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Eroticism has always had a rich presence throughout art history. The New York Public Library (NYPL), for one, has a wealth of visual material tucked throughout its archives that focuses not just on nudes, but nudes (full and partial) engaging in some pretty wild acts. These objects include copies of Playboy and mid-century gay erotica, but there’s also plenty of graphic illustrations created centuries ago that people slipped into albums to view in private or that were considered so explicit they were banned from further publication. The NYPL has never censored anything or kept especially arousing printed matter under lock and key, its librarians stress heavily (although the Gray Lady may have you think otherwise). It does have a “triple-star” system, and although that name may sound like it polices X-rated artifacts, that classification is really intended to protect certain items from vandalism, theft, or damage. Comic books, for instance, often receive the distinction; there was a copy of Bambi (yes, the children’s story) deemed triple-star because of its sheer fragility.
“It’s not kept separately, and everybody has access to it,” curator Madeleine C. Viljoen said of the library’s steamier materials. “They receive no special treatment, and we don’t perceive them as being any different from any other artwork in the collection. That’s not our goal here. We are not censors.”
While — thanks to the First Amendment — you’re certainly free to view porn via the traditional method of the 21st century, the NYPL’s collection offers an extensive selection of historic and contemporary erotic works, particularly in its photography and print collection and its Spencer Collection of illustrated books and manuscripts. (While bandwidth is unnecessary to view these, you will need a library card.) Of course, as visual accompaniments to texts, most of these weren’t intended to quench your sexual thirst; at the most, they were meant to titillate, to further stimulate the imagination in a cheeky yet artful way.
Some of the oldest examples of erotica in the library’s holdings, for instance, are found in Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a book published in 1499 that’s often credited to the Italian Dominican priest Francesco Colonna. It essentially reads as an ancient erotic dream, with the protagonist searching a fantasy landscape for his lover. Printed on vellum, this copy was likely made for someone well-to-do, and its thin pages are filled with satyrs with prominent phalluses and bare-breasted women — visuals that played a large role in conveying the book’s surreal narrative.
“It was perceived as an important humanist document that shows the reawakened interest in ancient mythology but also in antiquarian ruins,” Viljoen said, “and it’s written in this kind of made-up language that doesn’t really lend itself to a kind of reading.
“This is crazy that this was happening in the late-15th-century,” she continued. “It seems like they were smoking something.”
Depicting mythological creatures engaged in sex acts was actually, for some, a way to get away with producing erotic illustrations, as Viljoen explained. In the early 16th century, the Italian engraver Marcantonio Raimondi produced a set of engravings known as “I Modi that detailed sexual positions considered so explicit the Catholic Church destroyed them, and only fragments now exist in the British Museum. The Italian painter and printmaker Agostino Carracci produced a similar series in the late 16th century, but since Carracci substituted human figures with those from mythology, his works were seen as more respectable and thus still survive. Whipping shows up pretty often in these scenes, an act that was actually quite a popular one for artists to depict. One frequent image with its roots in the medieval times is that of Phyllis riding Aristotle, usually with a whip in hand and Phyllis’s literal place on top representing the power of women.
The NYPL’s collection actually reveals that many centuries-old, erotic works of art are devoted to female pleasure. Representing the East are a number of shunga, or Japanese erotic prints, many of which highlight the satisfied expression on women’s faces or at least show couples in mutual ecstasy. (The style of these “spring pictures” inspired artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, whose sexually graphic, linear illustrations for Aristophanes’s play Lysistrata are also owned by the NYPL). One 18th-century French best seller — sort of the Fifty Shades of Grey of its time — is written from the point of view of a woman who falls under the tutelage of Jesuit monks, but “her path towards intellectual enlightenment is also one of sexual enlightenment,” as Viljoen said. Still, although Thérèse philosophe is brimming with explicit illustrations, from a clear view of a sodomizing monk to a woman’s genitals, it also presented a slight critique of intellectualism.
“This was not intended as straightforward pornography by any means,” Viljoen said. “It was sort of making fun of enlightenment philosophy by showing that the study of very serious subjects also has this sort of sexual undertone. But I don’t think it was something you would read in polite company.”
A more discreet publication the NYPL owns is one of the earliest examples of pop-up books, a guidebook to Italian cities by Donato Bertelli, published in 1578. Garments and certain structures are designed as flaps for lifting: peek under a woman’s dress, for instance, and see her underwear, or open the canopy of a gondola for a voyeuristic view of a couple embracing on the lagoon.
“I think they were titillating,”Viljoen said. “Sort of, Oh this is what you can do in Venice, there are a lot of crazy courtesans in Venice … Let’s look under her dress.”
While much of the library’s erotic materials come in their original bindings, the NYPL has a rather unique copy of Cesare Lombroso’s La femme criminelle et la prostitue (1896) whose owner carefully pasted risqué photographs of his own choosing on select pages. The volume belonged to the French writer Pierre Mac Orlan, who authored a number of pornographic novels in the early 20th century, and the portraits he chose were of women baring all, sometimes posing coyly for the lens. While some were taken by famous photographers such as Eugène Atget, many come from unknown sources. You have to wonder whether Mac Orlan kept them there by chance, or perhaps as a playful critique of the sexist treatise, or perhaps to keep his collection away from judging eyes at the time.
“Many of these things now strike us as light,” Viljoen said. “But these things are always shifting scales. They’re constantly changing.”
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