Erotic Symbolism in Visual Art by Michael Newberry
Representational painting, such as landscapes, people, and furniture, is normally viewed at face value. A flower is just a flower; a chair a chair. But the manner in which an artist uses shapes can convey more than the literal content of the painting.
Once you grasp how an artist plays with shapes to convey another layer of meaning it can open up a universe of deeper insight and, sometimes, powerfully erotic subtexts. You may never see art again in the same way.
When thinking about erotic symbolism in art Georgia O’Keeffe springs to mind. The painting to the right is a detail of a flower, but it is also an excellent visual symbol of an open and flushed vulva.
O’Keeffe is making an interesting statement in associating the vagina with a flower. The vagina is to humanity what a flower is to nature: it is life-giving, beautiful, and fragile, yet resilient.
O’Keeffe, 1924, Light Iris
Continuing with another O’Keeffe painting, notice that there are no sharp vertical lines here. Rather, there are organic, fluid shapes and outlines. These shapes are easy metaphors for the soft lips of the labia and the yellow bud serves for the small erectile body of the clitoris.
There is a strong sense that we are entering into the flower, but we also get a sense that inside is a whole new universe open to us.
A painting that has intrigued artists, such as Dali, is The Surrender of Breda by Velázquez.
This painting is loaded with phallic shapes: vertical, rigid spears, as well as thrusting weapons meant to penetrate human flesh.
On a less obvious note, the spears in the upper part of the canvas are balanced below by phallic shapes of the men’s and horse’s legs and the vertical negative spaces between them.
In a fantastic stroke of scope, Velázquez incorporated feminine, fluid, organic forms into the panoramic landscape. It is as if the organic landscape is imprisoned by the bars of weapons and the soft feminine mounds of earth are pressed underfoot by the rigid men’s legs.
Though this painting is literally about the civil and very polite-looking surrender of Breda, it is not a stretch of the imagination to see, through Velázquez’s use of erotic symbolism, that this painting is really about destructive rape.
Going back to the first O’Keeffe, it’s easy to see that the inner lips are made up of phallic shapes.
I find it amusing that in constructing this painting O’Keeffe used phallic shapes, not as a dominant force as in The Surrender of Breda, but in subservience to the feminine whole.
I hope you enjoyed this escapade in seeing art in a fresh way.
New York, September 15th, 2006