John Currin Exploring Sexual Taboos

John Currin uses classical painterly techniques to portray highly charged social and sexual taboos. With inspirations as diverse as Old Master portraits, pinups, pornography, and B movies, he paints ideational, challengingly perverse images of women, from lusty nymphs to dour matrons. Consistent throughout his work is the search for the point at which the beautiful and the grotesque are held in perfect balance.

The one thing I can do is make a fairly convincing fantasy of happiness. It doesn’t mean that I’m happy or the painting isn’t creepy, but good melancholy comes from a thwarted joy, which is another way to describe parenthood, or marriage, or being alive.

—John Currin

Innocence, Humor, Sexuality

John Currin is a contemporary American artist considered among the most influential painters working today. Combining the techniques of Northern Renaissance painters such as Lucas Cranach the Elder, with a satirical attitude towards his subject matter, the artist produces works steeped in both art history and kitsch.

As an undergraduate student at Carnegie Mellon University in the early 1980s, Currin painted abstract works in the style of Willem de Kooning, seeking to evoke the nude through visceral, expressive brushstrokes. By the time he went on to pursue his MFA at Yale University, he saw a “forced masculinity” in these early works and realized that they were an “attempt to be a tortured artist.” Reacting against this, he began to explore themes of innocence, humor, and sexuality—creating images of stylized horses, girls with feathered hair, large-headed caricatures, and realistic portraits of individuals and couples. In the early 2000s he went on to produce a series of paintings that combine hard-core pornography with traditional still-life elements, depicting explicit sex acts taking place in decorative interiors. Source:

Lucas Cranach the Elder

Lucas Cranach, the Elder, original name Lucas Müller, (1472- 1553) was one of the most important and influential artists in 16th-century German art. Among his vast output of paintings and woodcuts, the most important are altarpieces, court portraits and portraits of the Protestant Reformers, and innumerable pictures of women—elongated female nudes and fashionably dressed ladies with titles from the Bible or mythology.

Cranach was the court painter to the electors of Saxony in Wittenberg, an area in the heart of the emerging Protestant faith. His patrons were powerful supporters of Martin Luther, and Cranach used his art as a symbol of the new faith. 

The largest proportion of Cranach’s output is of portraits, and it is chiefly thanks to him that we know what the German Reformers and their princely adherents looked like.

Portrait of a Woman 1525 by Lucas Cranach, the Elder

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