Mihály Zichy's open-mindedness led him to create some of the most diverse depictions of sexuality in a conservative era.
Have you ever wondered if erotic art depicts real people? I believe that in a sense it does, but if we think about it, most of the scenarios show models that fit standard ideals of beauty, and often they represent a sensuous woman to look at. We can’t deny that erotic art inevitably turns us into voyeurs. However, the lack of realism in some works can make them less approachable, not to say relatable. Eroticism and sexuality in real life aren’t that passive or that “perfect,” and only a few artists have been capable of capturing the true beauty of diversity and imperfection that happens in real life. As surprising as it might sound, it was in the nineteenth century that one artist managed to do so and go beyond. He also shattered preconceptions and standards about sex in his time through his appealing ink drawings of couples and people living their sexuality in many different ways. The name of this artist was Mihály Zichy, and he is remembered as one of the most revolutionary erotic artists in history.
This Hungarian painter, born in 1827, mostly painted watercolor works throughout his life and he also was an art teacher in St. Petersburg. While he became renowned among art critics through paintings such as Lifeboat, his legacy would continue due to his erotic drawings. However, the main difference between Zichy’s works and those of other erotic artists from his time was the fact that he was such an open-minded person and he deeply believed in freedom that he would even break the standards of something as subversive as eroticism.
This type of art itself was scandalous because of the conservative ideology of the time. However, even within eroticism there were tropes that Zichy broke unapologetically. You know, those that I previously mentioned: the enticing woman, following the beauty standards of the time, laying in positions I’d say are unnatural or too passive. Of course, Zichy, as liberal as he was, was unsatisfied with the way sexuality was depicted, because it was rather unreal. So, he decided to depict real couples and people in real situations.
Homosexuality, masturbation, pregnant sex, and partners engaging in different types of encounters are some of the themes Zichy explores in his ink drawings. The subjects of his drawings aren’t passive about their sexuality but rejoice in their desires and in the many ways they can reach pleasure. Nonetheless, one of the most admirable qualities of his pieces is the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a morbid intention behind the depiction of these people, especially couples.
Zichy shows couples that feel comfortable with each other, that bond through this act, are active, and yet, don’t oppress their partner nor use them just as a means to please themselves. On the contrary, they want to fulfill their partner’s desires just as much as they’re fulfilling theirs. Maybe nowadays we might think there’s nothing surprising about that, but then again, it was the nineteenth century, a time when sex wasn’t frowned upon as long as it was between married heterosexual couples and its purpose was reproduction. Then the inherent passivity of sex and eroticism in that time was completely broken by Zichy’s drawings.
Maybe nowadays we as a society have improved in some areas regarding sexuality and eroticism. Nonetheless, did those passive and standardized depictions of these themes in art change at all? That’s why Mihály Zichy’s art is still relevant in modern times. He was an artist that centuries ago broke the rules we’re just starting to break now.
Here are other erotic artists you should check out: