50 Shades of Grey in Art and Literature

This Valentine’s Day, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film adaptation of the novel 50 Shades of Grey (2011) by E. L. James opens to its millions of fans and proves once again that sex sells. Exploring a passionate affair between a literature student, Anastasia Steele, and a businessman, Christian Grey, involving bondage and sadomasochism, the novel has sold over 100 million copies and has been translated into 52 languages. Erotic love has been a perennial theme in literature and art, but the objects, images, and ideas that scintillate are not universal, but rather mysterious and personal. As the saying goes, “beauty is within the eye of the beholder” and so it is with the erotic. In celebration of the book and film’s fitting release date, Artsy takes a look at seven (lust being the first of the seven deadly sins) of the most scandalous books dealing with illicit sex, and 50 accompanying artworks that have the potential to titillate, disturb, seduce, and provoke in shades of grey.



Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

Described shortly after its publication as “sheer unrestrained pornography,” the tale of Humbert Humbert’s abduction of his adopted child Dolores Haze (a.k.a. “Lolita”) and their sordid road trip across the United States is still considered one of the greatest literary masterpieces in English. In the recent Gagosian Gallery exhibition, “The Last Studies,” 155 polaroids taken by Balthus of his last model Anna raised similarly thorny questions of pornography, pedophilia, and the cultural obsession with prepubescent girls as sexual objects. 

Anne Desclos, The Story of O [Histoire d’O] (1954)

Published under the pen name “Pauline Réage,” the novel describes the sexual enslavement of a woman called “O,” and is so graphically brutal in its descriptions of bondage, torture, and captivity in an old mansion named “Samois” that it was presumed to be written by a man. It won the French Prix des Deux Magots, but obscenity charges were still brought against the publisher. 

Anaïs Nin, Delta of Venus (1940s) 

In this series of short stories—written for a private collector and published posthumously—Nin is credited with having created her own “language of the senses” and writing erotica from a distinctly female point of view. She is seen by many feminists as a pioneer in literature, giving a voice to female sexuality. 

 

Henry (Valentine) Miller, Tropic of Cancer (1934)

Considered a masterpiece of American literature, Tropic of Cancer was initially banned in the United States and led to obscenity trials in the 1960s. Taking place in Paris and mixing fact and fiction, its unvarnished sexual language paved the way for future American writers. The novel centers around an impoverished writer and his life and erotic encounters with other bohemians—including sex with a minor, homosexual desires, and passionate affairs with women, one of which is based on Miller’s real-life affair with Anaïs Nin.

Georges Bataille, The Story of the Eye (1928)

A novella depicting teenage lovers and their perverse sexual predilections, Bataille’s story involves madness, exhibitionism, bullfighting, suicide, the strangulation of a priest, eggs, an eyeball, and more. The rapid cascade of disturbing events feels surrealistic and wholly divorced from any code of ethics.

Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795)

A French aristocrat, politician, writer, and philosopher infamous for his libertine sexuality and whose name spawned the word “sadism,” Sade was locked up for 32 years of his life in prisons and insane asylums for blasphemy, his abuse of young men, women, servants, and prostitutes, and his shocking writings, including The 120 Days of Sodom (1785), Justine (1791), and Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795). Living through the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, Sade witnessed and participated in an extraordinarily bloody and politically tumultuous period of history. His work subverted traditional notions of beauty, literature, morality, religion, philosophy, politics, psychology, and art. The Musée d’Orsay recently held a spectacular exhibition devoted to Sade—“Sade: Attacking the Sun” (October 2014 to January 2015). 

Kama Sutra (400 BCE–200 CE)

This ancient Sanskrit text, widely repurposed today as a kitschy gift book for lovers, is a manual on sexual intercourse (detailing 64 types of sexual acts), marriage, family life, and love. The book includes 10 chapters focused on specific instructions for touching the body, such as embracing, caressing, kissing, biting, and scratching, as well as sexual positions. One of the oldest books on sex, the Kama Sutra was not translated to English until 1883.