How Fruit and Veg Became Shorthand for Sexual Suggestion - ELEPHANT

Melons, figs and even the previously innocuous aubergine have all been co-opted to signal something far more salacious than the sum of their (ahem) parts, but the eroticism of the natural world has long been a source of inspiration for artists. Words by Louise Benson. Illustrations by Peel Eezy

A banana is often the prop of choice in sex-ed classes. It’s not hard (excuse the pun) to see why, although the phallic forms of the carrot, courgette or cucumber might well be considered just as suitable. Outside of the classroom, the vegetable drawer and fruit bowl have long offered up suggestive material to everyone from artists to advertisers. Whether it’s the joyful absurdity of Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s portraits made from fruit ‘n’ veg, Georgia O’Keeffe’s yonic flower paintings or Robert Mapplethorpe’s sensual still lifes, the eroticism of the natural world remains endlessly appealing.

The Melon

Knockers, jugs or melons… there are countless inventive nicknames for breasts, but it was the latter that Sarah Lucas chose to focus on in the early 1990s as she rose to prominence with the YBAs. Her sculpture Au Naturel (1994) featured a sagging mattress with a pair of sizeable melons to signify breasts and a bucket for a vagina, sat next to two oranges for testicles and a cucumber standing firmly to attention. Lucas has built her name on this type of sly suggestion, frequently incorporating fruit and other household objects into her representations of the body.

The Aubergine

In line with the evolution of emoji, the humble aubergine has risen to a surprising new status in popular culture. While its somewhat rotund form might not be the first to spring to mind when raiding the phallic possibilities of the vegetable drawer, it is perhaps this unlikeliness that led to the popularity of the aubergine as a stealthy stand-in for a dick-pic. The Times newspaper recently compiled an emoji explainer, to the great amusement of millennials everywhere, writing “One might be forgiven for interpreting this emoji as an invitation to enjoy moussaka. However, the aubergine is also used to indicate an erection.”

The Peach

Like the aubergine emoji, the sexual suggestiveness of the peach has been put to full use in the image-obsessed digital age. The curvaceous form of the fruit makes a leap of the imagination to the buttocks all too easy, an association that Nevine Mahmoud explores in her sexually-charged sculptures formed from alabaster and marble. The British artist frequently focuses on the peach as an erotic object, interrogating its feminine associations through tactile works like Peach with Erotic Inside (2017) and Peach (Femme Dissevered) (2018).

The Pear

With his vibrant colour palette and careful eye for detail, Nicolas Party injects a playful edge into his still lifes of otherwise innocuous objects. Pears in particular are a recurring subject for the Swiss artist, rendered in bright greens, oranges and purples. Propped up on the plate, they droop and flop in strange and suggestive ways, challenging expectations of the traditional painterly still life and of the everyday, as well as reminding us of the often-unseen undercurrents and innuendos that animate our social interactions.

The Fig

Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki is no stranger to the erotic. For his 1993 series Erotos, he channelled the X-rated themes of his work through the powerful art of suggestion. A woman’s eye turned sideways mimics the form of the vulva, a crack in the ground takes on new meaning and, notably, a fig is salaciously sliced in half. Shot in black and white, these photographs are evocative rather than explicit, demonstrating that allusion can often conjure desire far more effectively than the real thing.

The Apple

The women in Lisa Yuskavage’s paintings are shown relaxed and at ease, with hints at their internal world woven into the objects that surround them. In Brood (2005–6), the female subject is pregnant, her swollen belly and bare breasts alluded to by the apples, pears and pomegranates laid out before her. The extended metaphor of ripeness and fecundity is made clear, the rosy red roundness of the apples mimicking the curve of her stomach.

Illustrations © Peel Eezy