What makes art erotic?

The Gold Coast Sculptors Society recently held their biennial ‘Erotic and Exotic’ exhibition at the School House Gallery, Ashmore. This was the first time I had attended an opening, although I had heard from a number of sources that these events were amazing, fun and not to be missed. As promised, the small gallery was packed with artists, art-lovers, sculptures, paintings, and even a nude model being body-painted as a zebra. Some of the attendees were making use of the interaOtto Schmidingerctive area to create their own erotic works from modelling clay.

Glass in hand, working my way through the throng of happily chatting attendees, I tried to focus on the artworks, and the thought came to mind that it is really very difficult to create an erotic artwork. Don’t get me wrong. There were many beautiful, well-crafted, imaginative and witty works displayed. The work judged winner on the night, a small abstract double figure clay work by Ruth Park titled ‘Mellor Magic’ was beautifully made and aesthetically pleasing. There was certainly no ‘in-your-face’ sexuality there – in fact you could put it in the middle of the dining table without giving offence to guests, although there might be a slight chance of them mistaking the work for over-sized salt and pepper shakers.

Otto Schmidinger’s double portrait of two transvestites who were the life of the last party took out second prize. This is a wonderful painting, and I love the life in it, the colour and the skill. I hope it it receives favourable attention in some major portrait prize in the near future. But is it erotic?

Third prize went to Nadine Baldwin for her witty coat-rack on which the hooks are beautifully rendered and brightly polished rearing bronze penises. The work is fun, and the craftsmanship is impressive, but again, … erotic? Well, not for mine, but who is to say?

So, I wondered, what are the some of the iconic erotic works of art history and what can I learn about how they work? After consulting my art books, the obligatory Google search and a quick straw-poll of some artist friends, I have come up with a version of “The Top Ten” so beloved of the internet.


  1. The Kiss, Auguste Rodin, 1901-1904 A predictable selection perhaps, but it still works. The lightness of touch of the man’s hand on the woman’s hip speaks of a gentle sensuality that is a thousand miles away from pornography.
  2. The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1647-1652. Santa Maria della Vittorio, Rome. I have only included the face, because That is all we really need to see.
  3. Apollo and Daphne (detail) Bernini again. 1622-1625, Galleria Borghese, Rome. Those hands, that yielding flesh.
  4. Louise O’Murphy, Francois Boucher 1752, Alte Pinatothek, Munich. It feels as though we are peeping in at The keyhole while this young woman is completely unaware of being observed, although I don’t believe that such was the case.
  5. In Bed – The Kiss, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec 1892, private collection. A private, intimate moment.
  6. Danaë, Gustav Klimt, 1907-1908 Galerie Würthle, Vienna. Zeus’s sexual adventures have provided a lot of fun for artists. This Danaë embraces Zeus in his form of a shower of golden light with a happier result than the original story suggested.
  7. Olympia, Édouard Manet, 1863, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. The model’s confrontational gaze challenges us; she is in control and will as she pleases. Whoever sent up the flowers can wait.
  8. Venus Anadyomene (Rising from the Sea)1863 Alexandre Cabanel, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. This painting is just so lush that I love it, in spite of the flying cherubs.
  9. Venus of Urbino, Titian, 1538, Uffizi, Florence. Apparently this painting was one of Manet’s inspirations for Olympia. They have that same cool, self-possessed look.
  10. Cupid as Victor, Caravaggio, 1601 Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. I hasten to say that I don’t find pre-pubescent boys erotic as such, (although Caravaggio clearly did). It is the symbolic meaning that is interesting here. Cupid is depicted as a wicked, impish boy, laying waste to the refinements of civilised life and having so much fun doing it. “Fasten your seatbelts” he seems to be saying, “you’re in for a bumpy ride.”

That’s my list for today.  If I were to do the exercise again tomorrow, the list would be different.  What I have learned from it is that for myself the erotic has nothing to do with joke penises or other organs of freakish size, but everything to do with conveying a state of mind. I guess that’s what makes it so hard to do.