Female Vs. Male Perspective On The Erotic Visual Art | The Nudes, The Paintings, The Photographs
Maja by Goya (ca. 1803)When we think of representations of the erotic in the art, the first thing that comes into our minds is the classic nudes which were an object of fascination for many male painters throughout history. It’s not accidental that I made a clear gender emphasis here. When talking about a male perspective on the erotic in art, we cannot help but ask what about the female perspective on artistic eroticism.
In this post, I will be stressing these two main valences of the nude in art. The reason is fairly clear: the nude was a major theme even in more traditional and less daring artistic trends such as the Renaissance, Romanticism, and even Greek and Roman art.
Erotic Visual Art
Female Beauty or Female Body
To begin, let’s start with a question. What can we say about such a generalized masculine take on the erotic in art? First of all, it centers on corporeality. The female body is the object of fascination and delight.
Secondly, in the works of many male artists, we find a somewhat detached perspective that is meant to show us physical qualities without much subjective involvement.
The eye of the artist (as well as the eye of the beholder) is free to add eroticism to the nude. However one cannot help noticing the feeling of distance that makes the body itself the foreground of the art rather than whatever excitement and feelings of pleasure the nude may produce.
The Male Perspective
Male erotic art focuses on beauty and objective physical features, while eroticism is supposed to be extrapolated from the whole endowment of the body that is painted naked. It’s understood that a gorgeous body incites and arouses; however most male painters who approached the nude intensively in their work prefer leaving this aspect in an implicit form.
You may notice that many famous nudes play with light and elaborate contrasts to intensify the beauty of the female body. It is thus fairly easy to say that light variation and games were also used as a means of conveying erotic feelings.
If subjective perspective was usually deemphasized while pure carnality stayed in the foreground in an attempt to objectify the body to a certain extent, at least intense contrasts and shades could offer a more sensuous experience to the viewer. It’s as if light and shadow touched the female body, isn’t it?
For certain artists, the female body is treated as a sacred object that was only half-eroticized. Just think of painters such as the Spanish romantic painter, Goya (click to see their paintings),
Or, Botticelli, an Italian renaissance painter;
Or, Ingres, a French neo-classical painter;
Or, Waterhouse, an English pre-Raphaelite painter.
In more classic art you notice a form of veneration of the female beauty. Thereâ€™s almost always the same (almost respectful) distance that paradoxically creates a cunning form of erotic tension: the farther away the womanâ€™s body is, the more desirable it appears, doesnâ€™t it? We all know how well this can work in real life. The classic nude plays precisely on this touch of â€œunavailabilityâ€ of the naked woman.
Eroticism arises out of variation and a feeling that the body is unattainable, not close enough, not visible enough in all its details and angles. If you pay attention to more traditional paintings, the woman is either lying on a sofa/bed/another vertical surface in the most frivolous and nonchalant posture possible, or reveling in the beauty and freshness of nature, sometimes among other people.
The most significant and appealing parts of the female body are highlighted with a focus on curves, breasts, and belly area. Another striking element is usually the hue of the skin whose variations can have highly erotic effects.
What About Male Nudes?
You are probably wondering this. Well, sometimes you find the male body depicted in sculptures such as Michelangelo’s David or The Age of Bronze by Rodin. However the erotic aspects of the male nude are slightly deemphasized.
In earlier centuries the stress fell on the female body as an object of erotic pleasure. The male nudes represented alone in sculptures or paintings are rather images of bravery, physical beauty, perfect posture etc.
You rarely find the male body fetishized to the same extent as the female nudes. Shape and muscle tonus are more important than curves, intimate body zones, or sexualized postures. It is the female body that contains an aura of powerful fascinating eroticism which is intensified by extreme variations on the same theme.
Obviously each artistic trend had its own notions of what was most erotic. The Renaissance praised exquisite, serene, undisturbed beauty and harmony of forms, while the Baroque claimed that full-figured bodies with sensuous and smooth flesh are quite appealing and erotic. For example, look at The Three Graces (click).
Late 19th -20th Century
Male painters who lived in later centuries approached the nude and the erotic by reproducing patterns that were already familiar against the background of a whole new stylistic imprint. For instance, Edvard Munch was one such Norwegian expressionist painter known best for his anxiety-filled dark paintings which suggest alienation, confinement, anguish, and other negative emotions.
However even with such an emotional palette he also approached the female body in a rather challenging way. For instance, he painted his famous Madonna (click to see) which eroticizes the religious icon of the Virgin Mary.
Not something insignificant at all! Munch keeps his gloomy and somewhat disturbing painting style while approaching a subject that is so delicate and yet so arousing. It is especially the male public that responds to this eroticization of the religious figure; however itâ€™s safe to assume female viewers are also quite permissive towards good art and a provocative attitude.
Another amazing example of the erotic as transfigured through the lens of a modern artistic trend is Picasso’s Les Demoiselles. This famous painting introduces us to a cubist take on the female body.
What does it tell you? Isn’t it highly erotic? Of course it is, especially due to the free spirit and bold aggressive sexuality of the woman in the painting. Their bodies are depicted in sharp angles and stylized shapes, but they still maintain the provocative beauty of the female nude. The color of their skin is also extremely alluring, especially when you are free to indulge in contrasts and comparisons.
Obviously cubism is pretty abstract art and the female faces may seem a bit mechanicized and devoid of feelingâ€¦.but in this painting itâ€™s the bodies and the exhibitionistic postures of the women that matter. The woman is no longer represented as a big cat lying gently and idly on a sofa while exposing her beauty to the viewer. Female sexuality is now raw, harsh, active, mobile, insinuating of real sex due to the women’s aggressive and ostentatious positions.
To sum up, the male perspective on the erotic focuses on the female body as an object of pleasure and artistic transfiguration. The emphasis falls on form, color, games of light and shadow, and capacity to enter ingenious contrasts either with a darker room/wall/piece of furniture, or with the lively colorful nature, if the women are outside. What is eroticized is the body itself while the face and expression are deemphasized. It’s physicality as well as an ability to appear somewhat distant that are in the foreground in the male (and rather traditional) take on the erotic in art.
The female perspective
When it comes to the female perspective on the erotic, one must mention right from the start that it was far more limited in former centuries due to the position of the woman in the whole society and culture. Even if a woman painted (which was not very frequent), her themes were much more quiet and decent. A woman couldnâ€™t afford the same freedom to approach the body or other aspects of the erotic. Thus female painters whose art does delve into sexuality are quite close to the 21st century.
Let’s look into the most prominent one. How could we not talk about Georgia O’Keefe? She is probably the embodiment of the female erotic in painting. Extremely fascinating and sexual as a woman, Oâ€™Keefe herself led a life that praised female power and complexity. Her face retains an aura of mystery and quiet strength. She was also quite daring as a woman and posed naked for various photos.
Obviously she was a woman in full touch with her sexuality who was not afraid to use her body as an object of art and public pleasure. But what about her own paintings? Thereâ€™s something totally different going on in female erotic art. Oâ€™Keefe didnâ€™t paint nudes. She painted the female erotic itself. Many of her paintings depict flowers in elaborate vivid colors from a rather close angle.
Some of them are quite overtly evocative of the female genitalia. But itâ€™s not only the shape and sexual symbolism that strikes us in Oâ€™Keefeâ€™s paintings. Thereâ€™s a distinct emotionality conveyed at the same time. You can feel exuberance and love of life in almost every petal of the flowers in Oâ€™Keefeâ€™s paintings. Thereâ€™s a sharp vibrant vitality screaming through all her paintings that you cannot not associate with sexuality.
The Use of Natural Imagery
Sometimes floral or other kind of natural imagery is depicted for its own sake … as an eulogy to the beauty in the environment. However thereâ€™s something distinctively feminine in her whole style and perspective. You could hardly picture a male artist painting all that floral and flowery sophisticated imagery. Thereâ€™s a finesse of lines that embody femininity and an eye for the right angle and distance that also suggest a female perspective. It doesnâ€™t feel like a detached or objectifying look or lens.
For example, as you have seen above, there is definitely that living emotionality in Oâ€™Keefeâ€™s paintings. The close-up to simple wonders in the natural world which also evoke female sexuality in a more or less explicit way convey a typically female dexterity in playing with distance and seeing deep inside of things. Strong vibrant colors, ingenious intimate floral shapes, visible emotional undercurrents in most of her paintings â€¦ all that speaks more than one hundred nudes, donâ€™t you think so?
Oâ€™Keefe didnâ€™t paint human figures, but she did paint the female erotic itself. Actually her art doesnâ€™t limit itself to suggestions of female eroticism; however even when she alludes to male genitalia, the perspective remains a feminine one. For example, look at thisÂ painting, called Yellow Calla.
Itâ€™s already fairly obvious the female erotic is tightly connected with emotionality in visual art. If Oâ€™Keefe is the epitome of colorful vitality, thereâ€™s another famous female painter whose life was marked by different events and whose art reflects another kind of emotional landscape, namely Frida Kahlo.
Frida Kahlo was a very sexual and independent woman who acted according to her own feelings and listened to the beat of her own drum instead of paying too much attention to social or cultural convention. Her art is also typically female in a very intimate, very sentimental way. As you probably might know, Frida had a quite tragic life after a severe accident. Her paintings reflect her tormented internal life as well as her powerful sexuality, although in a more twisted form. Her paintings represent the female body in a distorted and suffering-bound form while still being eroticized. Look at her The Broken Column.
Frida Kahloâ€™s paintings emanate a specific sadness and darkness and are remarkable through a combination of the natural and the erotic. The body is often presented in association with the natural environment. Itâ€™s as if earth and nature were sexualized, while the body itself feels at home in a natural setting among trees and leaves.
What is striking in Kahloâ€™s paintings is the fact that sexuality is communicated primarily through the body, but the face of the figures who are represented are still important. Itâ€™s not the expressionless and coldish face in traditional nude paintings that almost fades in the background as the body is fetishized and objectified.
Kahloâ€™s art also lends emotionality to the erotic through the faces she paints which are often sad, deep, wrapped in thought, melancholy etc. What may have well been pure love of life in Frida Kahlo turns into deep grief and confined, restrained sexuality in her paintings. It is nonetheless a typically female perspective which enriches the erotic with very complex emotional nuances.
Is the female perspective on the erotic always emotionalized? You may think it is, but letâ€™s not fall in the trap of generalizations. Modern art allowed for a wide array of styles and during the 20the century it was fairly easy for a woman to play an active part on the cultural scene. Her style didnâ€™t have to closely respect existing trends, originality and purely personal views were more welcome, and she could even challenge men through a bold and unconventional approach, if she wanted to.
In this context some female artists chose the path of high emotionality and subjectivity in which the erotic was treated as a part of their more encompassing vision. Others preferred walking the more common road of â€œen vogueâ€ styles and didnâ€™t intend to distinguish themselves as particularly feminine through their perspective.
The Grey Zone – Tamara de Lempicka
Such an artist is Tamara de Lempicka whose art deco style is so neutral and dry, yet impressive, that you can easily forget sheâ€™s female. And yet she did approach the erotic in her own way. She painted many nudes whose harsh and slightly coarse lines and angles remind us of Picassoâ€™s style.
There is a sharpness and an aggressive impulse in her paintings that almost seems male. Look at this one for example.Â Does that lower the value of her art? By no means. Sheâ€™s just a very interesting case. She is a female painter who chose to â€œungenderâ€ herself as an artist and approached the classic figure of the nude in a novel, even daring way without resorting to emotionality or allusions of feminine sensitivity.
Tamara’s approach to physicality and sexuality are straightforward, exhibitionistic, and provocative through a slightly ironic tinge. Quite wonderful for a female painter! SheÂ is an interesting example that suggests an escape from femininity into a grey area in terms of gender imprint.
I will end my post with a more â€œcasualâ€ form of art, but not less valuable â€“ photography. I wonâ€™t get into what male photographers (and perspective) does with the human body and sexuality. Especially in modern and contemporary times the erotic often becomes NSFW when it comes to this very accessible and less demanding art. However letâ€™s not consider it easy!
Photography can be highly sophisticated and meaningful when weâ€™re talking about an extremely talented artist. To illustrate what both photography and a female perspective can do with the erotic I decided to look into Sally Mannâ€™s work a bit. She is one of the most gifted photographers ever alive and sheâ€™s a woman! Why am I stressing this aspect now? Itâ€™s precisely because of the nature of her works. Had she photographed only landscape, buildings, or fashion models, her gender wouldnâ€™t have been so significant. But she had her personal pet figures and motifs, namely children.
Sally Mann is incredibly creative and ingenious. She has an extraordinary eye for detail, she senses light and shadow as the air that one breathes, and she has a gift for very inventive, provoking, and ambivalent scenes and images that stir contradictory reactions. On the one hand, you notice her refinement and her use of subtle and even graceful expressions, postures, and facial features; on the other hand, you canâ€™t help responding to the challenging and thought-provoking side of her photographs.
Some of her works arouse mixed emotional responses. Yes, the children she photographs are very special and itâ€™s obvious she chose unique looks, a strange convincing gaze, a fragile body. At the same time she juxtaposes this allusion of innocence and spontaneity with a few bold provocative images such as a dead doe, a fire that breaks out during a picnic â€¦and last, but not least, an erotic feeling.
Well, as you probably already know thatÂ Sally Mann eroticizes some of her children. It depends on the photograph. Sometimes you get an ambiguous image in which atmosphere and vibe seem to prevail and a naked body looks accidental. The gymnast girl on the table is a great example.
Other times Sally Mann pushes boundaries full force as she literally represents a child dressed in adult clothes and embellished with make-up while displaying a naked upper body. The girlâ€™s expression is serene, confident, unflinching, adult-like.
Whatâ€™s even more provocative and edgy is the way she sometimes overtly sexualizes children when she places them in clearly sexual postures whose realism is amazing. Look at this girl sitting on a wooden fence.
As you could see, the female perspective on the erotic can range from a rather classical emotionality or sentimentality typically associated with this gender to highly daring and even slightly transgressive approaches that somewhat defy and even overthrow gender conventions.
Does it make a clear difference if the artist is male or female when it comes to the erotic? As you could see from this post, the answer is affirmative: more often than not the artist will let their own gender have a say in their imagery, vision, and approach to the erotic. This difference is by no means meant to create a boundary though; it is only about fascinating distinctions and fine nuances that derive from a gendered perspective on the erotic.
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What is your perspective on the erotic art? Do you think man and woman view and approach it differently? The first 10 commenters are always my favorite and I like to personally communicate with them via email (sort of like buddies). So share your thoughts. Any other questions please feel free to share with the community.