Review of Twentieth-Century Erotic Art

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Twentieth-Century Erotic Art
edited by Angelika Muthesius and Burkhard Riemschneider
Benedikt Taschen, 1993
ISBN 3-8228-9652-7

I think this book could have safely been subtitled, "Art is from Mars, Art Criticism is from Venus." It often seems to me that art criticism is an entity of its own, and that in a book like this it coexists with the actual art by addressing movements and theories rather than the viewer's direct experience of the works. This is not to say that art criticism is bad; even if it IS mental masturbation, what would be wrong with that? Masturbation is supposed to be a good thing...

But in any case, the reality of the situation is that this book (which I actually thoroughly enjoyed) should be studied two different times: once to enjoy and contemplate the numerous full-color and B/W plates of the great erotic artworks of the twentieth century, and another time to enjoy the completely separate text-only track which discusses the art. Although I found the text interesting and learned quite a bit form it, I did not feel it affected my appreciation or enjoyment of the artworks themselves.

It occurred to me that there should be some way of creating art survey books like this where the text about a piece is set opposite that piece, and confines itself to specific comments which would help you enjoy it more. This might be a non-narrative approach, but perhaps the art critics could get some help from the post-structuralist literary critics who have been doing this sort of thing for years. Then, the narrative part could be placed in a special chapter or appendix, and would discuss in a cohesive fashion the artistic movements rather focusing too much on specific artworks. Anyway, that's what I'd like to see. Perhaps someday I will.

In the spirit of these comments, I'll address the text and artwork tracks in this book separately.

The Text Track

The text for this book was written by Gilles Neret, and on the whole is very good and very readable. Again, I wish to emphasize that reading it will probably not help you enjoy the artworks in the book more, but it WILL give you more background on the movements and artists behind the artworks. I would guess that if you took the two-hundred glossy 9.5" x 12" pages in this book and divided them up by text and images, you would find that about 2/3 of the space in this book was taken up by images and 1/3 by text; this seemed to me to be a good balance. Also, while focusing firmly on the twentieth-century, Neret carefully avoids the use of jargon and too much "ism" analysis. I found this quite refreshing for a modern art book.

One thing I just ADORE about art history and criticism is how the inexplicable acts of mentally unbalanced people can always get written off as mere artistic exploration (God, I'm envious...). Here's a good example from this book:

From Bellmer to Kokoschka, numerous artists have indulged in the perversities of doll play. For a time the police of Dresden even harboured the suspicion that Kokoschka, a respected professor at the local art academy, had perpetrated a murder. In the grey light of morning marking the end of a night of bacchanal tumult, a woman lay decapitated on his lawn. But eventually the police were able to satisfy themselves that the victim of violence was nothing other than a doll. On this particular morning the painter, at the age of thirty-six, had finally freed himself from his past, from the painful spurning by his former lover, Alma Mahler. After her chiding in 1915, and after being upset in his plans to trudge off to war to end his sorrows of love, he commissioned the making of a life-size doll graced with the features of his beloved Alma. In order to clothe her in the style of elegance Alma was accustomed to, Kokoschka visited the finest tailors in Paris, purchasing for his doll the most exquisite fashions and lingerie. The doll was always at his side; on sunny days he took her for a ride in a horse carriage, and it is even said that he rented a box for her at the opera. But then something broke inside the man. He had tirelessly sketched and painted her, but now at the end of a night of revelry he picked up a red wine bottle and smashed in her skull, the head of the doll which so perfectly resembled his cherished Alma. At that moment, exactly like the gentleman from Japan, Kokoschka was finally cured of his dangerous obsession.

On the subject of the erotic possibility of non-representational forms, I feel Neret made his point quite well:

Sexual drives and wish fantasies do very much occupy a place in abstract art.... Arp pointed the way here for the rich offspring of erotic work to be found in non-representational works. Such painterly elements as curves, rondures and swells, even when they work as completely abstract, can of course be charged with erotic significance. The sculptor Henry Moore once remarked that what interested him most about the mountains was their grottoes.

Neret is clearly on firm ground when he discusses art in general and erotic art in specific. When he leaves the world of art to discuss the actual people who have the types of sex referenced by the art, he is on shakier ground:

Sadomasochists often treasure leather, and find it propitious to celebrate their rituals in groups. Clad in leather, with an arsenal of torture equipment at hand, they play master and slave, discovering a means to destroy the monotony of the everyday in their mutual intoxication with military paraphernalia and such leather items as boots and belts. And once they have suitably regenerated, they go out, climb onto their motorcycles and roar off. Hercules, Achilles, Lancelot, Marlon Brando, Rambo and Mad Max are their favorite heroes, their idols.

I was kind of amazed this got through editing intact. I could understand if this book was being published by some ivory-tower publishing company, but this is TASCHEN for Christ's sake... Oh well...

To end on another light note, Neret mentioned that, "One can of course proceed in a jocular vein and - returning again to that formulation of Adolf Loos, in which a horizontal line represents a prostrate woman, and the vertical line her penetration by the male - arrive at the conclusion that the geometrical constructions of Mondrian are sexual orgies of a most forceful nature." If I remember my art history correctly, at one point Mondrian pretty much got ostracized by his peers when he included a DIAGONAL (gasp!) line in one of his works. If the horizontal line is woman and the vertical line is man, than perhaps Mondrian's infamous "diagonal" work represents a defining moment in transgender liberation.

Oh well, on to the art...

The Image Track

The bulk of this book consists of reproductions (about half of which are black-and-white and half of which are full color, with some full page reproductions) of some of the major erotic artworks of the twentieth century. Please note that these are artworks by "serious" artists who happened to produce some works with erotic content, not work by commercial artists who specialize in erotic imagery. Salvador Dali appears quite a few times, as does Robert Mapplethorpe, Hans Bellmer, Pablo Picasso, and Andy Warhol. In all, about 130 different artists have their work represented in this book.

As engaging and challenging erotic-themed eye candy, this book is top notch. I doubt you will find many images in it that you would care to masturbate to, but you will find many that may stir erotic thoughts or reflection about what "the erotic" means to you.

My favorite was initially Eric Fischl's "Bad Boy," because of the remarkable and poignant way the portrayed room was lit (see p. 173), but my enjoyment was somewhat diminished when I realized the boy in the picture was stealing money from the portrayed woman's purse. The work was a actually statement about greed rather than sexual coming-of-age. Greed is yucky.

I was surprised by how erotic and compelling I found the surrealist (a la Magritte) image "Pygmalion" by Paul Delvaux (see p. 72). Like many of us, I sometimes feel frustrated when trying to express in words a powerful emotion for someone, or when I love someone how to express that any better than just saying, "I love you." In "Pygmalion," the female character (who looked very much like one of my ex-lovers) was embracing a Greek statue (whose face looked something like mine) in a very intimate way, but as the Greek statue was just an inanimate statue it was unclear whether their relationship would last.

The O'Keefe flower painting ("Light Iris") on page 65 made me want to give someone cunnilingus immediately. Oh well, no big surprises there... Fortunately, since nobody was around, there was a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe on page 179 ("Marty and Veronica") of an attractive young gentleman giving an attractive young woman cunnilingus. I amused myself for a time by flipping rapidly between the page with the O'Keefe painting and the Mapplethorpe photograph, but eventually tired of that.

A photograph of my favorite sculpture in the whole world ("The Kiss" by Constantin Brancusi) was included on page 109. I have a postcard with this sculpture on it on a windowsill above my bed, next to a bunch of candles. It's the only artwork in my bedroom other than a big tie-dyed hippie thing that I put up so guests wouldn't think I'm some sort of perverted minimalist. Anyway, I love this sculpture. I think that it might be worth it to be a big stone if your lover was part of the same stone (a la this sculpture) though it would certainly suck to be a stone otherwise.

In summary, I liked this book and do recommend it. I don't recall having seen anything better on this subject so far.

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