Erotic art holds an uneasy place in the art world. In art museums, serene galleries featuring graphic depictions of exposed genitalia and copulating couples are cordoned off by signage alerting the faint of heart to the steamy scenes lying ahead. Even on a web page preceding ''Erotic Art Online,'' the digital companion to Sotheby's ''Erotic: Passion and Desire'' auction on February 15, 2018, the esteemed London auction house posts the following warning: ''Please be advised that this sale includes images of nudity and images of a sexual nature which some viewers may consider indecent.''
Consider the traditionally sexy pinups of Mel Ramos, two of which are featured in ''Erotic: Passion and Desire.'' There are men and women alike who find the fleshy curves and come-hither expressions of the artist's nude female models alluring and empowering, while others admire the Pop Art tightrope the artist walks between bad taste and flawless technique. On the other hand, of course, some people are repulsed or even angered by the exploitative nature of Ramos' subject matter.
Similarly, there is not a lot of grey area when it comes to Robert Mapplethorpe's graphic photographs of nude men, three of which are featured in the upcoming Sotheby's auction. As with Ramos, some admire the artist's technical virtuosity, in this case, as a photographer rather than a painter, but many of Mapplethorpe's fans are simply grateful for the sight of male nudes in an art world where the female form predominates. As for Mapplethorpe's detractors, they range from those who cannot distinguish his work from pornography to hardened homophobes, who outright fear his photographs.
''Erotic: Passion and Desire'' does not shy away from any of these potential landmines. In fact, the auction deliberately steps on 90 of them, in the form of drawings, prints, photographs, and sculptures.
The auction begins with a pair of Gustav Klimt drawings from 1904-1905, and right away we are confronted by yet another challenge of the genre. In one drawing, Klimt gives us two nude men wrestling. The drawing is included in this particular auction, presumably, because the men are nude, but the piece is more of an exercise in composition and the rendering of the human form than it is an attempt to quicken the viewer's pulse, a primary mission of most erotic art.
Lovers Lying Seen From the Right, in which the head of a female figure is buried in the crotch of her male partner, is similar in its choice of medium but less about composition than content. We can not see exactly what the women in the scene is doing, but Klimt has extended the man's outstretched arms above his head, which is twisted to his right, both gestures signaling his apparent abandon in an intimate moment of ecstasy.
Other works are tamer, such as Richard Avedon's famous portrait of Nastassja Kinski wrapped in little more than a boa constrictor, which was designed to be displayed without any gallery warnings at all. Originally published in Vogue, Avedon's fashion photograph was sexy enough to stimulate a viewer's libido yet modest enough to be turned into a bestselling poster—in the 1980s, the bedroom walls of high-school girls and boys alike were decorated with the image.
And then there are the pieces by Picasso, which brings us back to #MeToo. As is well known, Picasso produced hundreds of works of erotic art—Erotic: Passion and Desire gives bidders the chance to own two such drawings, one from 1967 and another from 1971. The first, Trois nus assis, will not strike most viewers as being terribly controversial. It depicts three women chatting casually, as if they were meeting fully clothed in a cafe rather than sitting naked—one figure’s legs are unselfconsciously spread apart—on the floor.
The second Picasso, though, titled Homme et femme nus, gets us firmly into #MeToo territory. The Sotheby's catalogue describes the work on paper as being a ''sensual rendering of the female body and the voyeuristic old man behind her,'' suggesting a benign relationship between the two, but is it? In fact, could the female figure who is ''languorously enclosed within the embrace of a somewhat satyr-like male'' actually be struggling to fight off the unwanted gropings of a sexual predator? Many women have no doubt always felt the undercurrent of intimidation and suggestion of violence conveyed by Homme et femme nus, but in our era of #MeToo, it’s suddenly difficult for a lot of men to ignore these interpretations, too, making the place of erotic art in the art world more uneasy than ever.