Such warnings almost certainly have legal underpinnings, but they are also driven by the cultural baggage carried by erotic art. More than any other genre, erotic art lives solely in the eye of the beholder. For some, sexually explicit art is a sign of our permissive society run amuck, for others it is a natural expression of sex-positivity. Recently, a third perspective is finally becoming more widespread, as viewers grapple with the content of erotic art through the lens of the #MeToo movement.

Mel Ramos, H. UpmannExecuted in 2006, this work is number 1 from an edition of 8 Mel Ramos, H. Upmann
Executed in 2006, this work is number 1 from an edition of 8
Image: Sotheby's

Consider the traditionally sexy pinups of Mel Ramos, two of which are featured in ''Erotic: Passion and Desire.'' There are men and women alike who find the fleshy curves and come-hither expressions of the artist's nude female models alluring and empowering, while others admire the Pop Art tightrope the artist walks between bad taste and flawless technique. On the other hand, of course, some people are repulsed or even angered by the exploitative nature of Ramos' subject matter.

Mel Ramos, Peekaboo Brunette #4 (Lots paintings of 1965 #61) signed, titled and dated 2006 on the reverse Mel Ramos, Peekaboo Brunette #4 (Lost paintings of 1965 #61) signed, titled and dated 2006 on the reverse
Image: Sotheby's

Robert Mapplethorpe, Eric, 1980Signed, dated and numbered 3/15Image: Sotheby's Robert Mapplethorpe, Eric, 1980
Signed, dated and numbered 3/15
Image: Sotheby's

Similarly, there is not a lot of grey area when it comes to Robert Mapplethorpe's graphic photographs of nude men, three of which are featured in the upcoming Sotheby's auction. As with Ramos, some admire the artist's technical virtuosity, in this case, as a photographer rather than a painter, but many of Mapplethorpe's fans are simply grateful for the sight of male nudes in an art world where the female form predominates. As for Mapplethorpe's detractors, they range from those who cannot distinguish his work from pornography to hardened homophobes, who outright fear his photographs.

''Erotic: Passion and Desire'' does not shy away from any of these potential landmines. In fact, the auction deliberately steps on 90 of them, in the form of drawings, prints, photographs, and sculptures.

ZWEI RINGENDE MÄNNERAKTE Gustav Klimt, Zwei Ringende Mannerakte (Two wrestling male nudes) drawn in 1904-05
Image: Sotheby's

The sale begins with a pair of Gustav Klimt drawings from 1904-1905, and right away we are confronted by yet another challenge of the genre. In one drawing, Klimt gives us two nude men wrestling. The drawing is included in this particular auction, presumably, because the men are nude, but the piece is more of an exercise in composition and the rendering of the human form than it is an attempt to quicken the viewer's pulse, a primary mission of most erotic art.

LIEBESPAAR NACH RECHTS LIEGEND Gustav Klimt, Liebespaar Nach Rechts Liegen (Lovers lying towards the right) drawn in 1904-05
Image: Sotheby's

Lovers Lying Seen From the Right, in which the head of a female figure is buried in the crotch of her male partner, is similar in its choice of medium but less about composition than content. We can not see exactly what the women in the scene is doing, but Klimt has extended the man's outstretched arms above his head, which is twisted to his right, both gestures signaling his apparent abandon in an intimate moment of ecstasy.

NASTASSJA KINSKI AND THE SERPENT Nastassja Kinski and the Serpent, Los Angeles, California, 1981 signed and numbered 52/200
Image: Sotheby's

Other works are tamer, such as Richard Avedon's famous portrait of Nastassja Kinski wrapped in little more than a boa constrictor, which was designed to be displayed without any gallery warnings at all. Originally published in Vogue, Avedon's fashion photograph was sexy enough to stimulate a viewer's libido yet modest enough to be turned into a bestselling poster—in the 1980s, the bedroom walls of high-school girls and boys alike were decorated with the image.

TROIS NUS ASSIS Pablo Picasso, Trois Nus Assis, signed Picasso and dated 5.2.67. I. Drawn on 5th February 1967
Image: Sotheby's

And then there are the pieces by Picasso, which brings us back to #MeToo. As is well known, Picasso produced hundreds of works of erotic art—Erotic: Passion and Desire gives bidders the chance to own two such drawings, one from 1967 and another from 1971. The first, Trois nus assis, will not strike most viewers as being terribly controversial. It depicts three women chatting casually, as if they were meeting fully clothed in a cafe rather than sitting naked—one figure’s legs are unselfconsciously spread apart—on the floor.

HOMME ET FEMME NUS Pablo Picasso, Homme et femme nus, signed Picasso and dated 29.11.71. Executed on 29th November 1971
Image: Sotheby's

The second Picasso, though, titled Homme et femme nus, gets us firmly into #MeToo territory. The Sotheby's catalogue describes the work on paper as being a ''sensual rendering of the female body and the voyeuristic old man behind her,'' suggesting a benign relationship between the two, but is it? In fact, could the female figure who is ''languorously enclosed within the embrace of a somewhat satyr-like male'' actually be struggling to fight off the unwanted gropings of a sexual predator? Many women have no doubt always felt the undercurrent of intimidation and suggestion of violence conveyed by Homme et femme nus, but in our era of #MeToo, it’s suddenly difficult for a lot of men to ignore these interpretations, too, making the place of erotic art in the art world more uneasy than ever.

Comment