Venus of Urbino, Titian, 1538
Art,  English,  Erotic

The Origin of the World – The sexual tension

The text below is the excerpt from the book The Origin of the World (ISBN: 9781783101702), written by Jp. A. Calosse and Hans-Jürgen Döpp, published by Parkstone International.

There is nothing more exciting for a man than the face of a beautiful woman in the throes of passion. For a red-blooded male, after all, beauty represents the ultimate lure, an irresistible attraction. Conveyed by the eyes, beauty can inflame his desire and arouse him to the very depths of his being. „Beauty”, said Bataille, „is that aspect of the beheld that arouses desire.” In his Satyricon, Petronius describes the subtle devices that were considered essential to stimulate the libido in ancient Rome. Even a goddess might not be able to relight the dying embers of passion.

Venus Rising from the Sea (“Venus Anadyomene”), Titian, c. 1520, sexual, The Origin of the World
Venus Rising from the Sea (“Venus Anadyomene”), Titian, c. 1520. Oil on canvas, 75.8 x 57.6 cm. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Her hair fell in natural ringlets over her shoulders. Her high forehead was bespotted with drops of gold. Beneath, her eyebrows extended to the line of her cheeks, which became finer and finer until it disappeared altogether. And from between her eyes – which shone with a clarity never otherwise seen in a sky without a moon – her nose sloped down from her forehead at a superb gradient. Her mouth was such as the sculptor Praxiteles might have conjured up as his dream for the face of the goddess of the tree-nymphs in ecstasy. Her chin, her neckline, her hand, and her foot surpassed in all respects the most beautiful of all sculpted marble.

What is considered the epitome of beauty has been seriously influenced by the passage of time. The ideal of beauty in the Middle Ages reposed in the figure of the Blessed Virgin. One of the Fathers of the Church in the 4th century strikingly described what he imagined as the beauty of the Mother of Christ: Most well-made in body, she was the most beautiful of women. Fair, not too short but of excellent height. Her skin was pale but of a pleasant hue, and unblemished.

Young Woman Bathing, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1888, sexual, The Origin of the World
Young Woman Bathing, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1888. Oil on canvas, 85 x 66 cm. Private collection

Her hair was of the colour of gold, its tresses long and lissome. Her mouth was gentle, and pleasing to behold. Her lips were red, rose-coloured, and without fault. Her teeth were perfectly aligned, white and spotless like new-fallen snow. Her cheeks radiated the colour of valerian, combining the hues of a red rose and of pure white snow – indeed, just as if her cheeks had actually been decorated with a lilac flower and a sweet-smelling rose. Her throat was white and smooth, her neck neither heavy nor long, but just right.

For a holy man to imagine the charms of the Virgin Mary in such a way – both profane and pious – and for him then to describe them with „all the internal passion of a troubadour” is simply astonishing.

This image of the Blessed Virgin prefigures the ideal of beauty for an entire epoch. Most cultures agree on what makes a mouth beautiful. Already by the Middle Ages the consensus was that lips had to be „soft, dainty, small, quick to smile, pleasant to caress, and of a rosy red colour”. 

No 3039. Anonymous, c. 1900, sexual, The Origin of the World
No 3039. Anonymous, c. 1900. Albumen print, 10 x 13.5 cm

In medieval French poetry, the ideal was depicted by the rogue troubadour François Villon, in his Grand Testament. The wife of a helmet-smith bemoans the fading of her former good looks and sings of her delight in her erstwhile beauty.

The moment of ecstasy is difficult to describe. It defies verbal representation. It is beyond telling in words. To try to give a detailed account of the instant of sexual climax is like trying to catch a lizard. At best, you end up with its tail while the lizard makes a rapid escape. Yet we ought to have a go at least at listing the personal events and feelings experienced during this „petit-mal seizure” that is orgasm.

Untitled. Anonymous, 1925, sexual, The Origin of the World
Untitled. Anonymous, 1925

It is the precise moment when the antagonism between „beauty” and the „animal” (the „beast”) breaks down. The effects on the body of the flows of mental energy are set free and given sway. These mental currents have themselves become themes of representational art. In the most subtle works, representation of bodily gestures enables an observer, almost through mimetic intuition, to perceive in them „movements of the soul”.

Changes in facial expression are well known to be produced by the involuntary contraction and relaxation of specific muscle groups. Such changes can certainly result from sexual stimulation – and of course from fear, grief, or rage. Before the investigations of Masters and Johnson, bodily reactions during such sexual activities as masturbation and intercourse were never systematically observed, described or studied.

Dance of the Colours II, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1932-1934. Oil on canvas, 195 x 148.5 cm. Private collection

As a direct measure of sexual tension in a woman, the scientists established the „sexflush”, the reddening of the skin surface, which peaked in intensity at the point of orgasm. (In a man, such a flush manifests itself during the „plateau phase” and not in the stages of initial excitement or when approaching climax.) That is why a woman’s face strained and taut expresses, as an image, by itself, the muscular tension that is active over her whole body…

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