When it comes to the subject of erotica in art and literature, I consider myself to be a person of discerning tastes. Outside of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, the writings of Donatien Alphonse François, le Marquis de Sade, and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I have found most explicitly erotic literature to be banal and mechanical. So often, it merely serves a primal function, but rarely offers up anything more than titillation or sexual catharsis.
When it comes to art, a great example of this would be the erotic illustrations of Édouard-Henri Avril, one of the premiere pornographic artists of the late 19th Century, and an artist whose work I admire very much. However, while Avril’s work is splendid in its timeless appeal and subject matter, what it lacks, what it fails in, is that it’s fairly unimaginative and unexpressive. The compositions are predictable and the use of color is minimal and overly restrained. Though his illustrations succeed in providing an iconic visual counterpart to the erotic literature it accompanies, it rarely ever offers provocation of the mind or evocation of the emotions. In other words, it is simply visual eye candy displaying a wide range of physical experiences without the enrichment of genuine expression.
Yet there is another kind of erotic art that manages to do so much more than this.
Artists such as Gustave Courbet, Félicien Rops, Gustav Klimt, and Egon Schiele found their own unique way to convey erotic themes and ideas through artwork, and their works, while varying in style and predilection, all display a level of personality and expression that was unsurpassed during their lifetimes. This was art, not for the sake of arousal, but art for the sake of art and with the power to elicit feelings of passion, desire, loneliness, and introspection.
With the commercial rise of erotica in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, there has been an ever outward-growing spiral of mediums to accommodate those in desire of exploring their carnality and sensuality vicariously through the creations of others. Today, we have artwork, literature, music, cinema, and countless other media with which to express ourselves, so unsurprisingly human desire has spilt over into all of these areas, although in some areas more than others.
One art form that has been proliferating in the public eye since the late 1930s is comic books and graphic literature. Strangely, with the exception of lasciviously humorous cartoons and buxom heroines in tight-fitting costumes (or no costumes at all, in some cases), the medium hasn’t explored sensuality as in-depth as other narrative mediums. Outside of Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls, it is difficult to think of one well-known work of erotic graphic literature… until recently.
Last year saw the publication of an exceptional work: Dave McKean‘s text-less graphic novel, Celluloid.
The cover of “Celluloid”, an erotic graphic novel by Dave McKean.
Celluloid, which was published in 2011 by Delcourt in Europe and by Fantagraphics Books in the United States, is perhaps a different kind of erotica than what people have come to expect. Firstly, it is a graphic novel, and unlike so many graphic novels, it does not revolve around superheroes, monsters, or crime. It’s a work of fantasy and like most works of fantasy, it is about a journey, but this book is about a journey inward into the sensuality of the human mind and into the mysteries of human desire. It is “fantasy” in the purest sense of the word.