Above is Academia del natural (1887, oil on linen, Valencia, Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia en su Historia) by Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863 – 1923), a Spanish painter often erroneously grouped with the Impressionists.
There is something undeniably erotic about this work. It’s not simply the leanness of the subject’s physique and the beauty of his exposed limbs. His passivity and his vulnerability are arousing. His posture suggests that he is bound, though there are no visible restraints. Is he a prisoner? Is he a slave? Has he been violated in some fashion? Is he awaiting some imminent dishonor? His semi-nude state adds to his vulnerability, the improvised nature of his garment suggesting that he has been stripped. His feet are dirty; yet he is otherwise unmarked, though there is what might be a bloodstain on his garment.
Perhaps what he has experienced then is not physical abuse, but disgrace of some kind. In 19th-century Spain, nothing would disgrace a man more than playing the passive role in a sexual encounter with another man. Being fucked, in other words. Is that what is being suggested here? That’s not to say that Sorolla was issuing any kind of moral judgment about homosexuality. Rather, he might have known that portraying a semi-nude male in such an abject position would evoke a tabooed homoeroticism and a forbidden act. Whether or not this was the artist’s intention is irrelevant in the end. The powerful image of shame combined with the subject’s lack of clothing easily ushers the viewer into the realm of the sexual.
Perhaps the painting is meant to inspire pity. I find that it also inspires desire. I wonder if Sorolla was cognizant of this possibility. This does not seem to be fundamentally different than asking whether or not those who painted Saint Sebastian or the Sacrifice of Isaac were aware of the erotic quality of their works. Perhaps the potent eroticism of those works is more acceptable because, for the most part, the subjects appear to be passionless—to a great extent, they transcend the suffering that is being portrayed. The figure in Academia del natural, on the other hand, conveys not passionlessness, but great pathos. Although his face is largely hidden from view, the subject appears very much present in his vulnerability. Perhaps it is his slumped shoulders or his downcast look. Whatever it is, his is an uneasy eroticism.
To me, this work seems to be more than a mere figure study. At the very least, for a figure study, it possesses an element bordering on the fetishistic and kinky. The combination of all of the features working together—his youthful beauty, his posture, his garment, his vulnerability—all hint at the possibility of the subject’s status as a sexual object. While all nudes, to some extent, turn the viewer into a voyeur, Academia del natural, despite the fact that its subject is not nude, goes further by suggesting taboos and possible exploitation, which leave the viewer feeling guilty and uncomfortable, yet unmistakably titillated.