In art we lust: At second blush, classic works rise to full erotic potential

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 2009

Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned.

Whenever I've gone by Titian's great "Venus With a Mirror," sitting topless in the Renaissance rooms at the National Gallery of Art, or Canova's marble "Naiad," lounging a floor below in the no-kini of a classical goddess, carnal thoughts have come to me.

If only I'd been keeping up with the latest scholarship, I'd have had a more up-to-date reaction: full-blown, panting lust.

After well over a century of prim coverups, literal and metaphorical, of the sexual content of the greatest nudes in art, experts have been waking up to the erotic, even pornographic, potential. "I think it's essential that we understand them as objects in the context of men wanting to look at naked women," says Amelia Jones, a pioneer of feminist art history who teaches at the University of Manchester in England. Over the past decade or two, most of her colleagues have abandoned the genteel distinction Sir Kenneth Clark insisted on, in a famous lecture series in Washington in 1953, between the chaste "nude," cleansed by an artwork's aesthetic and philosophical ambitions, and pictures of the pruriently "naked," meant to get a rise out of viewers.

The new view: Flesh is flesh is flesh. Any culture that thinks "sex" when it sees naked bodies will still think "sex" when it sees pictures of them.

As usual, Marcel Duchamp had hammered all this out before others, as we can see in an important show now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It digs deep into the making of his "Etant Donnés," the wildly explicit peep show Duchamp left to the museum when he died in 1968. Duchamp's last work did for pornography what his urinal "Fountain" had done for men's-room plumbing back in 1917: It made clear that there's nothing so out of bounds in our culture that it doesn't have artistic repercussions.

But before considering Duchamp and his final word on lusty aesthetics, we need to go back to beginnings and take a more licentious look at Titian and Canova and their times.

The art of lechery

The men of the West, even at their most refined, have long had a Playboy culture. (Women were mostly left out, or relegated to Bunny roles.)

During the Renaissance, seedbed of most later art, inns and taverns flaunted naughty pictures. We know this because fine-art nudes were attacked for looking like them. Racy pictures were in private homes as well: The Inquisition went after one rake who kept a lewd painting over his bed. And they were in retail circulation: In the 1520s, some of the great cultural figures of Rome published a set of sonnets called "The Positions," with anatomically correct illustrations. The pope was not amused: The engraver did jail time, the writer and the illustrator had to skip town, and almost all copies of the work were destroyed. The surviving ones still deserve brown-paper wrappers.

That's the context in which a nude like Titian's so-called "Venus With a Mirror" was being ogled.

There's evidence that "ogled" gets the looking right. In 1544, a Roman cardinal asked a subordinate to visit Titian's studio in Venice and report back on a painting he'd commissioned of the myth of the Greek princess Danae. As high-flown a subject as one could imagine . . . and a subject, wrote the subordinate, that Titian had made so sexy it would get the strictest puritan going. Compared to the new painting, the report went on, Titian's earlier nude, the so-called "Venus of Urbino," might as well have been a nun -- though for centuries now that "Venus," one of the Uffizi's greatest treasures, has been considered the pinnacle of refined taste. It turns out Mark Twain may have been right about the Uffizi's "Venus" when he ranted that "the attitude of one of her arms and hand" -- she is busy committing the sin of Onan, or of Onanette, I guess we should say -- makes it "the obscenest picture the world possesses."

As late as 1800, even a less "active" naked lady, depicted in Goya's famous "Nude Maja," seems originally to have been kept behind another picture of her, clothed. (Both visited the National Gallery a few years ago.) The two pictures were among other nudes, including the great "Rokeby Venus" by Velázquez, described as "obscene paintings" in a document from 1814. The next year, the Inquisition subpoenaed Goya about them.

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