Five Questions with Rowan Pelling, Author of Phaidon's First Erotic Art Anthology


The Art of the Erotic, Phaidon

Five Questions with Rowan Pelling, Author of Phaidon's New Art of the Erotic

Phaidon — prominent art book publisher  — recently released its first foray into erotica: The Art of the Erotic, a beautifully presented chronological collection of nearly 200 pieces of erotic art from some of the world's most renowned artists, including work from Cézanne to Picasso, from David Hockney to Louise Bourgeois. The carefully curated collection displays an interesting tale of evolution in the artistic and social conceptions of the erotic. Through it we can explore and experience the manner in which taboo and erotic sensibilities have changed and are changing and how humanity has grappled with its most fundamental motivation, desire

We got the chance to flip through the book and ask author of the title's forward, Rowan Pelling — also the editor of the Amorist — a few questions touching on why she is drawn to erotica and erotic art, her favorite pieces, distinctions between porn  and erotica, as well as the state of erotica today.

Read the full interview below!

The Art of the Erotic, Phaidon, open at pages 40-41, showing  Caravaggio, 1601-2 (left) and Guido Reni, c. 1625 (right)

The Art of the Erotic, Phaidon, open at pages 40-41, showing  Caravaggio, 1601-2 (left) and Guido Reni, c. 1625 (right)

Math: What about erotica and erotic art compel you? 

Rowan Pelling: Great erotic art is the purest expression of an artist’s desire. It’s almost impossible not to respond to that level of lust, pain, exultation, frustration, need and intimacy. When the subject matter is sex, so much is revealed in both the creator and, of course, the viewer. We onlookers bear witness to something we sense should remain private, which makes us complicit in an act of trespass. This is never truer than when the subject of the artwork is ostensibly something other than sex; let us say a tortured saint, or an allegory, or a portrait of someone else’s spouse. Yet the gleam of hunger or anguish in an eye, the shine of moisture on a lip, the creamy curve of flesh exposed on a neck or shoulder tells us the artist has got under the skin – has penetrated their subject. Even a child can sense electric currents in an artwork and begin to grasp at adult mysteries.

M: What are some of your favorite pieces of erotic art? Or what pieces of erotic art do you find most important?

RP: The most erotic works of art tend to be those that were never intended for a rich patron’s wall. I love the vital, earthy immediacy of Gustav Klimt’s sketches of women dreamily masturbating, utterly absorbed in their own pleasure and on the edge of ecstasy. Egon Schiele had a similar preoccupation with splayed self-pleasuring females, but his sketches are darker and more frenzied and awaken a more furtive part of the sexual psyche. I must admit to a quest for gratifying examples of the male body in similar states of arousal. One of my favourite images in the Art of the Erotic (and, indeed, anywhere) is Henry Fuseli’s 1809 watercolour drawing of a recumbent man being pleasured by three women with elaborate hairpieces that have a certain fetishistic quality to the ornamentation. One courtesan has the man’s head pinned between her thighs, while another is about to mount his erect penis, which is being expertly caressed by the third siren. It’s like a scene from a very noir fairytale.

Fuseli's watercolor; from V&A's  collections .

Fuseli's watercolor; from V&A's collections.

M: You identify the difference between "crude titillation" and erotica as a matter of transcending confines, a notion I find poignant. How do you think our concept of the difference between porn and erotica has changed or evolved since Steinem's famous 1972 essay — "Erotica is as different from pornography as love is from rape, as dignity is from humiliation..." —  and how important is the creator's intent in this distinction? 

RP: Steinem’s statement was somewhat sweeping. I don’t think it’s ever been easy to make a clear distinction between art and pornography. Leaf through The Art of the Erotic and you will see many works that were denounced as crude pornography in their time, but are now seen as masterpieces. Does erotica always involve dignity? The recumbent man in Fuseli’s watercolour has entirely abandoned decorum and is a toy in three women’s hands. Many lovers see power-play – the complicit interchange between domination and submission – as the key element of eroticism and may not achieve arousal without some degree of degradation. Look at Helmut Newton’s stark photographs of stern naked women in towering heels, who look like they could break a man at fifty paces. What changed in the 20th Century is that artists (and the Surrealists in particular) began exploring these uncomfortable truths, emboldened by the age of psychoanalysis where no peccadillo goes unexplored. It seems to me the key quality that elevates certain artworks into the sublime realm of eroticism is imagination. You should feel that you’re being drawn into the creator’s fantasy alongside their subject matter, often against your will. I have looked at artworks and declared them less than sexy, only to find myself drawn back again and again. In other words, the artist has seduced me to their vision.

M: What artists do you see now at the forefront of erotic art?

RP: That’s a hard question. I feel we’re living in a particularly tough era in terms of producing erotic art. There are almost no boundaries in the western world in terms of consensual adult sex and without constraints it’s harder to build sexual tension. I feel the shock-jocks have taken the depiction of fucking about as far as you can go, so perhaps it’s time to retreat towards intimacy again. I love the work of British artist Cecily Brown*, who’s based in NYC. When I gaze at her impressionistic canvases I see Eden recast as an orgiastic paradise, devoid of sexual ennui. Because that would be Paradise – wouldn’t it? – living in a garden where passion never faded. I was on a panel at London’s Royal Academy recently with a young artist called Adham Faramawy, who has created some extraordinary video art (I recommend Body Firming Lotion), where naked men and women rub unguents into each other in a oozing, rhythmic smear of sensuality and wetness. I love the work of Paula Rego, who’s my favourite living artist, but I wouldn’t call it erotic, so much as witchy, dark forest fable stuff. But then, as we all know, what are fairy tales, if not warnings about sex? What does the wolf want of Red Riding Hood…

*Editor's Note: Cecily Brown's work appears in Issue Four of Math Magazine

Cecily Brown's  Untitled , 2013.  From  GAGOSIAN .

Cecily Brown's Untitled, 2013.  From GAGOSIAN.

M: What do you think constitutes great erotic art?

Great erotic art comes in all shapes and forms, but it should always transfix us with the power of the life-force – the tractor beam of lust that’s kept us here on the planet, loving and lusting, rutting and reproducing, making great art in order to seduce and continue the whole cycle. It can be something as tender and eternal as Renoir’s Kiss, or an image as perturbing as Duchamp’s late masterpiece Étant Donnés: the pale naked female torso viewed through a peephole, impersonal yet paradoxically intimate.

M: We love your labeling of erotica's audience as the "necessary voyeurs." It really touches on so many concepts — like consent and distance and triangular erotics and power dynamics — in one bit. It's so cool!

Yes, I really think we have to admit to our own role in the gallery: the necessary voyeur. I’m very interested in the recent controversy over the Balthus painting at the Met (the petition to take it down), which sums up all the anxiety around erotic art. Are we complicit in some sort of sex crime? Or are we simply bringing our own very 21st century hang-ups and guilt to a work created in the 1940s? Isn’t it better that we face our fears in a public space? Shall we remove the Bronzino’s great An Allegory With Venus and Cupid from London’s National Gallery because  Cupid is tweaking Venus’s nipple?

The Balthus painting in question:  Thérèse Dreaming , 1938. From the  Met Museum .

The Balthus painting in question: Thérèse Dreaming, 1938. From the Met Museum.


For more on Rowan Pelling, follow her on Twitter here.
For more from Phaidon, hop over to their website here.

Holden Taylor