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A Look Into Yves Saint Laurent Through His Erotic Sketches

*This article has been published on Magazine UNIFORM in 2019
*The link has been disabled unfortunately. 

If Instagram finds the penis-shaped jewelleries of Saint Laurent Paris inappropriate, it will perhaps let the erotic sketches by Yves Saint Laurent himself escaped the censorship. Fabrice Thomas, the former driver and lover to Yves Saint Laurent, brought a YSL-stamped portfolio to the surface in 2012. Pierre Bergé, whose long-time companionship with the couturier was wildly recognized, claimed this was stolen. Despite the convoluted story, the file containing hundreds of valuable works also unveiled a set of vigorous images which exhibited the private side of Yves Saint Laurent.


Among the many personal items in this portfolio, the most noticeable ones are the sketches by Yves Saint Laurent which include theatrical designs in Victorian style and portraits painted in Mattise’s colour formula. However, none of them will beat the topic of these erotic illustrations that Saint Laurent painted for his own reasons. Surprisingly, his expertise in sketching was not due to professional training but an attentive nature to details.


Born into a well-off family, Yves Saint Laurent grew up with an educated sophistication which would familiarize him to the characters of good arts. Consequently, his approach to draw was imbued with the traits of the artists he appreciated. These heart-racing sketches were no exceptions.


The composition, reminiscent of Shunga - a type of Japanese erotic art, demonstrated somewhat the bad taste that Diana Vreeland encouraged us to “have a little”. They were risqué and kitsch, against the good taste he was raised upon. Serendipitously, they together helped him abate the vulgarity in the arts of this form, blurring the dichotomy between erotica and art. Therefore, the paradoxes were also disclosed here.


Some of these sketches visualising the fragility of the back were diametrically ironic. The lines were so gentle and cinched at the waist that nodded to the softness of female body and the effect of corset. The feminine posture and the sensual way to present their bodies where genitals were naturally exposed were inarguably provocative. With the head looking sideways, eye contacts were carefully avoided as not to impose any aggressiveness. Such methodology was typically embraced by male artists in the last centuries, which, in a sense, was considered patriarchy.


Sarcastically, the objects framed in the sharp jawlines, wide shoulders and firm muscles were obviously men. Following the emancipation of women in the Swinging 60s, Saint Laurent, here, broke the boundaries of gender like the way he contradicted Dior’s new look with his smoking suits. He allowed men to have sex appeal beyond masculine contours and be vulnerable with the lips fuller than the Kardashians.


Apparently, underneath the mockery was his liberation, and sex, too, had found it way in. Given his shy personality, Saint Laurent’s explicit expression of male body actually accentuated his pursuit of confidence. The “larger-than-life” phallus was no humbler than that in Tom of Finland’s erotica. Then the round hips, strong chest and messy hair were exaggerated to tease our visions alongside the traces of tight-highs. In Saint Laurent’s drawing of Fabrice Thomas, the gladiator's armor possibly excited his nerves. Judging from the caged cock, he probably considered himself both the receiver and the giver in this extremely sexual image.


When muscular figures met feminine gesticulations, his self-conflict made a deliberate rupture of masculinity and femininity questioning his existence in terms of the role. And he had more reasons to do this with sketches. After all, he would be frightened by anything that overtly advocated its existence, noted Fiona Levis.


Should you compare Saint Laurent’s sketches of women to these naked men, it would be evident that the lines on the men had hit more turns, as opposed to the fluent strokes on women. The over-curved body outlines gave away his doubts and thoughts, and he was probably making something he didn’t have or was unsure about.


He was confident in his ideas to dress women but his experience with homosexuality rendered him uncertain about men. Such paradoxes also emerged when it came to Oran, Saint Laurent’s birthplace. He loved his childhood as much as he hated his own social class and the conservative phenomenon. He lived with the joy to be surrounded by his beloved things yet in the fear of the threats proposed to his gay identity.


Without the interference of drawing techniques, Yves Saint Laurent’s erotic sketches were undisguised by the skills, hence primitive. Compared to the lack of facial expressions in his sketches of women, the men in Saint Laurent’s manner, erotic or not, impersonated certain characteristics of himself. They were the mirror to his introspection. The staccatos he had on women’s fashions were essentially technical, but his hesitations on men’s drawings were completely moody. For this reason, he was in search for something with these erotic portraits of men on which his aesthetic calibration had served us with satisfaction, in other words, visual pleasure.

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