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Chapter XII of ‘the erotic eye and its nude’.


To end in beauty, we should now concentrate on a far more mitigated form of the destruction of beauty: the resistance against the erotic image.

from way back, erotic images have been subject to often fierce taboos. It is an illusion to think that those taboos have been gradually overcome over the course of history. Quite the contrary: the forces opposing the ‘frenzy of the visible’ (Williams) are growing stronger with the introduction of every new technique of production or reproduction of images. From Moses, Plato, Buddha and Confucius, over Mohammed, Savonarola, Luther and Calvin, to Dworkin and Khomeini, an ever increasing choir of iconoclasts have been fulminating against the growing tidal wave of erotic imagery. It is not our intention to write the history of that opposition. Rather are we interested in the attitude of the artists and the art lovers themselves.Their stance on erotic imagery is not always positive. In the silence of their workshops, they often wage a fierce battle against the allure of erotic beauty and the fascination of its destruction, just like Saint Anthony in the desert. Long before iconoclasts engage in their destructive undertakings, they often have expelled themselves the devil from many an image with their own hands.

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Cet homme (Boucher) ne prend le pinceau que pour me montrer des tétons et des fesses. Je suis bien aise d’en voir, mais je ne puis souffrir qu’on me les montre’ Diderot.

The taboo on erotic imagery is an extension of the natural and culturally enforced taboo on the display of the erotic beauty of real bodies, already examined in chapter VIII. There we described the natural propensity to hide the genitals from view, the propensity of lovers to retire, and the avoidance of seduction in everyday commerce.

The image only makes things worse. It elevates beauty to unknown heights. That induces many a lover to look for an echo in the real world. There, he has often to conclude that he does not qualify. He then resumes his commerce with the image. Which is not difficult, since the beauty in the image surpasses the beauty of real bodies. This cannot but strengthen the feelings of inferiority and the frustration in the poor onlooker, and therewith also his resentment, not only of the beauty in the image, but also of the image itself. The same feelings are stirred in the lesser beauties, who feel eclipsed by the heightened beauty in the image: they feel utterly excluded.

That does not prevent the image from providing a visual pleasure which the real world cannot but withhold. In real life, voyeurism is by nature confined to the contemplation of the face and those parts of the body left uncovered or intimated through the clothes. In the image, the voyeur can lay eyes upon the whole body, excited genitals included. That makes it all the more difficult to resist. This turns out to be a poisoned gift: it is impossible to have intercourse with an image. The image transforms the onlooker into a castrated voyeur, looking at the hermaphrodite body (chapter III) or the beast with two backs (chapter X and XI). That cannot fail to stir feelings of resentment against the image and what it depicts (Kappeler). As we have seen, that leads to the ultimate destruction of beauty and the image alike.


There is, however, another way out, which we deliberately left out of the picture in our description of the erotic themes in the preceding chapters.

What has to appear in the image, has to adapt itself to the nature of the image. The image forbids tactile and genital commerce, and hence is only appropriate to the purely visual initial phase of erotic commerce. It is just as well that Titian’s Venus hides her treasures with a subtle gesture of the hand. Were she to splay her legs wide, like the headless trunk in Courbet’s ‘Origine du Monde’, she would no longer so graciously balance on the rope between revealed visual beauty and merely promised tactile or genital gratification.

Thus, there is also a taboo on the erotic representation rooted in the very nature of the image itself. And that taboo is in line with the natural taboo inherent in vision itself: senses of the distance cannot feel, let alone genitally consume. The subtle gesture of Titian’s Venus saves the erotic eye from the pitfalls of the visualisation of the genital. No longer has it to look on sadly how the erotic appearance is dissolving into the hermaphrodite or the beast with two backs. The curtain before Courbet’s picture in Khalil Bey’s palace cannot conceal that the image has become a fetish and has thereby betrayed its true destiny.

That is why the image has to be somewhat reserved about the allure of what it conjures up. In order to remain faithful to its destiny, it should rather use sexual arousal to create a kind of visual perpetuum mobile in focussing on the formal beauty of the erotic appearance – the proportions and the composition of forms and lines, black and white, colours and materials. The erotic appearance is then the starting point of another kind of pleasure: the ease with which the appearance can be comprehended. This is a purely sensual – aesthetic – pleasure, whereby the pleasure in the ease is in relation with the complexity of the task. Such pleasure can join the erotic allure, while at the same time propelling the erotic arousal along aesthetic pathways. Therein, formal beauty resembles clothes that heighten the erotic tension in prolonging denudation. It is as if an invisible veil is woven over the erotic charms. Instead of being the spark that ignites the erotic fire, formally aestheticised erotic appearance invites us to submerge in it. Formally contained erotic beauty is the highest form of visual beauty. Not for nothing have artists from way back been obsessed by the challenge of catching erotic beauty in the image. Not for nothing are the highest achievements of the visual arts to be found in the domain of erotic imagery. And not for nothing are the most beautiful examples in this book often hand-made pictures: not only do they warrant a continuous heightening of beauty, they also enable a far more severe formal containment of that heightened beauty as well:



oscar brunet

As soon as the image formally contains the erotic appearance, it is no longer the embodiment of a fourfold taboo. It no longer forbids tactile or genital pleasure, but generously grants full visual pleasure. And it is no longer doomed to enact the forbidden: no longer does it stage the arousal through a third party – the primal scene – but an erotic appearance that is freely allowed to enthrall the onlooker. At the same time, the formal containment of erotic beauty transforms voyeurism into an aesthetic attitude. Sexual arousal is consumed in the creating or discovering of formal beauty. Such completion of the perverse move effectively checks the transformation of voyeurism into sadovoyeurism. Only through such formal containment is the voyeur transformed in an artist or an art lover, and the exhibitionist in an erotic performer. The marriage of erotic and formal beauty not only seals voyeurism’s coming of age as an accomplished aesthetic pleasure, it also enables the image to fulfil its true destiny: the revelation of beauty.

The same image that asks for the formal containment of erotic beauty lifts the ban on the completion of the full sadomasochistic sacrifice, as we have seen in chapter XI. As opposed to the enactment of erotic beauty, the destruction of beauty does not require formal containment: the source of arousal is drying up. Only the mitigated versions of the sadomasochistic performance ask for formal – ritual – containment, although it is not the unfolding of love that has to be checked here, but the urge to destroy its fountainhead: beauty. That is betrayed in the often meticulous composition of the mise-en-scène. Sadomasochistic literature obtains the same effect by providing elaborated and often endless details about what, where, when and why: this diverts the attention from what is really happening.

It will not have escaped the attention of the reader, though, that, precisely when the destructive impulses are given free rein, an often breathtaking beauty is coaxed from the in essence repulsive sight of what we get to see. To the effect that we no longer avert our eyes in disgust, but, on the contrary, continue looking with fascination. In that sense, beauty saves the image also when it stages the destruction of the nude. Although such beauty is isolated from what has been a beautiful body, it cannot but stir the longing for the immaculate nude. But, since the nude is now destroyed, that desire is neutralised, at least for as long as we continue looking. What has been a means of destroying the sexual urge is thus transformed into an effective means of letting the pleasure in beauty remain purely aesthetic – a purely visual enjoyment that no longer asks for its completion in an act. Such aestheticising is often far more effective than that of bodily beauty: with the latter, the goal is within reach, while, with the former, any attempt at proceeding to touching is checked by the ugliness of what now looms up. That is probably why beauty in art so often goes hand in hand with ugliness.


Conversely, it seems far more difficult to maintain a proper balance between aesthetic and erotic beauty. Time and again, the erotic image capitulates for the call of genital release. It is not difficult to see why. So urgent is sexual scarcity – not least as a consequence of the fact that beauty in the image eclipses real beauty – that many a potential lover prefers being castrated by the image, rather then being disillusioned or rejected in the real world. When the image has to titillate, formal beauty only diverts the attention. The focus is on purely erotic releasers. The most beautiful women display themselves in the most alluring poses. It is these images that call forth the anti-erotic resentment. It will be superfluous to insert that kind of images in our text.

That is why many an artist tries to ban the erotic image from the image, rather then to destroy it. An obvious solution is to play off the medium. The artist can replace the softness of the skin with strokes or grain, break the magic of colour through resorting to black and white (or white marble) of neutralise the undulations of the body through reducing the body to a sheer circumference or a surface. We have illustrated this in chapter VIII, 6.

The artist can also devaluate the nude. He then stages mere naked, if not non-ideal nudes, from girls in early puberty (Schiele, Ionescu):

ernesto timor





over modal bodies with all their natural shortcomings:

christopher john ball

hermann foesterling

to deformed bodies,

william ropp

william ropp

old woman, from Rodin's 'Celle qui fut la belle Heaulmière'

to the magnificent torse of Robert Piccart:

robert piccart

not to mention mutilated bodies (Duffy) or corpses (Géricault, Baselitz, Witkin).


Such anti-idealistic trend can already be observed in Hellenism, it was overwhelming in the official Christian art of the Middle Ages, got new impulse after the restoration of the rights of the body in the Renaissance, after the advent of erotic photos in the middle of the nineteenth century and in the wake of feminism in the twentieth century. Thus, Neads – inspired by Derrida’s predilection for what is outside the frame – pleads for the depiction of what has hitherto been excluded from the image: the vagina and her menstruation.


"The nude is for the artist what love is for the poet"

Paul Valéry

Far less obvious is the replacement of the nude with subjects that centrifugally orbit around it.

To begin with, there is the portrait. At the hinge between non-erotic - political and economic - and erotic commerce, it is predestined to initiate the move away from the nude. Instead of being the prelude to the submerging of the face in the overall erotic appearance, it comes to express the political and economic import of the person:

van eyck

In other images, the focus is shifting from reciprocal seduction to competitive or productive action. In the beginning we are dealing with religious or historical scenes. Gradually, when cheaper forms of images were introduced, we see ever more profane subjects replace the heroic feats of rulers and saints.


Evenutally, the focus is shifting to transient, peripheral events, culminating in the snapshots of photography. Although it cannot be denied that many of these images exert the necessary charms, they nevertheless are peripheral subjects. After all, men as well women are economically and politically active only in view of acquiring sexual gratification. That goes especially for the flaunting of power and wealth: the Trojan War was in fact a war for Helen.

Such mediated, competitive or productive action is performed in an environment: an interior or a landscape as the scene on which human action unfolds. Initially, the focus is more on the action than on the environment, but gradually the environment takes over, to finally push the action aside. In a first phase, man is only represented through signs: the buildings or products testifying to his wealth or his poverty, if not to the idleness of human endeavour:


And that reminds us of the fact that it is precisely political and economical relations which are responsible for the fact that loving relations cannot develop properly. Not surprising, hence, that every depiction of sexual relations cannot fail to leave a nasty aftertaste. And that cannot but lend an additional charm to the centrifugal movement away from the nude: a sojourn in the distant realms where the human fate is shaped has at least the advantage that it can keep the fire of hope burning.

Unless we prefer to resign in the sight of unspoilt nature, which is totally indifferent to human strivings or which immeasurably rises above it. In all these cases, the landscape negates the competition that used to appear in the centre of attention:

caspar david friedrich

Human action can also be replaced with the depiction of man’s weapons and tools or the products of his labour. But, just like the painters themselves, also the theoreticians seem not to be aware of a more fundamental negation. Beyond the opposition between human action and instruments and products, the more fundamental opposition between erotic and non-erotic escapes the attention. The still life is not so much the negation of human action, as rather of the goal of any action. After all, instruments and products of labour are destined to enter the economic exchange between man and woman, who feed each other and their children.


Bryson is right in arguing that, in the still life, the apogee of the Albertian painting is missing: the vanishing point (69) While, in the geometric centre of Titian’s Venus of Urbino the vagina is shown, in Cotan, the logarithmic spiral is rotating around a black void – the counterpart of the black square on white background of Malevitch, who not for nothing also placed a black cross in the centre:

malevi ch

Such genealogy of iconography – Hegel somewhat on his head – demonstrates that the nude is the real vanishing point of all subject matter. Although we should remind that – just like the spirit in the eye – also the erotic appearance disappears in the hole.


There are also more formal solutions of the problem.

An obvious method is a shift of the attention to less recognisable, although not less erotic appearances of the body. In the marvellous examples of Eric Kellerman below, the transformation is obtained by lighting:

eric kellerman

eric kellerman

Other artistis submit the body and its parts to some formal pattern: they reduce the organic forms to geometrical schemes or translate them in purely formal compositions of black and white, colour, or texture. The body becomes increasingly unrecognisable, if it is not reduced to a pure abstract scheme:

tono stano

waclaw wantuch

Also the bodies entwined do not escape that fate. In real life, they are often mingled up in an inextricable knot. We already described how that called forth the propensity to arrange the bodies in often rigid symmetries that, for real bodies, are rather uncomfortable straitjackets (Bitesnich) .

Sometimes the artists go so far that they reject the importance of the – in essence erotic - subject matter altogether, and try to get rid of mimesis as such. The anti-erotic impulse is the extended to an all-encompassing anti-mimetic crusade. In a first phase this move results in the development of abstract art in the first half of the twentieth century.‘Figuration’ as such is rejected and the artists resort to a purely formal play with geometrical forms. In fact, these are merely the double negation of the nude: they are monolithic objects, as opposed to the body that is a harmonious whole of diverse parts. And they are flat and angular, as opposed to the round and undulating surface of the body. Through such negation, abstract art unwillingly betrays its real origin. The anti-erotic character of the early abstract painting has hardly been recognised (see also 'Mimesis and abstraction'). Only Steiner (1965) negatively asks the question: ‘Would not one of the definitions of abstract, non-objective art be that it cannot be pornographic’.

Far more consequent has been the complete rejection of mimesis as such: the feat of ‘conceptual’ art in all its variants. Instead of transfiguration the world – in essence: erotic beauty – in the image, it is banned from the image through hanging mere signs on the wall, that only refer to a world outside the picture. Mimesis is transformed into semiosis. (See: About the realtion between philosophy and art) This seals the end of art. The taboo on the image in the traditional art of the past century is only the most recent of a long series of anti-mimetic upsurges that from way back are wreaking havoc in the world of the image. The same impulse must have been laying at the roots of the imposition of a generalised taboo on representation by Moses that has been taken over in the Islam and led to the bloom of abstract art in all those religions.

Needless to say that a heavy toll has been paid for such anti-erotic trend that extends into a veritable anti-mimetic crusade. While art gains in formal beauty – and the artist in respectability – it loses its overall appeal.


The erotic devil does not let himself expell so easily. There is something like the return of the repressed. The corrosion of erotic appeal through grain, black and white or the silhouette discloses often unexpected charms. The staging of repellent nudes feeds the resentment against the unattainable beauty, or satisfies a whole array of ‘paraphilias’ such as paedophilia, efebephilia or gerontophilia, if not necrophilia, zoophilia and the like. And in the previous chapter, we have described the secret charms of the destruction of beauty.

The erotic devil also joins the centrifugal move away from the nude. We already mentioned how the depiction of scenes of torture is often a nearly concealed alibi to satisfy sadistic impulses. Also the many ‘historic scenes’ are mostly a mere alibi to stage nude bodies in all kinds of poses. That is foremost the case with scenes of battle, that often acquire an erotic freight as a consequence of the similarity between fighting and copulating:


Also more prosaic activities often allow for indirect sexual gratification. Most cherished is the theme of the individual or collective bath: from the countless Bethesda’s in the bath, over the Turkish Bath of Ingres, to the many ‘bathers’ in modern art. Also photography developed countless, rather modest variants: the visit of the doctor, the secretary on the ladder, the nurse and so on:


The erotic devil even knows how to provoke the elusive erotic beauty out of the landscape or the still life. Human action is negated in the representation of nature as a lost paradise, where everything can be found in plenty, wherefore man has to labour hard. But the fruits in paradise are the nearly concealed substitutes for the real fruits that can be harvested after hard work. And these often shimmer through in the contours of many a landscape:

karl h. warkentin




And of course above all the objects on the still life can all too easily be read symbolically: the image is then debased to a mere sign that has to conjure up erotic associations in the dark chamber of the skull. Elsewhere, things take the shape of the repressed nude or engage in often nearly concealed orgies:

milton montenegro

objet de désir

Also machines can be eroticised (Picabia).

In general, the repressed erotic pleasure resurfaces in the often obsessive realism and the fascination through panoramic views, transparency, reflection and the like, that characterises many a landscape or still life from the Romans onward:

van eyck (detail)

All these trends converge in Duchamp’s ‘La marièe mise à nu par ses célibataires même’, painted on transparent glass. At first glance, it is only a heap of meaningless objects – a kind of synthesis of historic scene, landscape and still life. After interpretation, however, it cannot but conjure up rather obscene representations in the mind. It is no accident that this prelude to ‘conceptual art’ is the product of an artist who was known for his rejection of mere sensual titillation of the retina. And it is not by accident that the same artists resorted to a kind of 'negative mimesis' in his 'erotic objects' 'Female Fig leaf' (1950) and 'Objet-dart' (1951): sheer casts of the outer and - at least accodring to Arturo Schwarz... - inner female genitals, that represent their object mereley as a void.

Also the geometrical straitjacket, in which the nude has been contorted, often only enhances its secret erotic charms. A voluptuous pose may lend its momentum or its justification from it (Balthus). Or the symmetry of the composition betrays the nearly concealed desire of the bodies to entwine: geometry is turned into a symbol of bodily interaction. Or it is transformed into a symbolic comment on what it contains, as when Brancusi catches his lovers within the confines of a cube.

Often precisely those parts of the nude, that have become unrecognisable through abstraction, begin to resemble other objects, that in their turn symbolically refer back to what has been hidden from view.

And geometric discipline necessarily reminds of the frames in which sadists use to hang their victims.


And, last but not least, even the most consequent abstraction, or even the most fervent conceptualising of art cannot clean art from its erotic stains. Already in Klimt the vert clothes, that are meant to hide the nudity of the models, brim over with abstract motives with overt erotic connotations, when they do not engage in sexual life altogether:


With Eva Hesse, the geometric volume of the cube is suddenly turned in what it negates: the smooth, round, organic hole of the womb.

Often the repressed returns only in the mind of the beholder, who descries an erotic charge in even the most abstract representations. Thus, Lucy-Smith does not hesitate to read Mondrian’s crosses in terms of copulation. As if abstract art would be one gigantic orgy...

Conceptual art, finally, continues to speak of art notwithstanding all its anti-mimetic fervour. The conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner has two lesbiennes and a homosexual perform in ‘Do you believe in water?’ (1976). That betrays how strong the appeal of what has been condemned continues to be. Also the predilection of iconic signs instead of purely abstract verbal signs, testifies to the repression.


Needless to say that there is a big difference between the return of the repressed and the cautious balancing on the chord between erotic containment of erotic appeal. It suffices to compare the images.

The reach and the impact of the ant-erotic impulse, which extends to a general anti-mimetic crusade, can shed a new light on the production of artistic images as such. Consecutive tidal waves of erotic imagery have flooded the world on an ever increasing scale and in ever more broad layers of the population. The discoveries in Pompeii may give us an idea of the huge quantities of erotic imagery that have been destroyed in the course of the centuries. It is apparent then, that these tidal waves are not some undercurrent that has not connexion whatsoever with ‘genuine’ art. For it is not by accident that the anti-mimetic fervour of modern art originates at precisely the moment when, in the middle of the nineteenth century, erotic photos have been exported by the shipload to every corner of the world. The anti-mimetic impulse in modern art is only a particular example of the increasing anti-mimetic fervour that, from the very beginning of the production of images has been opposing the profusion of erotic imagery. Many a commentator either looks back with home-sickness to the freedom of times bygone or places far away, or sketches a history where ever new taboos are lifted. We think that, from the beginning, opposite forces have been at work: on the one hand the frenzy of the visible, the propensity to catch everything in the image, as opposed to the tendency to centrifugally move away form the erotic beauty.

How such dynamics unfolds historically, is determined by the development of mimetic techniques. Labour-intensive mimetic techniques are predestined for prestigious centrifugal subject-matter: erotic themes are more easily depicted in a print than in a marble sculpture. In addition, techniques that are not so labour-intensive, and hence cheaper, more easily lend themselves for private use. A fresco or a marble sculpture are more suitable for public use, a print or a photo for private use. And, since the development of mimetic techniques is characterised by increasing productivity, the development of subject matter seems to steadily move towards the erotic centre. With every increase in productivity, the image seems to push toward the centre an on ever increasing scale, which calls forth ever new and ever more drastic anti-mimetic reactions, in the image in the first place.

On the other hand another characteristic of production is responsible for the fact that ever more eccentric subject matter is dealt with. Images last. While musicians have always to reinterpret existing scores, visual artists and writers are compelled to tackle ever new subject-matter. As soon as the handling of the most obvious subject matter is saturated, more centrifugal themes explored, which also produces the illusion of an ever increasing freedom.


Up to now, we took only sexual - voyeuristic - motives into account. Time has come to introduce another factor that fuels the development of the image: communal - orgiastic - motives (see also: 'The orgy'). Also the desire to meet collective standards and the desire to share beauty lie at the roots of the production of erotic imagery.

In view of the relentless and often fierce opposition against the ‘increasing’ sexual freedom, the benevolent effect of the communal enjoyment must be stressed. A common sexual standard is imposed on the whole community and stimulates every member to cultivate his beauty and his sexual prowess. How benevolent this effect is, can be measured by the overall appearance of members of ascetic cultures condemning every orgiastic feeling in view of some spiritual mission. Just like erotic clothes eroticise the body, ascetic clothes induce a general degeneration of bodily beauty. The same goes for the sexual habits.

It cannot be denied, however, that erotic imagery eclipses the beauty of real bodies and real sexual behaviour. On the other hand, it must be granted that the quasi omnipresence of erotic imagery has furthered the diversity of sexual commerce and has made short work of the negative effects of centuries of sexual repression, in the first place due to the material conditions of the masses that had to produce the wealth of a minority that was allowed to enjoy full sexual freedom. What Foucault considers to be an increasing control, is in the long run only a superficial and transient reaction, due to the vehemence of the erotic earthquake caused by the increasing wealth of ever new layers of the population in the industrialised world. This explains the spread of a refined sexual culture in ever more layers of society.

We must admit, however, that not everybody can meet the standards of the universally acclaimed embodiments of beauty and the athletes of sexual prowess. Precisely therefore, the communal consecration of beauty threatens to restrict itself to the chosen few. The solution has not to be found in forbidding the display of beauty (especially when a proper distinction is made between communal seduction and sexual seduction, which may be asking too much). As opposed to material conditions, that can be improved and more fairly distributed, bodily beauty is unequally distributed over a given population. Although many techniques allow for some correction, the ideal of erotic egalitarianism will certainly remain an illusion forever. In the meantime, those who feel eclipsed, should rather develop other qualities – as the minor beauties have done from way back – instead of hindering the happier ones to enjoy their beauty and to display their charms

© Stefan Beyst,december 2004

From the same author:
'the ecstasies of eros'

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