a brief look at three of the most sensual paintings in art history
Words by Anastasia Tomarova
The Sexual Revolution... Probably everyone heard this term in their life. The movement of 60s and 70s liberated us and erased the line between what was permitted and what was actually prohibited. Today we are used to talking sex and discussing relationships between each other even without avoiding spicy bits of scandal. Was it always so? Of course, not. In our understanding, the past times were chaste and pure, and people would express their feelings in a slightly different way rather than we do. Same things happened in the world of art… Sexual appeal was covered under a painted veil of symbols and metaphors, yet was pretty visible to those who could understand the poetic language of art. Sexual undertones in art have never been uncommon, but it’s necessary to interpret them accurately!
The so-called ‘Age of Innocence’ has a massive legacy of mysterious artworks. So, we are going to see the three selected masterpieces that celebrate her majesty Love and her eternal companions, Beauty and Sex.
Gustav Klimt was a real Enfant Terrible of the European art; he protested against the traditional concepts and developed a whole new style in combination with an unusual technique. What a shock it was for the poor critics and art lovers, when he presented his most famous and recognized painting, “The Kiss”! Pornographic, immoral, degenerative – these are a few definitive words that were used by spectators to express their opinion. But do we ever think so? No way! Golden details remind of the Byzantine mosaics; the couple’s clothes are decorated with delicate Art Nouveau patterns; the composition is full of tenderness… And sex as well. But there is no vulgarity or rudeness in it. By looking at “The Kiss” we can notice some interesting things. First of all, gold was chosen by Klimt as a dominating colour not by accident – it is here to emphasize the value of the painting’s subject and to bring the association with divine forces that grant mortals physical and spiritual delight of love. As soon as the glance passes to the middle of the composition – the couple – we see that hugging lovers are surrounded by a kind of an aura, which has a form of a dome. It is often interpreted as a phallic symbol indicating the sexual undertone of the masterpiece, but it has sacral, not common character. The man and the woman are clinging to each other; they both are on their knees, however, he is still dominating over her. “The Kiss” represents eternal masculinity and femininity being united into a single entity and making the perfect picture of the blooming golden world where physical love is always an outcome of pure and natural feelings. “Sex is in that golden air!” we say, and that’s definitely true. This painting can be called a formula of love because everything that has ever been said about tender relationships between a man and a woman was taken by Klimt and put into one stunning masterpiece.
THE BIRTH OF VENUS
This outstanding work was created by Botticelli, the recognized master of the Renaissance period. When I’m asked about my preferences in Italian art, I usually name him, because… Just look at these dynamic lines, soft colours and faces of divine beauty! Could I add more? “The Birth of Venus” is something that doesn’t really need many words, it’s all about emotions that it evokes. It is thought that Botticelli’s model was Simonetta Vespucci, the most beautiful woman of XV-century Florence during the reign of the powerful Medici dynasty. Simonetta was the mistress of Giuliano Medici, whose elder brother, Lorenzo, was the ruler of the city. Simonetta’s grace was glorified by many poets and artists of the time, and this particular piece is supposed to be created by request of Lorenzo Medici, who also was Vespucci’s admirer. This painting seems to have both a solemn and intimate look; we see the goddess of love approaching to the sea coast in a large opened shell; she is completely naked and her gorgeous golden hair is fluttering in the wind. It is to be mentioned that a seashell was often used as a symbol of female sexuality and fertility, but on the other hand could symbolize purity. Whatsoever, Venus looks extremely appealing: her graceful posture and languished look in create an atmosphere of a mystery, and we are suddenly initiated in it. The magenta mantle in the hands of Grace on the right is a sign of the boundary between the earthly and the divine. In addition, this bright colour may mean passion and love. As I’ve already said, the painting strikes with its dynamics; the figures on the left and falling roses are carried by the gust of wind, full of life and motion. It’s impossible to attribute any human feelings to this goddess surrounded by roses but it’s obvious that this painting was created with love and passion. Simonetta Vespucci and Giuliano Medici were not meant to be together: she died from tuberculosis at the age of 23 on April 26th, 1476, and Giuliano was killed by conspirators on that very same day – but two years later. Now what we have is “The Birth of Venus” as a symbol of love that will last forever grace to Botticelli’s talent.
Here comes the libertine. Caravaggio, an Italian master from the Baroque period, created one of the most attractive paintings we’ve ever known. “Bacchus” was painted for Cardinal del Monte during Caravaggio’s most productive period. The artist was really brave to paint such a provocative picture in the time when sexual undertone would be strictly censored. His “Bacchus” is supposed to represent the ancient god of wine and harvest in its most canonic way, but we see a youthful man with quite a provocative look. He is portrayed very photographically, and his eyes express much of interest in us, people from another side of the frame. Is he inviting us for a drink, or maybe he’s looking for something more personal? Caravaggio painted an almost drunk guy in a loosely draped robe rather than an immortal god, and this detail makes the composition even more eye-catching. Bacchus’s effeminate face with full lips clearly implies physical desire and emphasizes the sensuality of captured moment. His hair is beautifully decorated with grape leaves, but his nails are dirty and untidy! What a play of contrasts, what a mixture of divine and earthly! Pay attention to the fruit in the basket: they are rotten. Some critics say that this symbolizes meaningless of earthly life and ruthlessness of time; however, here it may also be well interpreted as a symbol of carnal pleasures and promiscuity. But even admitting the potential homoerotism of Bacchus, we cannot make any particular conclusion of Caravaggio’s or the painter customer’s sexuality. Who was a model for this painting, what relations were between him and the author? It’s all a big mystery. But despite the symbols of mortal world and its decay, Caravaggio managed to preserve his model’s beauty and youth.
Sexiness may be provocative or hidden, however, it always makes our hearts beat faster. So do love and beauty, because these three concepts are a single entity. Art is full of love, it’s beautiful too. And it’s definitely sexy.