see also: 'the ecstasies of eros'

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Chapter VIII of The erotic eye and its nude', (part I).


After having examined the influence of clothes on the erotic appearance, we should now concentrate on the way in which the image transforms the whole process of looking and showing.

Before tackling the more obvious and better known effects, we want to draw the attention on a less familiar, but therefore not less important phenomenon: the way in which the image lays bare the inner shortcomings of seeing, and how, precisely therefore, it also feels called to make them undone.

For, on a closer look, the eye’s approach of the nude turns out to be rather frustrating: the eye can never really come to grips with it. To begin with, seeing has its inherent shortcomings: the eye gets to see merely one side of the body; it cannot catch the whole body and its beautiful parts in one glimpse; it only sees that aspect on which it focuses; and it cannot but enjoy merely a single moment of the process of the unfolding of beauty. The insufficiency of seeing is further enhanced through the eye’s seizure of power: in that it is out at taking the place of the hand and the genitals, it all the more painfully becomes aware how much it must resign from enjoying the surface of the body and what it contains. In short: the erotic eye not only deprives itself from the tactile and genital interaction with the body, precisely by doing so, it lays bare its own inherent blindness.

To remedy such blindness, the erotic eye is doomed to circle around the body, to approach it from ever changing distances, to look at it from ever different angles. The desired body has to display itself in an endless succession of ever new facets: erotic eye and nude are doomed to dance and endless pas de deux. How dearly would the eye want to multiply itself to be able to admire the desired body from all sides, from all distances and at all moments! How dearly would it equal the thousand-eyed Argus, let alone the all-seeing God! And on top of that: how dearly would it become a hand, to be granted the pleasures of touching, if not the penis or the vagina, to be able to expand in the endless space of orgasm. How dearly would it want to be not only all-seeing, but omnipresent as well!

The image is a most powerful means to achieve this goals.

Pictures of nudity can be seen on the following pages. Should you be under 18, or feel disturbed when watching pictures of the naked body, please refrain from reading this page further.


In the visible world, bodies have a front and a back. What is more: they show their front only by hiding their back. Certainly, by turning around the body, we lay eyes upon the hidden side, but the problem repeats itself. The reverse side only becomes visible by hiding what was previously visible.

That has an often unnoticed effect on the structure of living beings. They are out at concentrating all the relevant information in one single surface that can be scanned in one glimpse: think of the calyx of a flower, the vaginal swellings of apes and primates, a face.

Since animals have mostly more than one kind of interaction, they have to show more than one surface. A solution is to change one and the same surface: through opening the mouth, a formerly friendly face can be changed into a threatening one. Or different surfaces may be allocated on different parts of the body: the front, the back, the flanks, the belly. Dependent on the kind of interaction, the animal can display one of its many surfaces. When fighting, the baboon displays its face, when copulating its rear, when lactating, its breast.

With humans, most expressions are displayed on the front, especially on the face. Also the sides provide some information: think of the profile of the head and the body. No relevant information is visible on the back - with the striking exception of the cross formed by the cut between the buttocks and the fold that separates them from the thighs.

During sexual encounter, the human body may be approached from the back or from the front. From an evolutionary point of view, the dorsal approach is the older one. Most apes and primates - with the exception of the meanwhile legendary bonobos – approach the female from the back side. To seduce her partner, the female displays her vaginal swellings. As soon as man began to walk upright, the vagina disappeared between the legs. The buttocks had to take over the function of seducing the male. Henceforth, the sign of the cross indicated where the vaginal opening had to be found. The four arms of the cross are like arrows pointing to the opening in the centre, not otherwise than the concentric stripes in many a calyx:

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dominique lefort

That does not prevent the vagina from being more accessible from the front. Add to this that all the relevant information about the partner is visible on the front, foremost on the face. And, what is perhaps even more important, that a frontal approach allows the whole complex of maternal interaction to be integrated in sexual intercourse: think of the sight of the eyes and the feel of the breasts. A series of secondary adaptations comes to cement the shift to the front. As a counterpart to the cross on the back, a hairy triangle indicates the place of the hidden vagina on the front:


It is rather difficult to find an appropriate image of the hairy triangle. It is mostly fashioned into a stripe that reminds of the penis, if it is not shaved altogether. That holds especially true for paintings and statues, as in the detail from Ingres below::

Instead of the hairy triangle, we get to see the shape of an Y. Such three-part ypsilon unfolds into a four-part pattern when the fold of the vagina is emphasized, as in the photo of Shakhabalov below. Picasso invariably draws a trident.


On the back side, the cross may unfold to a pentagon when the legs are spread:


Through such complex adaptation, the human body is no longer a single surface that can be overlooked in one glimpse. It has become a real body again: a three-dimensional object with a front and a rear that hide one another from view. The female has to display her beauty by turning around or being turned around, always revealing one side by hiding the other from view. Or it is the male that has to circle around his beloved, always paying the gain of the one beautiful sight with the loss of another. When the lovers proceed to copulation, it is no longer possible to set eyes upon the various sides one after another: the intertwining of the bodies confines the erotic appearance within the limits of a - mostly frontal - view.

The abortive frontalisation of the human erotic body is responsible for the fundamental ambivalence of the back. While, with the male, the cross can only refer to the anus, with the female also the vagina can be meant:

marc blackie

A second ambivalence comes to join the uncertainty about the genital or anal nature of the solicitation. Seen from the back, it is not always easy to tell a male from a female. Only the proportion between shoulders, buttocks and waist or the proportion between fat and flesh can make the difference. But, in real bodies, the difference is not always sufficiently outspoken:

Technical difficulties in the rendering of hairs, especially in sculpture, can only enhance the ambivalence. Whence the importance of strong secondary clues for sexual identity, such as long hair or plaits, sexually unequivocal clothes (a bra, lingerie) or props:

igor amelkovich

Conversely, artists prefer the view from the back when rendering a hermaphrodite:

The back side of the body does not show up expressions or clues for individual identity. That is why the dorsal approach is often experienced as bestial as opposed to the more human frontal approach. This leads to a final ambivalence: the dorsal approach of a body easily paves the way for dominant behaviour.

Thus, the back does not show up an unequivocal opposition between male and female, genital and anal, individual and collective, spiritual and physical, human and bestial, love and dominance. Which only confirms the importance of the shift of the whole proceedings to the front.

Be that as it may, the erotic appearance tries to remedy the inability of the eye to overlook it from all points of view at the same time. A solution consists in so turning the body that it shows up as many treasures as possible, as if the diverse phases of the erotic display are condensed in one single posture (examples: see below)

Another method consists in giving an advance to the treasures on the front. This is the more efficient, since the turning of the back is often not so much a means of displaying the beauty of the buttocks, as to hide the front from view. This leads to a reverse shift to the back: the sight of the buttocks comes to compensate the invisibility of the breasts:

martin boelt


Also the upper side of the back gains in appeal when the shoulder blades or the shoulders are read as breasts:


The erotic eye may also resort to the mirror. By placing a mirror behind his beloved, the lover can set eyes upon the front and the back at the same time. There are two versions: either the front or the back are turned to the mirror (Velazquez, Maya).

Only the image provides more satisfying solutions. The artist can so twist the body that many beautiful elements can be overlooked from a single point of view:

rené felderer


A classic procedure – already recommended by Alberti – is to show the body from three different perspectives, as in the judgment of Paris or the three Graces (Greece, Raphael, Rubens). The artist may extend this method into summoning up an entire harem with nudes in the most diverse postures, as in a veritable erotic panoptikon (Ingres, Turkish Bath). In photography, the same effect can be achieved through series of photos, collage, or multiple exposure, as in that remarkable triptych of Shoshu:


Since there are two breasts, the artist need not resort to repetition, especially since breasts have only a front side and a profile. The classical procedure here is to display the breasts so that one breast is seen from the front, and the other from the side. Such dispositions exerts an often irresistible spell, since it is the view of the breastfed infant (0)*.

The body has not only a front, a back and a side, but also an underside: the palms of the hand, the soles of the feet, the armpits, the genital fold and foremost the anus. The soles of the feet have the wrinkled skin in common with the genitals - a sure sign that they are not meant for eyesight. They belong to the ‘pudenda’ and are banned from the image (think of the well known stories about Van Eyck and Carravagio) – unless they are explicitly brought in the foreground to enhance the effect of the original, as in that marvellous photo of Ernesto Timor:

ernesto timor

That the body has no upper side does not prevent it from often being photographed from above. The intention then is rather to stress the profile of breasts and buttocks (0)*

Perspectival sight not only deprives us of the sight of the hidden side, it hides our own body from view in the first place. Only in reciprocal erotic display can we reconstruct our own attractiveness in the arousal of our partner. More willingly do we resort to the mirror, a device that isolder than the image – at least as the surface of the water in Narcissus’ pond. Not for nothing has the mirror been declared the very paradigm of the image. Not only technical restrictions are responsible for the fact that above all the face is admired in the image: apart from our back, we can see all the other parts of the body without a mirror, although from a rather unusual perspective. From the nineteenth century onward, man-sized mirrors move from the mirror-hall to the private sphere, where one can see his own body as the others do. The hermaphrodite gaze uses the mirror to project his own image in the other.


Living beings isolate the relevant objects in their field of vision as separate wholes: as figures against a background. Since the field of vision has the form of a cone, the eye can only see the object as a whole when it is sufficiently remote. But especially loving bodies tend to approach each other. Parts of the body have to be delineated as new figures against the background of the body: think of the face, but also of the breast, the buttocks, the genitals. The process repeats itself: also the face becomes a background against which the eyes, the mouth, the nose and the ear are delineated.

Such layered structure of the visual appearance delineates new forbidden zones. From a distance, we see the whole and lose sight of the parts. From nearby, we lose sight of the whole and the other parts. Whence a second form blindness inherent in erotic seeing.

The image traditionally solves the problem by showing a whole in which the parts are clearly discernable. For a long time, the nude used to appear as a hole body – and that is still the case in standard photography (think of the centrefolds). Only clothed bodies were allowed to appear as busts or mere faces. Isolated parts of the body can only be found in studies. Courbet’s ‘Origine du Monde’ is perhaps the first nude showing only a fragment of the body other than the face or the bust. Foremost from Stieglitz onward, the ‘close-up’ is a most cherished device in erotic photography.

In a first phase the traditional reduction of the body to the bust is extend to the headless trunk and the pair of legs:

In an second phase, the camera focuses on ever smaller parts of the body. The focus may be on somewhat larger parts of the body:

didier carré

alain paris

alain paris



erich kunz



or on smaller parts:


yvan galvez









However much the eye might enjoy an isolated part, it is not ready to give up the relish of the other parts. It may flutter about from one image to another. Another possibility is capture the various parts in one single image.

A first method consists in condensing various parts, or a part and the whole. When this method joins the centrifugal move away from the genitals (chapter III), it is turned into the desire to see the central part in the whole: the phallic torso.

john healy

When this method joins the desire of the eye to see the desiring organ in the desired body (chapter III), it is the phallic woman that appears in the guise of the phallic torso. In the photo of Shakhabalov below, it is not so much the morphological similarity, as rather the vehemence of the thrust in the back that lends the torso its phallic dimensions:


There is also the phallic bust, whereby the head plays the role of the glans, the neck of the shaft and the breasts of the testicles:


In a variant of the phallic torso, the reversed back embodies the shaft, and the buttocks the two lobes of the glans:

craig morey


Also other parts of the body can be condensed with the whole, as when the torso is read as a face as in Magritte's 'Le Viol', or when a foot is read as a penis as in the photo below:

stefan beyst

And, finally, the whole may be condensed in the part, as when the labia are read as the body and the clitoris as a head, or when the torso is condensed with the face.

And, of course, there are the numerous cases of displacement we dealt with in chapter III.


‘Details are always vulgar'
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Portrait of Dorian Gray’.

All too readily is the visible world conceived as a photo on which everything is sharply defined. In fact, it only reveals itself through focusing eyes converging towards a given point in space. A single aspect of the visual world is grasped at the expense of the surrounding zone, which becomes blurred as the eyes focus on the target. To clear up the mist, the eye must shift its focus, but wherever it moves, it drags its hazy aura with it. Because of this, the eye is destined to desperately flutter about, relishing one flower after another - utterly deprived of a global perspective on the whole meadow. This is another form of the blindness inherent in vision.

Many images adhere strictly to the principle of binocular vision, bringing into sharp focus only what is supposed to stand at the centre of attention. The most obvious way of achieving this is to omit irrelevant details or objects in the foreground, the background, and the periphery, as in an icon. Alternatively, when the environment is allowed to enter the picture, it tends to be blurred. A well know procedure is the ‘colour-perspective’ which was introduced in painting by the Flemish school. Since the introduction of the camera, the layering of an image can be achieved through approximating the real range of sharpness (in depth) or on the contrary, by shortening or widening the range of blurring. Blurring the periphery is done by preparing the lens. A contrast between parts of the picture rendered in sharp focus and areas which remain in soft focus, may centre the attention on the most relevant parts of the image, or, conversely, submerge them in a promising ‘flou’:

eduardo segura

lee stranahan

There is also the reverse strive to clear up the entire field of vision. In paintings and drawings it is simply the natural propensity of the eye to focus on what it is doing, that causes the painter to render everything in sharp focus. As soon as the techniques of representation became aware of the unrealistic effect of this procedure, it was counteracted by a deliberate blurring of peripheral and distant objects. Nevertheless, the urge for overall high-definition has not subsided. The erotic eye is reluctant to confine itself to a single vantage point, it eagerly wants to penetrate even the remotest corner of the image. In meeting the demands of the greedy eye, overall sharp focus gives the impression that the nude is utterly disposable (0)°.

Not only does an overall sharp focus look artificial, it is often appalling. It hurts the sensible eye, let alone the loving one. It is well known how the pupil of the enchanted eye tends to widen, which culminates in the typical loving gaze. Such loving gaze is no longer able to discern sharply delineated shapes. It is as if the world is wrapped in a kind of mist. No surprise then, that many a photographer chooses to dismiss sharp focus altogether and gently wraps the image in the gauze of a ‘flou érotique’:

philippe pache


norbert guthier

Blurring can be achieved through moving the camera or the nude (0)*, through immersing the nude in water:


through wrapping the nude in transparent cloth:


through resorting to grain:

richard williams

or to diverse forms of manipulation, digital or other:

emil schildt

A most convincing effect is achieved through the very idiosyncratic technique of William Ropp:

william ropp

But the overall blurring of an image must run counter the cravings of the eye. In every real erotic encounter the emergence of natural ‘flou erotique’ preludes the eye’s imminent closure and the advent of tactile and genital interaction. The image, however, cannot keep that promise. Thus the eye is doomed to continue looking. That is why it soon demands that the mist be cleared up. Whence the overwhelming predominance of high-definition nudity in erotic photography. One cannot escape the impression that the unrelenting urge to uncover the nude and its proceedings in its minutest detail simply compensates for, and witnesses, the forever impossible unfolding of love in the image.

The soft focus congenial to painting has the additional advantage of concealing the minor imperfections of the body. Similarly, despite the broad range of techniques available for rendering details in the sharpness of an image, photography has developed its own devices to get rid of too much focus. But it is worth noting that some painters and photographers make a virtue out of need, by discovering a new range of erotic imagery that lays bare the smallest details of the body. If the skin is flawless, this may lend an unknown appeal to the virginal body (see Wantuch's close up above).


So spoiled are we by the abundance of images, that we all too easily forget that, in the real world, the erotic appearance has to unfold as a book, page after page - while we nearly have the time to read. Here originates the conflict between the desire to linger over transient splendours and the yearning to discover the nude’s entire range of ever-changing erotic delights.

There are natural ways of disrupting the course of time. The nude obviously does this when resting. But, also when moving, the movements of the body often come to a standstill in some expressive gesture, posture or position. These furtive movements can be prolonged by ‘adopting a pose’, like in a tableau vivant – or in Fourier’s ‘musée imaginaire’, where the most beautiful men and women were supposed to display their charms before the whole community. Also postures that are a culmination of movements, or movements that are beautiful within themselves, can be made enduring through repetition: think of the wiggling of hips, or the patterns of movement in dance.

But such natural procedures are only a poor substitute for the image’s unrivalled ability to transform the moment into eternity. Only the image has the capacity to meet the erotic eye’s deep-rooted longing to encapsulate the fleeting glimpse into an everlasting immobility. However, it is one thing to catch positions of repose or naturally immobile expressions and postures. It is quite another to catch the culminating points of movements or the beauty of the movement itself. For a long time artists were forced to rely on memory and intuition, if not to resort to convention. And only in the society of slaves could an artist like Parrhasios have a slave killed for the sole purpose of being able to catch the anguish of the moment of death. Such shortcomings of memory have driven the unrelenting human quest for techniques to overcome them. And this is precisely why there was such triumphant welcome for photographic techniques which shortened exposure times and made it possible to obtain fixed and clearly defined images of moving objects. With this development, photography could at last decompose the passing of time in its constituent movements. The same impulse is at work when people watching erotic videos slow down the motion of the film to catch the supreme moment. We must surmise that the explorations of Muybridge and Marey were fuelled above all by the desire to catch, amidst the proliferation of meaningless shots, the one and holy cherished moment. It has to be plainly admitted that the immobile image is the medium of voyeurism ‘par excellence’, the veritable ether of the erotic eye.

How much the immobile image might satisfy the desire to submerge in the eternal moment, it cannot satiate the craving of the erotic eye. Precisely by disclosing the enchantment of the transient moment, the immobile image only stirs the desire for the other splendours to be admired. The eye soon feels deprived by one single image and implores time to resume its course, even it is only for as long as it takes before another supreme moment can be frozen. Ever new facets of beauty’s unfolding are fixed, one after the other, until, eventually, the steady natural flow of the erotic display breaks up in the accumulation of its highlights, which can be combined in one and the same image through various photographic and artistic techniques. A composition like the dance of the three Graces might well be read as the simultaneous display of three successive phases of one and the same woman. Marey introduced the technique of multiple exposure. Duchamp and the Futurists adopted this technique in painting. It continues to be a popular technique in contemporary photography, where it is refined through variations in the number and the timing of the exposures:

However, freezing a phase in a process or a movement conveys a certain feeling of immobility. To dispose of this macabre flavour, artists and photographers often resort to a more convincing means of suggesting the elusive moment. Rodin maintained that the only solution was to combine two different phases of the same continuous movement in one pose. According to Clark, this was also the solution adopted by Miron in his discobolus. Painters also made the dynamics of the rectangle endorse the feeling of movement. Velasquez marks the introduction of the technique of blurring the contour - as if a limb was dragging a kind of veil. In photography, this effect can be easily achieved by reintroducing a prolonged exposure time:



It is not only the nude that moves before the eye, also the eye moves around the nude. The photo of Shakhabalov below is a most remarkable rendering of the way in which the eyes zooms in on the centre of the proceedings:



‘Templum aedificatum super cloacam’

The eye reveals only the surface of objects, never their inside. And this gives birth to the final type of blindness inherent in vision.

Only to the genitals is the inside of the body naturally revealed. Genitals, however, do not see: they feel. And what is more, they disclose a dimensionless world which is quite different from the three-dimensional world of the eye (see Chapter I). And it is only in this discrete and vectored world that the vaginal cave appears as an inside that the eye wants to penetrate. There it stumbles on the sight of the mucous membrane which appeals only to an archaic erotic sensibility. Only when a preliminary level of erotic arousal has been achieved do the splendours of the vaginal cave appeal to the eye.

Instead of being fuelled by the genital urge to penetrate the body, the desire to overcome the limitation of the surface and enter the forbidden zone of the interior can be directly ignited at the visual perception of the skin itself. It suffices to conceive the body as a layered structure, as though it was an onion. By peeling the onion, the desire to see what is hidden behind the surface can be satisfied, again and again. Because it is mostly covered with several layers of clothing, the body perfectly fits this idea. With the only exception that the peeling cannot go on endlessly. When veil after veil is lifted, as in Salomé dance, eventually the skin appears. The passion of unveiling runs up against the b barrier of the skin. To the craving eye, the skin may appear to be just another cover that can be removed. Alphonse Allais has the story of the pasha who sent for a virgin. The guards cut off her dress, to the pasha’s ordering: “More”! “More”! Finally the virgin stood naked before the pasha. “More”! he ordered. And the guards set about skinning her. Variants of this fantasy can be seen on the pictures of Donovan an Tran ba Vang:


tran ba vang

In crossing the threshold of the skin, however, a heavy toll has to be paid: the realm of pure ugliness has been entered. Not another delightful surface is laid bare, only muscles and intestines. These organs have a surface too, but it is not destined for eyesight, in much the same way as the mucous membrane of the genitalia (Da Cortona).

What promised to be the ultimate satisfaction of the voyeur, proves to be its ultimate frustration. The luxurious eye destroys the splendour by its own greed. With hindsight, it dearly deplores the sacrifice of the precious beauty of the skin, which is now all the more enhanced against the sight of the repulsive flesh and intestines. Unless the greedy eye starts to savour a new relish: the enchantment of the beautiful surface is broken and the sojourn of the intestines forever cures the eye’s insatiable appetite. This may explain the obsession of da Vinci and other men with exploring the intestines. We will further examine the close relationship between voyeurism and sadism in chapter XI.

axcs art


Just as the eye may try to penetrate the vaginal cave as though it were a penis, so the genital urge can court the eye’s endeavour in desiring to lay bare the interior of the body. Skinning is then transformed into ripping (as in the famous cases of Bertrand and Jack the Ripper). Since the moist gleam of the intestines is a compelling reminder of the mucous membrane of the genitalia, which are equally concealed by the foreskin or the labia, ripping the belly open with a sharp knife might become an elevated form of opening the labial crease, particularly when it uncovers a foetus in the womb as shown by the famous drawings of da Vinci and the print of Yoshitoshi:


da vinci

The substitution of the intestines through the vagina is endorsed by the interpretation of the vagina as a cut or of the cleft between the buttocks as the result of previous splitting. In the same vein, the various folds and axes of symmetry in the body (belly and back) are often conceived as cutting lines. They provoke the desire to cut them open, as we do when preparing to eat animals:

bergeret: 'l'offrande

michael tweddle rayner

dirk lakomy

anne arden mcdonald

Here lie the roots of Aristophanes’ idea that people originated from the splitting of a four-legged and four-armed double-being. Or of the idea that the body can be opened and closed at will with a zipper, as though skin were another garment:

nicole tran ba vang

The obsession with scars on the skin, first and foremost on the soft belly, or the fascination with seams (in nylon stockings for example) may hint at such kinds of obsessions.

Conceiving the surface as being transparent is another way of trespassing on the forbidden zone imposed by it. Many people dream of possessing a device that could make clothes transparent. Transparent clothes make this fantasy real. But only x-rays and scanners fully realise such fantasies. Yet again, the transparency does not stop at the threshold of the skin: the entire body is affected. This time we do not hurt on the ugly surfaces of the internal organs. We discover a range of delightful contours which outline soft, undulating surfaces instead. The contrast with the harsh structure of the skeleton only adds to the enjoyment of the softness of the transparent flesh, as does the transposition of the all-pervading orgasmic feeling in three-dimensional space, which only adds to the charm of transparency. Therefore, as much as the mirror compensates for the invisibility of the rear, x-rays compensate for the invisibility of the inside.

Tomy Ceballos” plays with the contradiction between the modest attitude of ‘La pudica’ and her utter exposure to an all-pervading gaze :


But also here can the fun be spoiled by the sheer ugliness of what we get to see:


Or the emphasis on the skeleton reminds of the transience of beauty.

In photography, the idea of transparency and ghost-like permeability may be conveyed through the superposition of negatives or multiple exposure. In Eduardo Segura's photo below, the idea of transparency is combined with the idea of the merger of the bodies during sexual intercourse - an attempt at visualising the implosion of the visual world during orgasm (see chapter I):

eduardo segura

see next file (coming soon)

© Stefan Beyst, November 2003

From the same author: 'the ecstasies of eros'

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see also:

waclaw wantuch gabriele rigon craig morey
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