Erotic imagery in art is something shared by most, if not all, cultures. Michelangelo’s David, Kama Sutra-inspired batiks in the Himalayas, and phallic shrines in Thailand—all these masterpieces offer homage to, and celebrate, sex and sexuality. However, eroticism in art has not always been appreciated. Many works of art, considered pornography or manifestations of indecency, were banned from public viewing, destroyed, or merely ignored. Works by great masters such as Picasso continue to create controversy even today. Modern artists, following the artistic traditions of the past, continue to court controversy by painting the erotic.
In my opinion, the paintings below cannot be labeled pornography and are too technically intricate to be disregarded as smut. Procreation is a common denominator shared by all humans; art, as celebrated in the paintings below, helps us to think about, reflect upon, and emotionally share in this unifying act.
Pompeiian Erotic Wall Paintings
In the 18th century, extensive excavations unearthed an abundance of erotic wall paintings (frescoes) and other art in the ancient town of Pompeii. Many of the paintings were intended to depict sacred images representing abundance and good fortune—for example, the god Priapus, sporting an extremely large phallus—while others were more straightforward depictions of sexual acts. Either way, these paintings were initially considered pornographic, and in the 19th century, they were locked away and only made available for viewing to unimpeachably respectable people (i.e., wealthy men). This collection has gone through a few more openings and closings, and is now finally on display to the public (but not to minors).
Erotic Scene (known as La Douleur)
Pablo Picasso, 1903, oil on canvas
Although this painting of Picasso receiving a blow job has been in the custody of the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 1982, it has never been hung there for public viewing. The painting was virtually unknown until it went on loan to the Barbican Museum for their exhibit entitled Seduced: Art & Sex from Antiquity to Now, where it was widely viewed. Compared to some of Picasso’s other, more explicit works (which include images of bestiality and rape), it doesn’t seem so bad.
Japanese Erotic Paintings
The tradition of Japanese shunga (erotic) painting began in the 7th or 8th century; in the 17th century, ukiyo-e woodblock prints became another popular medium for depictions of the erotic. While the imagery is considered to be some of the most explicit in history, the prints were very commonplace during the height of their popularity. Some of the better-known shunga painters were Katsushika Hokusai and Kitagawa Utamaro.
The Toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus)
Diego Velazquez, 1647–1651, oil on canvas
Although this nude painting of the goddess of love, Venus, does not seem overtly erotic, it was a rarity during its time. The Spanish Church’s disapproval of the subject matter relegated it to private displays only. It avoided censure by the Spanish Inquisition and is now one of Velazquez’s only surviving nudes.
Leda and the Swan
François Boucher, 1740, oil on canvas
In the Greek myth providing the back story for this theme, Jupiter seduces and impregnates Leda by masquerading as a swan. The erotic scene was painted by numerous big names, including Cezanne, Leonardo de Vinci, and Michelangelo. This version, attributed to Boucher, may be one of the raciest.
The Origin of the World (L’Origine du Monde)
Gustave Courbet, 1866, oil on canvas
This painting and another (featuring two nude women) were banned from public display due to the graphic nature of their imagery. However, the ban only helped increase Courbet’s popularity. Just like advertisers today, Courbet realized that sex sells.
In the 1990s, Jeff Koons did a modern-day satire on the porn industry by painting himself in sexual scenes with Italian porn star (and politician!) La Cicciolina (Ilona Staller). The pictures, part of the Made in Heaven collection, were large (about 96 by 144 inches) and very explicit. The Made in Heaven collection also demonstrated Koons’s versatility, irony, and wit by including depictions of puppies, kittens, flowers, and cherubs, which were fairly small and very cute.
John Currin, 2006, oil on canvas
I just finished reading a piece about John Currin in the New Yorker. Accompanying the article was a photo of his most recent work, The Women on Franklin Street. The picture, an homage to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, features three women; one is bare-breasted and the other two are touching her erotically. Like many of Currin’s other works, the painting is inspired by pornography and the sexually explicit. However, as is the case with all of his paintings, his artistic rendering is far too exquisite to ever be considered low-brow.