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Art, sex and porn: eroticism in the history of art (part I)

How have sex and eroticism evolved throughout the history of art? How have they influenced the depiction of the female form?

By Giada | 18 December 2021
Painting by the French painter Courbet of two sleeping women
Le Sommeil, Gustave Courbet (1866)

The spectacle of art has always provoked a wide range of feelings and emotions, including a great deal of sensuality. Looking back at the fundamentals of art history, we see just how sexuality has been a recurring theme throughout the ages.

From the most iconic representations to the those lesser known, eroticism has been the expression of the visceral, vital and unconscious force we call desire.

Sex in art: erotica or pornography?

As objects and subjects of desire, we have always been able to relate to art. Erotic art is rooted in the infinite spectrum of sexuality and perception across cultures, contexts and historical eras.

Philosophy professor Jerrold Levinson, as cited in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, defines erotic art as “art which aims to engage viewers sexually through explicit sexual content, and that succeeds, to some extent, in doing so.” It is art that generates excitement…

… as well as indignation!

In Western art, eroticism has been hidden and condemned. Way before Instagram’s nipple ban, we can find instances of censorship back in the 17th century, which marked the start of an era of repression, prudishness and prohibition. In that context, only matrimonial sexuality is deigned worthy of being represented.

Erotic art as a source of excitement and pleasure is often associated with pornography; the first instance of porn is found in 1896 with the first clandestine footage. Heavily censored, it eventually became illegal in a number of countries. Things started to evolve in the 1960s when the sexual revolution changed all that, driven by the belief everyone should be free to experience their own sexuality as they pleased.

How has eroticism made its place in the art world?

How ancient pleasures have been depicted through art

Going from one historical era to the next, we witness how nearly every civilisation has created its own depictions of desire. The most ancient depictions of sexuality were often associated with spirituality or fertility, as embodied by the iconic Venus of Willendorf. They also serve to express cultural ideals of beauty and virtue, such as celebrations of athletic made bodies in Ancient Greece. In other instances, they most served to arouse the audience.

One of the least famous and yet most notable instances is the “Turin Satirical-Erotic Papyrus” found in Turin’s Egyptian Museum. Censored under the Victorian era, this piece of art and history raises a number of interesting hypothesis:

  • the closest example of an erotic magazine, complete with text, most probably for the benefit of members of the high society (judging from the premium quality papyrus) with a view to entertain.
  • the representation of sexual encounters between gods rather than mere mortals, considering how sexual iconography becomes more explicit when divinity is involved.
  • a guide for couples who couldn’t have children, considering the importance of fertility at the time (giving it another purpose than that of an Egyptian Kamasutra of sorts).
  • the depiction of a Thebes brothel.

One thing is certain: this 320 centimetres-long artefact depicts explicit scenes without filters and without taboos. But where is modern eroticism rooted in Western art?

Sex in Western art: beyond the idealisation of the female form

Sexuality in the history of art finds its most precious expression in the depiction of female nudity. During the Italian Renaissance, naked female bodies were shown as venuses or passive saints.

The insert of erotic subjects and objects in works of art was a way to test their sensorial. According to academic and art critic Mary Pardo, art can become a medium of courtship between artist and spectator in that it stimulates psychic mechanisms of erotic attraction.

Under libertine France of the 18th century, eroticism comes to take on different forms. While female bodies used to be idolised, the women depicted then range from bourgeoises to prostitutes.

How did we evolved from the realistic depictions of the time to whatever came next? Stay tuned.

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