Love And The Erotic In Art

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

LOVE AND THE EROTIC IN ART is the sixteenth in the Getty Museum's Guide to Imagery series and it will undoubtedly be the most successful. Sex sells, as we all know, so why should it be any different this time around?

Organized around a series of general themes--e.g., Love's Settings, Eros, Famous Couples, etc.--the 384-page book reproduces the ways love and sexuality have been depicted by painters and sculptors over the centuries of Western art. Organized and written by Stefano Zuffi, the 2008 original Italian-language edition was translated by the Getty, which has done its usual handsome production job. Over four hundred color photographs illustrate the text, making the book a delight to peruse.

LOVE AND THE EROTIC IN ART is packed with brief but pithy notes that are as educational as they are provocative. Each section is prefaced with an essay giving historical context; specific illustrations and comments follow. The Gods of Love section commences thusly: "For its generative power, fecundity, and union of masculine and feminine, love has been deified by the most diverse religions since the dawn of humanity." An illustration depicts the Venus of Willendorf--a clay figure dating back to Paleolithic times. After that comes a different image of Venus, this one from 1440 showing her surrounded by six fallen noblemen. The caption reads: "This painting intends to convey a moral lesson, following a late-medieval tradition. It is supposed to warn us against falling prey to love's whims and to choose conjugal fidelity instead."

To read LOVE AND THE EROTIC ART is to learn afresh how to look at works of art. (Getty Publications, $24.95. Call 800-223-3431)