Lingerie provides the underpinning of some of the world’s most provocative paintings, sculptures and photographs.
The female nude — perhaps the most enduring subject in the history of art. It has provoked, inspired and scandalized for centuries. But add on a few gauzy or frilly underthings and those emotions can skyrocket. Just look at the late-18th-century work of French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The most famous of his naughty Rococo paintings, "The Swing" (1766), pictures a young woman on a tree-swing being ogled from below by a nobleman. She is fully dressed in a flounced corseted pink number, the skirts kicked up to reveal her underwear. She sports pantaloons — drawers that open at the crotch — but manages to show off only her covered legs.
Quelle scandale! Despite its modest show of skin, "The Swing" caused a big uproar, its unmistakable sensuality a testament to the power of lingerie — which is the power to titillate by strategic coverage rather than revelation. Sadly, Fragonard’s playful decadence did not mesh with post-Revolution ideals, and he died a poor man in 1806. But lingerie as a source of fascination and allure in the realm of art — both high and low — continued to soldier on.
The mid-1800s saw the triumph of realism over romanticism. For Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Edouard Manet, the real world happened to be the seamy brothels of Paris. Bohemian bordellos and cabarets were a way of life for Toulouse-Lautrec, who painted the famed dancers of the Moulin Rouge not only in their frothy petticoats, but also lounging backstage in simple cotton chemises and black stockings. Manet’s famed painting "Nana" (1877) portrays a courtesan done up in ruffled petticoat, corset and stockings, powdering her nose while her gentleman friend looks on.
Twentieth-century artists often used erotica to explore deeper issues. Viennese painter Egon Schiele sought to expose society’s facade of propriety through depictions of barely dressed women. Wearing little
more than gauzy white panties and ever-present stockings, they make direct eye contact with the viewer. But this brash femininity wasn’t for everyone, and because Schiele often used very young models, he spent a brief time in jail for "public immorality."In the 1950s, Fetishist photographers Elmer Batters and Pierre Molinier focused almost exclusively on the seamed stocking and garter belt. Molinier created sinister photomontages that abstracted the female form through repeated, interlocking forms. Today, Batters’ pictures of women in stockings bring to mind the glamour of fashion photography, but like Schiele, he had his share of trouble with the law, facing obscenity charges as well.
By the end of the 20th century, society was clearly more comfortable with blatantly sexual themes. Still, in 1990, Robert Mapplethorpe caused a censorship furor, albeit posthumously, when a museum director in Cincinnati was indicted for obscenity for exhibiting some of his more extreme works. In a 1983 collaboration, Mapplethorpe dressed body builder/performance artist Lisa Lyon in a variety of looks, from evening dresses to biker gear. Her muscular body and square jaw are a far cry from fashion model characteristics, and the effect of seeing her dressed only in a white corset, for example, is jarring.
The work of Allen Jones, one of Britain’s most celebrated artists of the 1970s and 1980s, combines erotica with a fascination for consumer-goods imagery. His "Table Sculpture" (1969), a woman in a black bustier and boots on all fours with a piece of glass on her back, raises issues of the objectification of women.
While women have more often been subjects than creators when it comes to the use of lingerie in art, some female artists have made bold statements of their own. In the late-1970s, Cindy Sherman starred in photographs masquerading as fictitious film stills that explored exhibitionism and voyeurism. In her "Untitled Film Still #7," she wears a white slip, stockings and garters, which she adjusts while clutching a martini glass. Like much of Sherman’s work, the tension brewed by "#7" results from Sherman the subject’s supposed vulnerability at being caught unaware and partly undressed — despite the fact that Sherman the artist orchestrated the scene at hand.
Recent installations by artists Vanessa Beecroft and Britain’s Tracy Emin seek direct provocation. Beecroft’s late-Nineties tableaux vivants of groups of women outfitted seductively in little more than bras, thongs and stockings present a potentially demeaning situation since there may be oglers mixed in with the cultured gallery crowd. Yet with their indifferent reactions to leering onlookers, the subjects subvert the sexual dynamic. Emin’s installation "My Bed" (1999) attempts to shock the viewer with the used condoms, empty vodka bottles and other detritus she places on the rumpled bed. The crowning glory is a pair of dirty panties, the ultimate symbol of soiled womanhood.Artful use of lingerie has obviously come a long way since the days of Fragonard’s frilly pantaloons. But one thing hasn’t changed. Whether or not the viewer thinks deep socio-aesthetic thoughts, even in our seemingly unshockable age, undies in art retain their near-mythic powers of seduction and titillation.
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