One of my favourite love poems is one by John Donne, titled “The Flea.” In this intriguingly lusty poem a flea engineers a consummation between a clandestine couple by mingling their blood it sucks in its own body. Whenever viewing erotic paintings, Donne’s poem springs to my mind. I feel like that sneaky flea, serving as an intermediary between the fateful lovers, and being complicit in the sexual affair whilst not actively engaging in it. Then I check the distance between the painting and me, the discreet distance that prevents any hypnotized ones from absorbing too further and caressing the painting without noticing.
I will be more prudent on my definition on eroticism and discuss only female nudity in art. Reclining nudes in painting fascinate me, and for a long time I have wanted to write on a piece that delves into a panoply of naked beauties. My personal favourite has always been Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (1510). It is the image that most reminiscent of a relaxing holiday in a far-flung land. The goddess lolls on a red mattress, which, against a landscape with sombre colours, is made a distinct feature of the painting. A silver sheet pours flowingly from out beneath the mattress and sends crinkles and ripples that underlie the circumference of Venus’ voluptuous body. For the sake of discretion the private part is covered by the goddess’ hand, which clutches rather than laying gently above. For me that particular hand gesture is what stirs up all sexual wonders- the slight curl of her fingers deliberately puts her body part into focus. It seems as if the goddess is grabbing at something she dearly protects and cherishes.
If Giorgione’s Venus poises between modesty and eroticism, then a more sensuous and bold Venus is introduced in Titian’s. In Venus of Urbino (1538) the goddess is almost rendered as a temptress, who lies amid a Renaissance surrounding sumptuously embellished with rich decorations. Titian had his Venus’ eyes opened, exuding both wide-eyed naiveté and dangerous seduction. With those eyes the goddess confronts the viewers unfalteringly, as if inviting anyone who is willing to enter her world. A puppy (a symbol for fidelity) is sleeping unperturbedly; implying that the last vestige of virtue is at risk of fading away. A girl at the back is up to ears in rummaging about a treasure trove, but her mother’s secrets she can never dredge up.
And the tension of sexuality just gets more and more layered and compounded. In 1863 saw the display of Edouard Manet’s Olympia. In comparison with Giorgione’s and Titian’s Venus, Manet’s goddess is far from ideally beautiful. In fact her body is awkwardly disproportionate. Yet Olympia seems by no means abashed by her flaws. Despite how the painting appears rather cursorily done, the confrontational stare is still there. This time, the gaze looks enigmatic. Neither grabbing nor clutching, the hand places on the private part palm-down, but with no distinguished ladylike grace whatsoever. Her maid brings to her a bouquet of fresh flowers, a gift presumably from her former client. Yet the flowers do little to catch her attention. Instead her eyes are steadfastly on us; we, her next prey she is ready to pounce upon. A black cat exerts itself on the edge of the bed; she symbolizes a prostitute.
This is how human flesh is celebrated in art: nothing is concealed, nothing is kept secretive; everything is exposed before your goggle eyes. With the prevalence of nudity in art, viewers scarcely blush when beholding such paintings in galleries, but once the eroticism is powerful enough, our every sense still pricks up.