I was skeptical when I saw the title of Flavio Febbraro's handsome volume, How to Read Erotic Art. That's all we need, I thought -- more dry, cerebral artspeak to take all the fun out of erotic art. So I was very pleased to discover that the texts in How to Read Erotic Art are written in straightforward prose that give historical, cultural and psychological insights into the many eras and cultures in which the work was made, educating and enhancing viewing pleasure.
From the Venus of Willendorf's voluminous naked body to the ambiguous sexual traits of Louise Bourgeois's sewn soft sculptures, How to Read Erotic Art presents 220 illustrations of beauty, love, lust and sex through the ages. The end of antiquity and rise of Christianity marked a clear dividing line in Western art's depiction of sex. Portrayal of the seemingly uninhibited lustiness of the ancients disappears in the West, while Indian art, on the other hand, more than fills the gap.
How to Read Erotic Art, By Flavio Febbraro and Alexandra Wetzel, © Abrams Books, 2011
Most of the erotic images since the Middle Ages were directed at and interpreted by the male gaze, hence the preponderance of female nudes and male artists. I counted only seven women of the 200-plus artists represented, five of whom were from the 20th century.
Hans Baldung Grien, Three Witches, 1514. Chiaroscuro print on paper, 30.9 x 20.9 cm., Vienna, Graphische Sammlung Albertina
A detail from a sarcophagus from the Ptolemaic period in Egypt, The Reawakening of Osiris, shows Osiris lying on the ground, semen spurting from his penis so high that it actually leaves the frame of the picture.
A 530 B.C. frieze from a tomb in the Etruscan city of Tarquinia, The Tomb of the Bulls, shows two men engaged in an act of sodomy while a bull, head lowered, seems about to charge.
A beautiful marble from the second century, Sleeping Hermaphrodite, a Roman copy of an earlier Greek sculpture, shows what appears to be a voluptuous young woman stretched out on a bed. Closer inspection reveals that this figure, besides breasts and female curves, also has male genitalia.
Homoerotic and lesbian scenes, such as Thomas Eakins's Swimming, showing naked young men in an idyllic landscape and Toulouse-Lautrec's The Kiss, depicting two women on a bed locked in an embrace are included.
The Warren Cup, AD 5-15. Silver Skyphos, 11cm (h.). London, British Museum
Prostitutes are well represented, from the sacred, such as the Indian Devadāsi, and a 14th century tapestry, The Great Whore that Sitteth upon Many Waters, to the profane, such as Vermeer's The Procuress, showing the exchange of money between concerned parties, and Otto Dix's The Salon I, depicting four scantily clad prostitutes at a brothel.
Numerous close-up details from the main images reveal a wealth interesting information. An enchanting oil painting from 1470, The Spell of Love, is accompanied by a detail that shows an otherwise naked witch wearing only poulaines, extremely long-toed pointed (and may I say, downright kinky) sandals worn by both men and women of the era. Another detail shows a drawing by Picasso in which a woman's menstrual blood has turned the water in the bidet red. A colored Japanese woodcut print shows a woman using a large dildo attached to her heel.
Katsushika Hokusai, Dream of the Fisherman's Wife, 1814, woodcut from Kinoe no komatsu
(Young Pines), 31.5 x 147 cm., London, British Library
The lush illustrations together with the texts depicting androgeny, homo-erotica, lesbian love, heterosexuals, hermaphrodites, prostitutes, witches, rape, seduction, bacchanalia, orgies, sacred and profane love, and more, make How to Read Erotic Art an informative, fun, and sexy addition to any collection.
All photos used with permission.