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Exotic to the Erotic
Today, we take world travel almost for granted. Most of the American middle class, at one time or another, has travelled to a foreign country, even if it's just across the border to Mexico or Canada. Beyond that, more and more are visiting the Caribbean islands, and even travelling to Europe. In our travels we naturally take a lot of pictures. During the nineteenth century, when this wanderlust all began, tourists, in lieu of photos, either bought artwork by local artists in places they visited, or they drew their own. If you were any kind of artist, of course, you did the latter. And before long, what may have begun as art for their own personal collection, quickly became an important area of art to be explored and exploited in terms of sales too. Artists such as Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Auguste Ingres, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and Diego Rivera were among others who found that setting their work in another country, another culture, perhaps even in another time, allowed them the freedom to paint scenes which might not have been socially acceptable at home.

With the conquests of Napoleon during the early years of the nineteenth century, most of Europe and even Northern Africa became easily accessible to artists seeking a new venue from which to paint. Delacroix, for instance, chose Morocco where he worked sketching and painting in watercolour, exotic scenes of women in colourful costumes lounging in harem-like settings. These he took home and used as source material for modest sized oil paintings, which he sold for prices high enough to more than pay for his frequent sojourns across the Mediterranean. His 1834 Women of Algiers in their Apartment is a colourful example.

Ingres, Delacroix's rival in France at the time, chose the past, particularly the life and times of France's beloved King Henry IV for his domestic genre scenes, which, given their historical overtones, were lifted several notches above what would have been ordinary contemporary genre. They no doubt brought prices several notches above the ordinary too. His 1812 Henry IV of France Playing with His Children depicts the arrival of the Spanish ambassador making an official call, only to find the king down on the floor, on all fours, playing "horsey" for two of his children. Ingres would never have dared portray any contemporary monarch in such domestic revelry.

England's Lawrence Alma-Tadema carefully researched the newly discovered ruins of Pompeii for his setting of Roman domestic tranquillity as seen in his 1899 Baths of Caracalla. In the foreground he depicts three lovely Roman ladies lounging in their filmy gowns while in the background, cavorting in the bathing pool are nude Romans of both sexes lending an erotic air to the work. (His research obviously didn't include the fact that Roman bathing was normally segregated by sex.) Such a scene would have been scandalous had it, instead, been set in the turn of the century baths of Bath, England.

In this century, Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, chose not a foreign country but his own, opting to illustrate Mexican history before the conquest of the Spanish Conquistadors as seen in his 1930s La Civilisation Zapotheque. By depicting the daily customs of farmers, priests, scribes, and goldsmiths of Pre-Columbian times, he obliquely imparted a political message in contrasting his scenes of ancient domestic tranquillity and prosperity to the social unrest of his own time. And while it may have been politically safe for him to have made his point in such a manner, many of his public works were defaced or destroyed by those seeing through the ruse.

In this country, during much of the twentieth century, nudity and eroticism from other times and cultures have found their way into our own through such art as the paintings of Maxfield Parrish, the illustrations of J. C. Leynedecker, the films of Cecil B. DeMille, even the pages of National Geographic. And today, we see a different moral standard for erotic art which has a medieval or science-fiction fantasy quality to it than that which might appear in Playboy. We may be living now in a new century, but we still rely on the same old rationales in making socially acceptable that art appealing to our most "human" of tastes.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
3 January 2001

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