, is more ridiculous than sexy. No wonder Ruskin directed his ire at the flowers instead.)

(Honourable mention – Rossetti’s Paolo and Francesca.)


Vuillard, Nape of Misia's Neck

7. Edouard Vuillard, The Nape of Misia’s Neck (c. 1897-99)

Right, now you’re probably wondering if I’ve gone off the deep end. No, I haven’t. Admittedly, a large part of what makes this seemingly chaste and restrained little painting so erotic is the story behind it. The Misia to whom the neck belongs was Misia Godebska, a Polish-Belgian pianist married to Thadée Natanson, patron and promoter of the Nabis. She was beautiful, witty, capricious and often cruel, had a genius for friendship with anyone who was anyone in the avant-garde, and Vuillard was hopelessly, unrequitedly in love with her. (He was also terminally shy, and I think it’s fair to speculate that even if Misia hadn’t been married to his chief patron he probably would still have been unable to make a move.) According to Misia’s memoir (which is a cracking read, as long as you take most of it with a grain of salt), around the time he painted this picture, she and Vuillard were strolling through a beet field near her country house and after helping her over an errant tree root, he suddenly halted and burst into tears. ‘It was,’ she wrote, ‘the most beautiful declaration of love I have ever received.’

Vuillard had plenty of worthy antecedents in eroticising the nape of a woman’s neck – think of the many women with their backs turned in Watteau’s fêtes galantes, or the beauties in the Japanese prints he and his fellow Nabis so admired. But knowing the emotion underpinning this small, private painting – all that intense, unrealisable desire concentrated on one small, innocent part of his beloved’s person – gives it a charge arguably far greater than any of them.


Schiele Girl seen in a dream

8. Egon Schiele, Girl seen in a dream (1911)

I wanted to include something by Schiele here (one that didn’t involve a doll), but it was unexpectedly difficult choosing one. The thing about Schiele is that although sexuality is very much at the heart of his art, and his treatment of the nude still looks radical today, his figures often aren’t actually that erotic – despair or angst or alienation (and often all three) tends to take the upper hand.

All the same, there are examples of tenderness in Schiele’s oeuvre, and I could have chosen a drawing or a painting of an embracing couple – but I went for Girl seen in a dream instead, in part because Jones’s only pick representing solo sex was so lame (Dalí? Really, you couldn’t do better than that?). What I find so compelling about Schiele’s drawing is that, despite being searingly explicit, it also acknowledges how private and mysterious and ultimately unknowable a person’s sexuality is. Yes, Schiele may have given us a girl at her most (physically) naked – but we don’t know exactly what plunged her into her erotic reverie, and we never will.

Camille Claudel, Sakountala

9. Camille Claudel, Sakountala (1886-1905)

I admit it – I’d first been considering Rodin’s The Kiss for this slot. But then an even better candidate sprang to mind. Claudel started working on Sakountala when she was just 22 and it, and iterations thereof, occupied her for much of the remainder of her brutally shortened career. The subject is the denouement of an ancient Sanskrit play, in which the eponymous heroine and her husband, who have endured years of separation and numerous trials, are finally reunited… but even without that background knowledge Sakountala is one of the sexiest and most moving depictions of an embrace in any medium, the pair melting into each other with pure abandon (indeed, Claudel called a later version simply L’Abandon).


Pipilotti Rist, Pickelporno

10. Pipilotti Rist, Pickelporno (Pimple-Porno) (1992)

Despite the (very tongue-in-cheek) title, Rist’s video piece is definitely not porn – if anything, it turns the conventions thereof on their head. She’s filmed a couple apparently making love, but with a tiny fish-eye camera and in extreme close-up. Far from being voyeuristic and cheap, it evokes – and celebrates – the inherent strangeness of the body (both man and woman come across almost as alien landscapes) and what a messy, awkward, joyous experience sex can be.

Quite unusually for the work of an acclaimed video artist, you can actually watch Pickelporno on YouTube (although you’ll have to sign in and swear on the head of your firstborn (okay, not really) that you’re over 18). Watching it on a small screen won’t really do it justice – like most of Rist’s work, a lot of its power resides in the overwhelmingly immersive experience of seeing it full-size in a large gallery – but it will at least give a taste of what sets Pickelporno apart – it’s erotic art with a generous, contagious sense of humour.

And couldn’t the world do with a bit more of that?


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