Five Studies in Sexuality from Sotheby’s Erotic Art Sale

As much as we might want to ignore it at times, Valentines Day is the most prominently amorous day of the year. In honour of this starry-eyed occasion, Sotheby’s has explored representations of love, lust and sexuality with a collection of over one hundred lots, spanning ancient scrolls and Roman sculpture to modern sketches and contemporary photography, entitled Erotic: Passion and Desire. Whether you’re into explicit erotica, more nuanced nudes, sculpture, painting or furniture formed from phalluses, there’s something for everyone.

1. Lot 17: Bow and Arrow (Lisa Lyon), by Robert Mapplethorpe (as above)

Mapplethorpe is more commonly known for his explicit portraits from the aptly named X series, or his studies of the male physique that were heavily informed by Renaissance painting. However, he also took a keen interest in photographing women, beyond his enterprises with Patti Smith. This image depicts the world’s first female body builder Lisa Lyon, holding a taught bow and arrow in perfect profile. “There’s something very sensual about her,” says photography specialist Brandei Estes. “She isn’t ripped and glistening like the women you see today, and some say Mapplethorpe loved her because she reminded him of Michelangelo’s sculpture.”

OpheliaArtwork by Sarah Bernhardt, Courtesy of Sotheby’s

2. Lot 1: Ophelia, by Sarah Bernhardt

As well as being one of the greatest actors of her day, Sarah Bernhardt was also an accomplished and acclaimed sculptor, instructed by Roland Mathieu-Meusnier and Jules Franceschi. Bernhardt hadn’t yet played Shakespeare’s doomed heroine when she created this relief, but she had already established a morbid fascination with the erotic nature of death (she was known to regularly sleep in a coffin). This unashamedly erotic pose appears suspended in a state of rapture, with delicate flowers and lapping water picked out against the smooth contours of the flesh in exquisite detail.

Akt (Nude), 1917Egon Schiele, Courtesy of Sotheby’s

3. Lot 5: Akt (Nude), by Egon Schiele

Early on in his career Schiele often asked his sister or prostitutes to pose, but by the time he produced this work in 1917 he had enough money to employ professional models. This change saw him move away from closely cropped, erotic studies that often held a more explicit social commentary, in favour of work that purely focused on accurately realising the human form. This powerful piece confidently etches the outline of an arched body in black crayon, offering precise realism devoid of any supporting context.

An exceptional carved mahogany bed, French, second half 19th-century Unknown, Courtesy of Sotheby’s

4. Lot 22: Le Lit de la Païva

This astounding mahogany bed is more akin to sculpture than furniture. With its enormous double-finned mermaid, rippling waves and shell motif it is reminiscent of the swan-drawn chariot of Venus – a fitting tribute to the supposed commissioner Esther Thérèse Lachmann (or ‘La Païva’ as she was known), one of the richest and most powerful courtesans of the Second French Empire. It was reportedly created for her mansion on the Champs Elysées, where she entertained the likes of Gustave Flaubert, Émile Zola and Eugène Delacroix, but it was never delivered. Instead it made its way to La Fleur Blanche, Paris’s most illustrious brothel and a continuous site of inspiration for Toulouse-Lautrec. It remained there (and has been photographed in an entirely mirrored bedroom) until the closure of all of the city’s maisons closes at the end of the Second World War.

Untitled, (Hotel Rooms), 1993-1994 Photography by Nobuyoshi Araki, Courtesy of Sotheby’s

5. Lot 98: Untitled, (Hotel Rooms), 1993 – 1994, by Nobuyoshi Araki

Araki’s practice predominantly revolves around ideas of sex and death, with his most notorious images depicting women partaking in Kinbaku-bi, a form of rope bondage practiced in his native Japan. “It can be quite hardcore… but from what I understand, this form of binding is very intimate and consensual,” Brandei Estes says assuringly. Araki selected this portfolio of ten silver prints himself, showing a softer side to his practice. Taken from various sittings, there are a few of his wife, but also some beautifully poised shots of an unknown woman loosely bound on an unkempt bed, surrounded by the rigid geometry of tatami mats and paper screens.

 

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