The erotic nature of many Art Nouveau works is one of the most prevalent features of the style. Nowhere is it more abundantly seen than in small-scale sculptural or decorative arts objects such as ink-wells, carafes, centrepieces, candelabra, lamps and figurines - the kind of objects that were disseminated widely and could be brought into any middle-class household. The eroticism of these objects is made all the more complex by their utility and domesticity. They often demand physical engagement: furniture or carafes where the handles are naked women that must be grasped; vessels that metamorphose into women inviting touch; lamps that provocatively pose women in suggestive positions. These erotically charged objects, unlike most sculpture, demand contact.
The theme of objects fulfilling a sexual need was not a new one, although it found particular resonance in the fin de siècle. In Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novel Venus in Furs, Severin describes his lust for an inanimate sculpture of Venus: 'I love her madly, passionately with a feverish intensity, as one can only love a woman who responds to one with a petrified smile. Often at night I pay a visit to my cold, cruel beloved; clasping her knees, I press my face against her cold pedestal and worship her'. The de Goncourt brothers wrote of the erotic fascination of their Rococo objects, developing an overtly sexual and torturous relationship with them: Jules recorded his dreams of 'raping a delicate young woman who resembled one of his rococo porcelain figurines. Edmond wrote of caressing his Clodion statuette as if her stomach and neck had the touch of real skin'. The fetishistic concentration on the erotic potential of the object is implicit in much Art Nouveau.
Although many Art Nouveau objects were mildly erotic, some were much more direct and in some instances pornographic. Rupert Carabin produced some of the most explicit objects of the period. His chair of 1898 plays with the physical restraint of the body. A bound female is made to support and envelope a presumably male user. It is a vision of erotic subjugation that is powerfully disturbing. Some objects, such as Max Blondat's door knocker designed for a Parisian brothel, employ a more humorous symbolism. The knocker, a nude female figure, like that in Carabin's chair has a specific use. She peers into the interior of the brothel while simultaneously signifying the pleasures to be obtained within. Many Art Nouveau decorative arts objects manipulated the female body to create different and often playful symbolic narratives.
The scale of the production and dissemination of these kinds of objects denoted a widespread 'taste for the erotic', not only among upper-class and aristocratic collectors of the more explicit and expensive objects, but also by the middle classes, concerned to achieve the height of modern decorative style in their homes. During this period the erotic briefly came to denote the modern.
The end of the century saw the advent of mass advertising. Chromolithography as an artistic medium provided possibilities for mass communication that printers and artists were quick to take advantage of. Perhaps the most crucial development for advertising in the 20th century was the realisation that the successful advertisement sold an idea or lifestyle rather than a product - and sex sold products better than anything else. Just as the promise of sex could fill the theatres of Paris, so sex could sell anything from cigarettes and cars to painting and poetry. The erotic content in Art Nouveau advertising ranged from the subtle to the explicit. Designers did not just aim to sell the promise of sexual fulfillment to a male audience, but also, and extremely significantly, they were selling the idea of a sophisticated, decorative and glamorous identity to women - increasingly the dominant consumers. As it was women who often held the domestic purse strings, it was they who came to be associated with shopping.
Many Art Nouveau poster designers used a veiled but highly charged eroticism and none more successfully than Alphonse Mucha, who created images of woman that epitomised the sophisticated and decorative Art Nouveau woman. His posters commodifed women, making them the ultimate symbol of the modern consumer world. His strategy of combining women with products sold a lifestyle dream, just as lifestyle became an issue for a growing metropolitan middle class with a disposable income. Many designers used women to sell products. Gallen-Kallela's poster Bil-bol takes the eroticism of Art Nouveau advertising one step further. This advertisement for a car dealer makes the promise of sexual fulfillment explicit: in an adaptation of a traditional Finnish folk story, a naked woman is violently snatched and restrained. Sex is forcibly imposed in the Kallela poster, whereas Leo Putz's woman in Moderne Galerie seems to offer sex in a playful and surprisingly modern way. The idiom of Putz's woman is that of the Bond girl. Putz in fact produced explicit erotic material, as did a number of prominent Art Nouveau graphic artists such as Fritz Erier and Aubrey Beardsley.
Although predominant, erotic imagery in advertising did not always focus on the female body. The perfect male body emerged in many images of the period, most often when the subject-matter demanded a 'serious' approach. Traditional gender divides were reinforced through the symbolic use of male and female imagery. Women's capacities were traditionally perceived as being for pleasure and instinct, with men's for action and intellect. Designers often used the male body to promote industry and technology, while the female body was used for product and entertainment. The Italian designer Marcello Dudovich's poster Fisso l'idea employs the muscularity and erotic potential of the male figure to promote ink and pigments. Leopoldo Metlicovitz, Gustav Klimt and Adolf Munzer all created images that used the male body to denote virility and action. These images, although not overtly erotic, sit within and promote the Classical homoerotic 'cult' of the male.
Homoeroticism and androgyny
The fin de siècle not only witnessed the formation of various constructions of female sexuality, but also the crystallisation of attitudes towards male sexuality. The Oscar Wilde trials of 1895 were tremendously significant, spectacularly bringing the reality of homosexuality into the open. For some, Wilde became a martyr, a pivotal figure around whom homosexual identity was formed, while for others he became the symbol of unhealthy decadence. Decadence had become increasingly associated with non-conformity, and sexuality was perceived as another area for experimentation. As J.K. Huysmans' description of a homosexual encounter in A Rebours reveals, sexuality was not fixed:
'They gazed at each other for a moment; then the young man dropped his eyes and came closer, brushing his companion's arm with his own. Des Esseintes slackened his pace, taking thoughtful note of the youth's mincing walk. And from this chance encounter there had sprung a mistrustful friendship that somehow lasted for months. Des Esseintes could not think of it without a shudder. Never had he known such satisfaction mingled with distress.'
Art Nouveau's association with decadence in the public mind undoubtedly contributed to the rejection of the style in the new century.
Homoeroticism within Art Nouveau, although present, was often sublimated. The classical world provided a precedent for the study of the beauty of male youth, and artists often used classical subjects and titles to disguise open homoerotic depiction. Photography became a particularly rich area for homoerotic depiction in the period. Works by Baron von Gloedon and Fred Holland Day concentrated on representing the nude male body, both adult and child, often in erotic poses. An important element in homoerotic depiction was androgyny. Androgyny provided a vehicle free from restrictive gender codes and often allowing disturbing messages to be conveyed. Many fin de siècle artists used the androgyne to represent the resolution of what Octave Uzanne called the 'eternal misery of the body fretted by the soul'. The androgyne could be both man and woman, adult or child, and became the ultimate fin de siècle enigmatic erotic symbol, simultaneously denying sex and providing endless erotic possibilities. Sar Piladan, leader of the Symbolist Rose+Croix group, described the androgyne as the 'nightmare of decadence', 'the sex that denies sex, the sex of eternity'.
Art Nouveau style was short-lived, collapsing finally in the years prior to the First World War. The erotic content of so many Art Nouveau objects was undoubtedly a significant factor in its demise. The fundamental subversiveness of eroticism, its disregard for conventional morality or social structures, was recognised as a destabilising factor across the ideological spectrum. Both socialist International Modernism and conservative historicism ignored the exploration of sexuality, deliberately pushing it to the periphery of art and design debates. Functionality and technological progression came to signify modernity, dominating the new century's design agenda, while the unadulterated use of historical styles once more signalled stability. However, although absent from the male-dominated sphere of Bauhaus or Le Corbusian functionalism, the erotic could not entirely be eradicated. Its reappearance in Surrealism and Art Deco demonstrates the power of the erotic to explore, simultaneously, the body and mind.