Art Nouveau and the erotic

Art Nouveau – the decorative, sensual, and uncompromising design style that flourished at the turn of the 20th century – was born at a time of rapid change. While new media such as film and photography provided alternative ways of viewing the world, the moral landscape of Europe and America was beginning to shift, and artists and designers used the erotic to push the boundaries of established convention. The risqué and often shockingly explicit content of many Art Nouveau works is one of the most striking and disturbing features of the style.

The turn of the 20th century, perhaps more than any other period in the history of art, was a time of sexual freedom and decadent extravagance. Art Nouveau reflected this fascination with sexual and erotic identity, particularly female sexuality, in a world beginning to experience the social, economic and cultural liberation of women. Women became the dominant theme of Art Nouveau and the erotic potential of the female body was fully exploited to express many different concerns.

Drawing of two female nudes, Gustav Klimt, about 1910, Austria. Museum no. E.1083-1966. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Overt erotic imagery filtered into mainstream Art Nouveau art and design from a number of sources. It came from the writings of Symbolists (a group who rejected realism and used symbols to evoke ideas and emotions) and Decadents (who believed in excess, skepticism and delight in perversion); from shunga (erotic Japanese prints); from historical sources such as classical vase decoration or Rococo prints; and with increasing accessibility as the century wore on, from photographic and literary pornography.

It was the invention of photography after 1850 that led to a dramatic explosion of pornography. Increasing democratisation and political liberalisation across Europe meant many countries witnessed a growth in the pornography industry. Paris, the capital of 'erotic toleration' and historically the centre of the sex industry, supplied much of Europe with photographic pornography, the majority of which were produced by men. Not only did artists come into contact with erotic photographs but many experimented with the medium, often producing explicitly sexual images of their models. Previously, any form of eroticism was limited to depicting classical nudes such as Venus, but now the Art Nouveau artist tore away this veil of respectability and extended the boundaries of erotic acceptability.

Postcard, Milford Haven Collection, unknown maker, 1910. Museum no. E.523:84-2001. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another significant source for erotic imagery in Art Nouveau was Japan, particularly the sexual world of the geisha and the Yoshiwara. The Yoshiwara was an enclosed brothel quarter in Edo (the former name of Tokyo), with its own elaborate codes of behaviour and ritual. The Yoshiwara was also the centre of art and culture, with sex at its economic and social centre.

Print depicting Nakano Street in the Yoshiwara district of Edo (Tokyo) during cherry blossom season, by Utagawa Hiroshige II, 1857, Japan. Museum no. E.3928:1-1886. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Shunga depicted the world of the Yoshiwara and were produced by many Japanese artists including Kitegawa Utamaro (1753 – 1806) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849). Although it is not known how shunga was distributed in Europe, many Art Nouveau artists possessed them, including the Engliah illustrator and author Aubrey Beardsley and the painter Gustav Klimt. Siegfried Bing, the most significant Japanese art dealer of the period, is known to have sold shunga. Bing was a seminal figure for Art Nouveau, having established the gallery Maison de l'Art Nouveau in Paris in 1895.

Woodblock print, Suzuki Harunobu, about 1760s, Japan. Museum no. E.114-1954. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Art Nouveau contains many examples of shunga imagery, including the use of androgynous figures, clothing or textiles to veil or disguise, and oversized genitals. The octopus, which had particular significance in shunga, also appeared in many Art Nouveau objects.

Left to right: 'Cinesias Entreating Myrrhina to Coition', print, illustration to 'The Lysistrata of Aristophanes', by Aubrey Beardsley, 1896, London. Museum no. E.345-1972. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; 'a Proie' ('The Prey'), vase, designed by Auguste Ledru, made by Susse Freres, 1895 – 1905, Paris. Museum no. M.24-1998. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; ‘The Lacedaemonian Ambassadors’, drawing, by Aubrey Beardsley, 1896, Epsom, England. Museum no. E.301-1972. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Art Nouveau artists and designers were also inspired by certain historical periods: the decadence and debauchery of late Imperial Rome; the classical period with its depictions of the nude; and the pre-Christian world, which was seen as a place free of restrictive moral codes of behaviour. In this Pagan world women could be many things: siren, warrior, priestess, sphinx or gorgon. This was a place of ritual and sexual licence, where passion and violence ruled.

Venus and Adonis, Vincennes porcelain factory, 1750 – 55, France. Museum no. C.356-1909. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The most significant historical period to be resurrected and eroticised was the 18th century – a 'period of graceful indecency', as it was described in 1909. The de Goncourt brothers, writers of 18th-century French and Japanese art and society, were highly influential in placing the 18th century at the centre of late 19th century art and design. They identified the 18th century as a feminine era, and the Rococo (1720s – 70s) as a design style premised on feminine sensibility. The illustrators Aubrey Beardsley and Franz von Bayros both worked in a Rococo style, re-imagining the elegance and eroticism of the period. The construction of the 18th century as a period of decadent hedonism was supported by the wealth of pornographic literature produced during that period, with Marquis de Sade's novel Justine (1791) becoming the classic model of pornography.

Art Nouveau depended upon a liberal political environment. Some have argued that 'The Age of Enlightenment' (the intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century) created conditions that were favourable to a resurgence of erotic literature and painting in the 18th century. This 'Age of Reason' rejected traditional codes of behaviour and morality, as dictated by religion and society, and replaced them with a new belief in the free rein of desire.

Homoeroticism and androgyny

The turn of the 20th century also saw a crystalisation of attitudes towards male sexuality. Homosexuality was a criminal offence at this time in England, and in 1895 the poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was put on trial for gross indecency and imprisoned after details of his affair with a British aristocrat were made public. For some Wilde was seen as a martyr, an important figure around whom homosexual identity was formed, while for others he became a symbol of unhealthy decadence. Art Nouveau's association with decadence no doubt contributed to many rejecting the style in the new century.

There had been a precedent for studying the beauty of male youth in the classical world. In the 19th century, photography became a particularly rich area for homoerotic depiction. An important element in this depiction was androgyny and the belief that by removing the image from its conventional gender codes, it became the ultimate enigmatic erotic symbol – simultaneously denying sex and providing endless erotic possibilities.

'Nude Study - Back', photograph, possibly by Vincenzo Galdi (previously thought to be by Wilhelm von Gloeden), 1890s, Germany. Museum no. 1354-1929. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Works by Wilhelm von Gloedon and Fred Holland Day concentrated on representing the nude male body, both adult and child, often in erotic poses. Von Gloeden was one of the earliest gay photographers of the male nude. His best known images depict young men and teenage boys acting out 'classical' fantasies. Many of his other images, which totalled over 3,000, are simple, elegant studies of the male nude. The bulk of his photographs were made between 1890 and 1914 in Taormina, Sicily, and belong to a generation of pictures that romanticised pastoral life in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

'Two seated Sicilian youths', photograph, Wilhelm von Gloeden, 19th century, Germany. Museum no. 2815-1952. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Von Gloeden's work is generally remarkable for its technical innovations in outdoor photography, and its proud homoerotic content. As much as he has been mythologised as a generous benefactor and hero of gay photography, his work is not without problems: there is a questionable power dynamic concerning his presence amongst these younger men in an impoverished village in Sicily at the turn of the 20th century.

The Art Nouveau style was short-lived, collapsing in the final years before the First World War. The erotic content of so many Art Nouveau objects was undoubtedly a factor in its demise. The fundamental subversiveness of eroticism, its disregard for conventional morality or social structures was seen as a destabilising factor and it was pushed to the periphery of art and design debates. Functionality and technological progression now came to signify modernity, dominating the century's design agenda. However the erotic could not be entirely eradicated. Its reappearance in Surrealism and Art Deco demonstrates the power of the erotic to explore simultaneously, the body and mind.

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(Detail) Poster advertising Job cigarette paper, Alphonse Mucha, 1898. Museum no. E.260-1921. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London