Texts on nude dancers in English

 Eroticism in Western Art

Edward Lucie-Smith


pp 171- pp. 182

Venus observed




There is one thing which any work of art with an erotic content does to us. If we are stirred by it in the slightest degree, we find ourselves playing the role of the voyeur. The essence of the voyeur's position is his removal from action. He watches, and participates in fantasy. His satisfactions come to him, not through doing, but through seeing what is done (or what is to be done). From the standpoint of psychoanalysis, it would seem that the enjoyment of erotic art is to be regarded as a deviation.


   The simplest and most obvious subject of the male voyeur's enthusiasm is the naked female, and, as I have noted, the female nude is one of the standard subjects of European art. But she appears in a very wide variety of guises. One might almost say that the female nude, alone and unconscious of any watchers, is much rarer than one might suppose in this category of subject-matter - something which already puts Kenneth Clark's distinction between nudity and nakedness into jeopardy. Even Giorgione's Sleeping Venus, often cited as one of the chastest and most dignified presentations of the theme, was once accompanied by a Cupid who has now vanished as a result of restoration, but who still makes a ghostly appearance in X-ray photographs. Nevertheless, we are conscious in this work of an aloofness which is not precisely the negation of sexuality, but which abashes any directly erotic response.


   We already enter a more sensual world with some of the Venuses of Titian. A whole group of paintings takes for its subject the reclining female nude. The most often cited is the Venus of Urbino, but there are other works of this type in Madrid, New York and Edinburgh. The Venus of Urbino has two characteristics which require comment. First of all, the naked beauty, though not ashamed of being naked, is aware of the spectator's presence. She looks out at him, and it is clear that her eyes are meant to seem to focus on whoever is gazing at her. Secondly, the lady is not alone. In the background, we see the clothed figures of two women who are going about the business of the household.


   In other, later Venuses, Titian concentrates the message of the Venus of Urbino. One of the versions of Venus with the Organ-player in the Prado will serve to show his change of attitude. Venus reclines, and turns her head to talk to Cupid. The organ-player sits with his instrument at the foot of her bed, and turns his head back to gaze at her. The direction of his glance, towards the division of her legs, leaves us in no doubt as to the nature of his interest in her. He serves, in fact, as a kind of mediator between the spectator and the erotic object; the voyeur placed within the composition is a surrogate for the voyeur who cannot .enter it.


   I can perhaps reinforce this thesis with a comparison. It is well known that the English artist Stanley Spencer painted a number of markedly erotic compositions, nearly all of them autobiographical in content. The example illustrated here is typical. It shows the artist himself gazing down with fierce concentration at the nude body of his second wife, as she reclines before him. It seems clear, from the whole atmosphere of the work, that we are not being invited, in this case, to witness the preliminaries of love-making. Instead, it is almost as if the Spencer who watches his wife in the picture is to be regarded as a permanent substitute, a magical intermediary, for the Spencer who painted it.




   The Old Testament contains a number of stories which hinge upon voyeurism, of which David and Bathsheba and Susannah and the Elders are the best known. It is therefore not surprising to discover that these are subjects frequently chosen for illustration by Renaissance and later artists. The celebrated Susannah by Tintoretto in Vienna gives an idea of the reasons. The artist provided himself with the opportunity to paint a beautiful nude, who is made the more exciting by the fact that she is being watched.


   The story of Susannah can be treated in a number of ways. For example, the girl can be as yet unaware that she is observed, though this fact is obvious to us who look at the composition. Alternatively, she can be frightened, and her shame at being seen naked can be used to heighten our sense of sexual arousal. The treatment of the Elders can also be given a variety of inflections. They are sometimes shown as impotent dotards, as powerless to move from lust to action as the spectator himself. More often, as in one of the versions of this subject by Rubens, they crowd around the female figure in a manner not provided for in the original story.


   Pagan mythology also provided artists with a wide range of subject-matter for paintings which appeal to the voyeuristic impulse. Sometimes it is feelings of guilt which are uppermost, as we can see from Titian's version of the Diana and Actaeon story. The goddess holds up a veil, and frowns angrily; her nymphs start back in horror, as does Actaeon himself, terrified by his own presumption, and already becoming aware of the fate which lies in store for him.


   But guilt does not always triumph. There are, for example, the occasions on which Diana and her nymphs, sleeping after the hunt, are shown being spied upon by satyrs. The satyrs, part men, part animals, make a telling embodiment of men's animal desires. Picasso, with his marvellous instinct for discovering still-valid elements in the work of the Old Masters, uses a simplified version of this idea in one of the most beautiful prints in the Vollard Suite, Minotaur Watching a Sleeping Girl. Here what we are made to experience is not merely emotions which are straightforwardly voyeuristic, but the tragic gulf which yawns between the watcher and the watched.


Certain pagan themes actually enable the artist to justify his own voyeurism and that of his audience. One which enjoyed a long popularity is the story of Alexander, Apelles and Campaspe. Camp-aspe was Alexander's mistress; Alexander commanded Apelles to paint her, and when he discovered that the artist was in love with the girl, magnanimously surrendered his own rights. Usually Campaspe poses alone, but Niccolò dell' Abbate, in a composition recorded by the engraver L.D., characteristically intensifies the eroticism of the scene by showing the king and his mistress posing together, while the artist who longs for Campaspe must show her in the embraces of her royal lover.


   The most commonly chosen of these 'licit' scenes is, however, The Judgment of Paris, which appears many times over in European art. The sexual implications are extremely interesting, for, in addition to the fact that Paris acts the necessary role of intermediary as we examine the three beautiful female nudes whom he, too, has been commanded to look at (most commonly all three goddesses appear nude, though not invariably), we are also aware that the composition serves as an assertion of male superiority: though Paris is a mere mortal, he has become, thanks to his rights as a male, the judge of three immortals.


   One artist who treated the subject a number of times was Lucas Cranach, and the version of it illustrated here is one of the most fascinating and revealing that I know. The group of the three goddesses derives ultimately from the Hellenistic group of the Three Graces which haunted the imagination of artists from the Renaissance onwards (among them, as we have seen, both Raphael and Correggio). Rubens was also-to play variations on the theme.


   Since three female nudes are needed for a Judgment of Paris, Cranach naturally turns to a source of inspiration which is very familiar to him, What is significant is the way in which he has altered the originally tranquil poses of the three figures, so that they express not only restlessness but a kind of sexual irritability. One goddess holds her foot; another strains her arms backward, and thus pushes her bosom forward, after the fashion of a twentieth-century sweater-girl.


   It is something perhaps too obvious to need stating to say that erotic content can be a matter, not only of the context, but of the pose. Some of Klimt's drawings of the female nude are excellent examples of this. Another factor which influences our reaction is the matter of adornment. The wholly undraped and unadorned female figure often has feebler powers of erotic excitation than one which is not wholly nude. Cranach is a master of this kind of effect. His three goddesses wear rich necklaces, and wispy veils around their loins which serve to attract attention to the primary sexual area. One of them sports a wide-brimmed hat. Ali this, combined with the provocative poses they have taken up, gives a slightly outrageous air of coquetry to the group whom Paris so phlegmatically regards.


   But mere drapery will do the job just as efficiently as rich jewels and fashionable hats. The antique type of the Aphrodite Kallipygeia, who coquettishly exposes her buttocks, is the example which most readily springs to mind, but Egon Schiele can also contrive to make something very erotic out of an apparently conventional nude by arranging that the cloth which at first glance seems intended to conceal the more obvious sexual characteristics of the model should in fact reveal and emphasize them.


   When, as in Rubens's Helene Fourment in a Fur Robe, the material used for this partial concealment of the body has strongly fetishistic connotations (fur can be read as an allusion to pubic hair), the effect is perhaps more erotic still, especially as the artist differentiates with marvellous skill between the rough sheen of the fur and the smooth sheen of the body. Rubens's portrait of his young second wife is also an example of erotic intensification of another sort. Part of its spell -like the spell exercised by Goya's Naked Maja, Boucher's Mademoiselle O'Murphy and Vesticr's Mademoiselle Rosalie Duthe - springs from our consciousness that this is not merely a nude, but a portrait. It is an individual who appears thus unclothed before us, as innumerable tiny details serve to substantiate. One of the most telling is the deformation, slight but perfectly apparent, of the feet - no doubt the result of wearing fashionably tight shoes. The fact that this painting was the one thing which Rubens specifically left to Helene in his will seems to confirm the supposition that he intended it as a private monument of his feelings towards her.


   Besides this kind of particularity — the particularity of the portrait -erotic tension can be heightened in other ways. One is through actual anatomical deformation — the impossible elongation of Ingres's Grande Odalisque, for instance. Another, already glimpsed in the Cranach Judgment of Paris, is through the multiplication of nude figures. Here again, Ingres supplies an obvious example with Le Bain tun. This picture is a hymn to the glory of the female body - there are nudes everywhere we look; they fill the whole picture-space as if the artist suffered from horror vacui. The eroticism of the painting is of a particularly complex kind, as it is possible to discover a number of contributory elements. In the first place, there is the fact that this is a variant of the 'harem' or 'slave-market' theme. These women are animals, herded together and preparing themselves for the pleasure of the male (whom in any case they cannot refuse to satisfy). Secondly, the implications are strongly voyeuristic: we are looking in at a scene normally forbidden to the male gaze. Thirdly, there is more than a hint of homosexual affection in some of the poses - note, in the principal group, the way in which the second figure from the right is clasping her companion's breast. And lastly, we can also read the composition as something kinetic. Instead of being a crowd of women, this is one woman displaying herself before us in every conceivable variety of pose-Yet another way in which artists heighten the erotic content of the female nude is by deliberately straying from the accepted ideal of their time - not merely through physical distortion, which may even serve to emphasize the 'ideal' nature of what is being shown, but by particularizing the physical type. One of the ways of sharpening erotic reaction to the female body is to show that body as immature, not yet fully ready for sexual experience. This is an overtone which is often to be discovered in the paintings of Balthus. His Study for a Composition combines this means of excitation with the use of an intermediary voyeur-figure - the yet younger girl crawling on the floor, whose gaze is as explicit in its direction as that of the organist in Titian's Venus and the Organ-player.





“Must we dance naked?”: Art, Beauty, and Law in Munich and Paris, 1911–1913




In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In mid-November 1911 a young French performer named Adorée Villany gave a series of dance performances in Munich’s Comic Theater, one of a number of small and financially struggling alternative theaters in that city. She appeared for the most part in quite scanty costume and at times completely naked. Audience response was enthusiastic. The theater was packed, she was rewarded with what one reviewer called “an outright storm of applause,” and she received numerous letters from admirers in the days and weeks following her appearances. The press was equally positive. Reviews in local and national newspapers were flattering, praising the grace and purity of her movement, her expressive power and acting ability, and the creativity of her costuming. There was nothing particularly new in her performance or its reception: Villany had given similar shows, to similar response, in various cities in Germany, Holland, Switzerland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and France since 1905.1

What was new in 1911 was that at the end of the intermission in her third performance on 18 November, the theater’s secretary came onstage to announce that the police had appeared in Villany’s dressing room to arrest her on charges of public indecency and had hauled her off to police headquarters—naked, apparently, except for a cloak she had been allowed to throw over herself. They also arrested the theater director and Villany’s manager. All three were charged under Paragraph 183 of the German Criminal Code, which imposed a penalty of up to two years in prison for “the creation of a public nuisance through indecent behavior.”2 They were also charged under Paragraph 33a of the Industrial Code for offering, without police approval, a public performance that had no redeeming aesthetic value. The repeal of the director’s license to operate a theater was also put in motion.

Over the next two or three months the Munich art world and the local and regional press were roiled by bitter controversy over the case, which ended with Villany’s acquittal and expulsion from Bavaria. The debate became a minor defining moment in the “cultural war” between conservatives and progressives that characterized this period, an opportunity for each side to articulate its vision of the relationship between art and politics. In this article I want to use this case to explore some of the dynamics of that “cultural war.” Fundamentally, I want to ask two sets of questions. First, why did Villany’s performance “work” for audiences, that is, why did they respond so positively? Or, to put it another way, what “work” did Villany’s performance do for her audiences? As a corollary, why did Munich’s arts community react so vehemently to her arrest? Second, why was Villany arrested, and why did many cultural conservatives, particularly in Munich, support her arrest and subsequent expulsion? What was the particular threat that Villany posed? By putting both Villany’s aesthetic and the responses to it into a broader context, I want to illuminate two different understandings of the relationship between truth, beauty, and liberty—understandings that were central to German political life at the end of the imperial period.

One year after leaving Bavaria, Villany was tried on an indecency charge again, this time in Paris, where she was convicted. The Munich arrest appears to have been treated by the European press essentially as a tempest in a rather provincial teapot, receiving comment outside Germany in only a few newspapers in major centers like Paris and London. The Paris case, in contrast, was reported in the press from London to Naples and from Madrid to Budapest. The response among journalistic, artistic, and intellectual circles in Paris was, however, quite different from that in Munich. In Munich Villany’s arrest was understood to be seriously political business; in Paris it was mere farce, a kind of human interest story. Here again, we can pose a straightforward question: why was the Villany...


Nude dancers in art     Bailarines desnudos en el arte     Danseurs nus dans l'art
Edited by Alkis Raftis