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“The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.” A Brief History of Sexuality and Shock in Modern and Contemporary Art

When first exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1865, Édouard Manet’s painting Olympia (1863), which features a naked woman—Olympia—reclining on a bed, shocked the public. Thirty years later across the English Channel, a  linguistic rather than visual representation of sexuality caused another controversy. 

The trial of Oscar Wilde was dominated by the meaning of the phrase “the love that dare not speak its name,” usually interpreted as a euphemism for homosexuality. In his defense, Wilde offered another interpretation informed by a classical conception of love that enumerates several different varieties—eros, romantic or erotic love, being only one of many. Not only does Wilde’s defense remind us of the many forms of love, it also indicates that our understanding of love is culturally constructed.

We have come to equate love with eros, making the romantic and the erotic inextricable, and it is this conception of love, perceived to be explicit in Olympia and implicit in the phrase “the love that dare not speak its name,” that shocked 19th-century society. Art historians have since drawn parallels between Manet’s Olympia and Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538), Francisco de Goya’s La Maja Desnuda (The Nude Maja) (c. 1797–1800), and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Grande Odalisque (1814), all of which feature reclining female nudes in almost identical compositions. The nude form is common in the history of Western art, which begs the question: how did this classical subject transgress into the realm of the shocking and provocative? The art historian Kenneth Clark suggested that a distinction can be made between the naked and the nude; the former is part of everyday life, while the latter is the purview of art. These two categories have since taken on a further distinction: the term naked is used to describe art that tends toward unflinching realism, while the nude implies the idealized human form.

Olympia’s profane, explicit sexuality is conveyed by her defiant gaze and the symbols identifying her as a prostitute: the black cat, orchid in her hair, jewelry, and sumptuous surroundings, as well as the title of the painting—the name Olympia was associated with prostitutes in Paris during the 1860s. Together, these elements characterize Olympia as more naked than nude. While contemporary audiences were shocked by this rare image of confident female sexuality, it was still an image mediated by a male artist. The model, Victorine-Louise Meurent, was not expressing her own sexuality.

Historically, literature—not visual art—exerted the greatest influence over our conception of love, informing and shaping it from the codification of courtly love in the medieval period to the development of the Romantic literary genre in the 19th century. As Wilde noted, art does not imitate life, life imitates art. By the latter half of the 20th century, however, visual artists had started addressing and representing sexuality more directly than had ever been possible in literature.

Feminist art is not exclusively focused on issues of female sexuality and sensuality; the artist Suzanne Lacy identified its aim as to “influence cultural attitudes and transform stereotypes.” In her solo exhibition of 1972, “The Sexual Politics of Feminist Art,” Anita Steckel effectively reversed the traditional roles of men and women in Western art through her depictions of male genitalia. Hannah Wilke and Carolee Schneemann used their own bodies to explore female sensuality and sexuality. In S.O.S. Starification Object Series (1974–1982), a series of self-portrait photographs, Wilke adopts the poses of glamour models with her naked body covered with vagina-shaped scars formed from chewing gum. Cosey Fanni Tutti’s 1976 exhibition “Prostitution” at the ICA, London, perfectly straddled Clark’s distinction between the naked and the nude. The artist reclaimed as her own work images of herself taken as a pornography model. Tutti’s art, as well as works by Steckel, Joan Semmel, and Betty Tompkins, is featured in the current exhibition “Black Sheep Feminism: The Art of Sexual Politics” at Dallas Contemporary. The show also explores these artists’ influence on Jeff Koons’s series “Made in Heaven” (1989), which consists of sexually explicit photographs of himself and his then wife-to-be, the porn star La Cicciolina.

A different male artist is perhaps best known for creating taboo images of sexuality and love. Robert Mapplethorpe also embraced the visual influence of pornography, but he transformed the nakedness of real members of a sexual subculture into the perfectly formed, idealized nude of art. The artists of the 1970s and 1980s who explored different types of sexuality and sensuality brought attention to previously marginalized voices. Modern-day artists tend to reflect a more expansive view of love in their art. 

Contemporary artists explore the many nuances and narratives of love. Their approaches include the symbolic, as exemplified by Felix Gonzales Torres’s Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991), an allegorical representation of the artist’s partner, Ross Laycock, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991. The work comprises 175 pounds of candy, which corresponds to Laycock’s ideal body weight. The quantity of candy ebbs and flows as viewers take pieces and the host institution continuously replenishes the pile. Sarah Lucas takes a mocking, humorous look at sexuality in sculptures that represent the human body via inanimate objects such as fried eggs, buckets, and fruits and vegetables, while Tracy Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 (1995) and Glenn Ligon’s Lest We Forget (1998) embrace subtle narratives of love and sexuality. Heterosexual relationships are reexamined via ethnographic methodologies in works such as Ori Gersht and Tracey Ferguson’s Day by Day (1996–97) and Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself (2007), while Steve McQueen’s film Bear (1993), which depicts the artist wrestling naked with another man, reasserts the power of the merely suggestive. The film also recalls paintings by Francis Bacon such as Studies of the Human Body (1979), which, like Olympia, remind us of the transformative capacity that both art and love share, and their ability to reinvigorate old forms in new contexts.

—Victoria Miguel


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