What are the most erotic works of art? When we posed that question to prominent artists, curators, museum directors, and art historians, many in turn posed a question of their own: what exactly is erotic art? Columbia University emeritus professor of philosophy and art critic Arthur Danto took care to distinguish between work that illustrates sexual acts and work that arouses the senses. Artist Ida Applebroog notes that men and women have very different relationships to eroticism in art. “Let’s put it this way,” she says. “I was never really aroused by fleshy figures copulating with men.” And for curator Laura Hoptman, the erotic “is about sensual pleasure,” which can come through in the work of “someone who knows how to use a brush,” as much as in, say, a graphic Tom of Finland drawing. Seduction—not quite showing it all—can enhance eroticism. “Subtlety heightens it,” says artist Shirin Neshat, “the exposure of an arm or a breast. Overtly sexual work often deletes the sense of eroticism.” Julián Zugazagoitia, director of New York’s El Museo del Barrio, suggests that visual art itself is inherently erotic. “Some of the predisposition when you’re looking at art is that of opening the senses to that particular experience,” he comments, “so there is at the core a sensuous relationship” of the viewer to the work of art.
Eroticism in art is everywhere and nowhere, a rush intrinsic to the act of looking at art and a highly subjective sensual experience. “If one exposes oneself, it’s no longer erotic,” says artist James Rosenquist. “Eroticism is a secret.” Still, our respondents managed to identify dozens of examples of intensely erotic art.
• Jack Flam, Distinguished Professor of Art and Art History at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and author of Matisse and Picasso: The Story of Their Rivalry and Friendship
The painting that I remember having had the most vividly sexual response to was Correggio’s Jupiter and Io (ca. 1530) in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. The woman’s body and the expression on her face incarnate a state of ecstasy that is very much like the kind of abandonment you feel while making love. There’s also something very provocative about the way the picture is put together, the sensuality of the cloud that billows around Io, like a caress that you yourself feel part of.
Courbet’s Sleep (1866), in the Petit Palais, Paris. The first time I saw it, I had a kind of erotic shock. When you get up close to that painting you feel you can almost smell the women’s bodies and sense the moisture on the inside of the thigh of the woman closest to you.
• Carmen Bambach, curator of drawings and prints, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and curator of the exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman,” at the Metropolitan last year
Correggio’s Jupiter and Io evokes, in the strongest way, ecstasy—in the physicality, even, of painting. There’s Io seated nude and being overcome by Jupiter, who changed himself into a cloud to seduce the Greek princess. The painting shows the young woman seated in a three-quarter view seen from the back: it’s a very provocative angle. It’s as if the spectator partakes in the seduction, in the act of seeing her being enveloped by the cloud. It’s also eroticism suggested by contrast. The fact that her figure is contrasted with the gray matter of the cloud makes her pink flesh that much more alive and pulsating. Correggio sets up a kind of visual tactility. His way of painting is so extraordinarily magical. He evokes forms with sfumato, this amazing way of blurring the edges of forms with smoky shadows—this is a technical device that animates the eroticism.
In Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1647–52) Bernini focuses on our understanding of rapture in terms that are understandable to most people—as sexual rapture. He conceives St. Teresa using clouds and this magical quality of treating light; the poses of the figure are extraordinarily elegant but physically very receptive and conscious of movement. In this case, we react as much to the content as we do to the sculpture itself: the flickering surfaces of highly polished marble. It’s about understanding the sensual possibilities of the medium.
• Arthur Danto, Emeritus Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University and author most recently of The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art
If you go back into the 18th century, Fragonard and Boucher were engaged both in depicting erotic subject matter and in arousing the viewer in a fairly sexual way—whatever that means. Unless it’s the latter or unless it’s both, it’s probably not terribly interesting. At the present time, there’s a fair amount of erotic depiction but not a lot of erotic arousal.
Robert Mapplethorpe wanted, as he put it, to play with the edge, to try to create images that were esthetic and erotic at the same time instead of simply depicting erotic things. He may have been fairly excited, and he had in mind a class of viewers who would be excited, but a lot of people found the works repellent. You’re getting a very vivid sense of otherness when you look at some of Mapplethorpe’s images. That may be inseparable from the idea of eroticism—that it’s not universal.
• Julián Zugazagoitia, director, El Museo del Barrio, New York
You can see phallic representations in most neolithic cultures, in Greece, in South America. Obviously, we’re talking about the forces of life and how you interpret them. There, you cannot call it pornographic or erotic. But it is the motor of life and one of the essences of art as an expression. It is latent in any work you see.
Courbet’s The Origin of the World (1866) is the most blunt, in-your-face expression of a vision that, today, photography might deliver. When it was originally exhibited, it was covered with a sheet. You had to open it up, like a peep show. Even the title is the primal thing—connecting with nature, instinct, desire.
The other work I also find fantastic—and which is in a way the model for much contemporary art—is Duchamp’s étant Donnés (1946–66). Again, it’s the spectator as voyeur. It’s inviting you and excluding you at the same time.
Arnaldo Roche-Rabell’s Peek-A-Boo (1991). From a distance you think it is a big face, a poignant portrait. But if you look closely, you see that the eyes and cheeks are really two naked men, one black, one white; the hands where they come together are the nose. It is in a way a portrait of sexuality and of the color question—an image that is both monumental and hiding. On the one side it’s trying to talk openly about homosexuality, and yet you have to discover it within yourself. I think it’s at once a representation of hidden eroticism and explicitness. In Latin American art there’s a tension between depicting overt sensuality and at the same time trying to hide it.
• Vishakha N. Desai, director, The Asia Society, New York
Lovers at the Cleveland Museum of Art. It’s an eleventh-century sculpture of a male and female in an embrace, with the ma
le just lifting the garment off the woman. It comes from a temple wall in north India and is related to the temples at Khajuraho, where whole walls contain layers of sexually explicit images, often occupied on the side by images of women about to undress themselves or picking a thorn from the leg or about to put jewelry on. They’re often placed in conjoining walls—suggesting notions of union: carnal, yogic, as well as spiritual. But they’re also sexually suggestive.
Radha and Krishna in a Pavilion at the National Museum in New Delhi. This miniature painting is really wonderful. You see Krishna, the god of love, pretty much naked with a few pieces of jewelry, putting his crown onto his companion, Radha. She, too, is almost naked. Krishna has draped a diaphanous scarf around her. It is sort of after the act of sexual interaction in which Krishna has graced Radha with divine powers, and yet it’s also about the notion of merging. It’s like the grace of god; in this case it’s the sexual, sensual, and spiritual, all together.
In Japan, the 17th- to 18th-century Shunga prints depict very explicit acts of copulation. Especially erotic are the Utamaro beauties. You see the woman touching her neck and the kimono is just far down enough. It has this amazing suggestiveness because the neck is such a sensual part of the body.
Rodin’s The Kiss (1886).
Some of Francesco Clemente’s drawings are amazingly erotic and sensual. In one from his “Heart” series, which he did in Mexico, you see just a part of a male organ and you know it’s about copulation, but it’s also lush and wonderful. In one called Monuments to the Heart, there are red, hot colors with circular shapes that are very suggestive.
Tibetan Yab-yum figures show the sexual embrace of deities. They have multiple arms, it’s a divine embrace, but they’re intended to be seen in both a sexual and a spiritual way.
• Ida Applebroog, artist
What works for me now is being able to see women take control of their bodies. It goes back to Manet’s Olympia (1863). This was not an object of somebody’s desire—she’s very aggressive. Her sexuality really belonged to her.
• Eric Fischl, artist
There are artists out there I consider erotic and whose work I admire—photographers like Ralph Gibson for example, Bill Brandt, and certainly painters like Matisse—but I make a distinction between erotic art and sexual art. Eroticism, obviously, is very much connected to the pleasure principle. There’s also a kind of inherent abstraction to it, so in a lot of cases it lends itself to formalism. Certainly Brandt or André Kertesz, those kinds of photographers are examples of the erotic in the sense of the way their work both animates and distorts the female form. It turns into a sort of desirable but exotic landscape.
You don’t have to have a woman in the painting for a Matisse to be erotic. Just an open door with fresh air and a certain kind of illumination where you can feel the moisture or sweetness of the day can be erotic.
• R. B. Kitaj, artist
Cézanne did 200 bathers in his lifetime. The last three are the largest, best, and most extraordinary. He was working on these great bathers, naked women, when he died in 1906. Not from life—he was something of a misogynist—he was afraid of women. The bathers have erotic implications. Picasso and Matisse saw them and the result was Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Matisse’s great bathers. They didn’t know what he was doing—nor do I, and that mystery is so attractive—what was going on in the mind of that old man in Provence. The figures look like Francis Bacon sometimes. They were turning Picasso and Matisse on long before Bacon or myself.
• Nicholas Fox Weber, executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and author of Patron Saints and Balthus: A Biography
A curator once told me that when he looked at Velázquez’s The Toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus), 1647–51, at the National Gallery in London, he always got an erection. You can understand why; it’s one of the great erotic works—sexy in the true sense, rather than being merely salacious or provocative.
Recently there was a lot of publicity about Modigliani’s Nu couché (1917), which broke an auction record. I thought, no wonder, it’s a sexy painting, appealing as a great and subtle artwork and, at the same time, as arresting as a calendar photo.
Matisse’s Blue Nude (1907) is one of the most truly alluring paintings. When I look at the Rokeby Venus or Matisse’s Blue Nude, I respond esthetically, personally, humanly.
• Lowery Sims, director, Studio Museum in Harlem
In terms of the sense of eroticism, one of the most beautiful and erotic images I’ve ever encountered is Correggio’s Jupiter and Io. The whole sense of sexual surrender that’s expressed in the figure, and the fact that Jupiter appears in the cloud, reinforces the concept that sex and eroticism are as much in your mind as they are a physical sensation.
I love the way Robert Colescott paints flesh…. Particularly in his series “Bathers Pool” (1985), he points to how European notions of female beauty have perverted African ones. And he uses African sculptures as a basis for another esthetic. When he’s painting the two races, he scumbles some of that white fleshy color into the darkness. What this technique does is really remind us that whiteness (or, more precisely, pinkness) or blackness are not absolute flat values. Not only does the flesh of individuals have a myriad of tonalities, but in many ways we just mirror ourselves. His painting is very active. There’s a comparable sensuality.
• Shirin Neshat, artist
In Richard Serra’s recent exhibition at Gagosian, walking inside the maze of his sculptures, surrounded by the immense volume of steel created through sensual curves and forms, the experience felt strangely claustrophobic yet erotic. The viewer was given the sensation of being invited to walk inside the female body and being led toward an undisclosed place, perhaps a forbidden zone!
Louise Bourgeois is another artist who is ingenious in the way she captures the sense of the erotic and the sensual in the most poetic and subtle ways. I find that her simple choices of material, shapes, and juxtaposition of what is utterly fragile with what is harsh give off an enormous romantic and sexual energy. Often I walk by her public sculpture at Battery Park, and I see what appears as a pair of eyeballs, or a pair of breasts, resting on the lawn. It’s a playful and fantastic glimpse into what is often unspoken.
• Laura Hoptman, curator of contemporary art, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
In the work of Cecily Brown, there’s a really nice convergence of subject and form. Her brand of physicality of facture beautifully mirrors the explicitness of her subject matter, which is sexual as well as erotic.
John Bock’s work has a kind of biological frankness that expresses itself through the incorporation of slimy, goopy, foody materials. As fabulous and absurd as his work is, John really tries to engage the viewer in what, in the end, is both a scientific and a sensual enterprise.
• Marti Mayo, director, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston
I think one of the most erotic works of art in modern, post-Renaissance time is Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’he
0;1863). Part of its eroticism has to do with seductiveness and surprise. The painting was revolutionary when it was shown, but even now it’s still shocking to see a woman in the grass surrounded by fully clothed men. In a way it’s sexist, it’s everything about the male gaze. But ultimately, it’s erotic.
Those amazing flower photographs of Mapplethorpe. The flowers are suggestive and beautiful and the references are unmistakable—they’re extremely erotic. When I first saw them, it was way before I had seen any of the nudes, including the “X Portfolio.” But it was so clear to me that the eroticism rose also from the great formality, which in a way is true of the Manet. The formal values are reinforcing unattainability.
Carly Berwick is a senior editor of ARTnews.