Erotic art

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Pompeii sex in ancient rome. Pompeii - Erotic Scene 2 - MAN.jpg
Pompeii sex in ancient rome.
In Achille Deveria's "libertine watercolor" the explicit erotic scene is taking place clandestinely against the background of a "respectable" party seen at the back Achille Deveria erotism.jpg
In Achille Devéria's "libertine watercolor" the explicit erotic scene is taking place clandestinely against the background of a "respectable" party seen at the back

Erotic art is a broad field of the visual arts including any artistic work intended to evoke erotic arousal, usually depicting human nudity and/or sexual activity. It has included works in almost any visual medium, including drawings, engravings, films, paintings, photographs, and sculptures. Some of the earliest known works of art include erotic themes, which have recurred with varying prominence in different societies throughout history. However it has also been widely considered taboo, with either social norms or laws restricting its creation, distribution, and possession, particularly when it is deemed to be "pornographic", "immoral", or "obscene".



The definition of erotic art is somewhat subjective, and dependent on context, since perceptions of both what is erotic and what is art vary. For example, a sculpture of a phallus in some cultures may be considered a traditional symbol of potency rather than overtly erotic. Material that is produced to illustrate sex education may be perceived by others as inappropriately erotic. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines erotic art as "art that is made with the intention to stimulate its target audience sexually, and that succeeds to some extent in doing so". [1]

A distinction is often made between erotic art and pornography, which also depicts scenes of sexual activity and is intended to evoke erotic arousal, but is not usually considered fine art. Some draw a distinction based on the work's intent and message: erotic art would be works intended for purposes in addition to arousal, which could be appreciated as art by someone uninterested in their erotic content. US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote in 1964 that the distinction was intuitive, saying about hard-core pornography which would not be legally protected as erotic art, "I know it when I see it". [2]

Others, including philosophers Matthew Kieran [3] and Hans Maes, [4] [5] have argued that no strict distinction can be made between erotic art and pornography.


Qing dynasty Spring Palace Illustration (Chun Gong Tu ) 21 xuancunghoa (12).JPG
Qing dynasty Spring Palace Illustration (春宮圖)

Among the oldest surviving examples of erotic depictions are Paleolithic cave paintings and carvings, but many cultures have created erotic art. Artifacts have been discovered from ancient Mesopotamia depicting explicit heterosexual sex. [6] [7] Glyptic art from the Sumerian Early Dynastic Period frequently shows scenes of frontal sex in the missionary position. [6] In Mesopotamian votive plaques from the early second millennium BC, the man is usually shown entering the woman from behind while she bends over, drinking beer through a straw. [6] Middle Assyrian lead votive figurines often represent the man standing and penetrating the woman as she rests on top of an altar. [6]

Scholars have traditionally interpreted all these depictions as scenes of ritual sex, [6] but they are more likely to be associated with the cult of Inanna, the goddess of sex and prostitution. [6] Many sexually explicit images were found in the temple of Inanna at Assur, [6] which also contained models of male and female sexual organs, [6] including stone phalli, which may have been worn around the neck as an amulet or used to decorate cult statues, [6] and clay models of the female vulva. [6]

Depictions of sexual intercourse were not part of the general repertory of ancient Egyptian formal art, [8] but rudimentary sketches of heterosexual intercourse have been found on pottery fragments and in graffiti. [8] The Turin Erotic Papyrus (Papyrus 55001) is an 8.5 feet (2.6 m) by 10 inches (25 cm) Egyptian papyrus scroll discovered at Deir el-Medina, [8] [9] the last two-thirds of which consist of a series of twelve vignettes showing men and women in various sexual positions. [9] The men in the illustrations are "scruffy, balding, short, and paunchy" with exaggeratedly large genitalia [10] and do not conform to Egyptian standards of physical attractiveness, [8] [10] but the women are nubile [8] [10] and they are shown with objects from traditional erotic iconography, such as convolvulus leaves and, in some scenes, they are even holding items traditionally associated with Hathor, the goddess of love, such as lotus flowers, monkeys, and sacred instruments called sistra. [8] [10] The scroll was probably painted in the Ramesside period (1292-1075 BC) [9] and its high artistic quality indicates that was produced for a wealthy audience. [9] No other similar scrolls have yet been discovered. [8]

The ancient Greeks painted sexual scenes on their ceramics, many of them famous for being some of the earliest depictions of same-sex relations and pederasty, and there are numerous sexually explicit paintings on the walls of ruined Roman buildings in Pompeii. The Moche of Peru in South America are another ancient people that sculpted explicit scenes of sex into their pottery. [11] There is an entire gallery devoted to pre-Columbian erotic ceramics (Moche culture) in Lima at the Larco Museum. Edward Perry Warren adapted a love for Greek Art during college. An Erotic Art collector, specifically inclined to gather Greek erotic art pieces that often represented gay sexual relationships. The Warren Cup features scenes of anal sex between men. Many of Warren's eclectic pieces collected over the years are in the Boston Museum of Fine Art. [12]

There is a long tradition of erotic art in Eastern cultures. In Japan, for example, shunga appeared in the 13th century and continued to grow in popularity until the late 19th century when photography was invented. [13] In Japan during the Edo period (1600-1869), Shunga, translated to "spring pictures," was a series of sexually explicit paintings created with ink or woodblock works that became printed onto paper scrolls as an introduction to sexual education. Shunga, embraced by individuals apart of the Shinto religion, focused on liberating the innate sexual beings that are within all humans, including women and homosexual sexuality. Couples engaging in sexual acts were shown laughing and enjoying the sexual encounter with their partner; this focused on the positivity of sex.

Around 1700, Shunga was met with opposition and banned in Japan, but the circulation of this prominent Erotic Art continued. Shunga could be found in local libraries and homes of many Japanese citizens. [14] Similarly, the erotic art of China reached its popular peak during the latter part of the Ming Dynasty. [15] In India, the famous Kama Sutra is an ancient sex manual that is still popularly read throughout the world. [16]

Moche ceramic depicting fellatio, ca. 200 AD, Larco Museum Collection Fellatiomoche.jpg
Moche ceramic depicting fellatio, ca. 200 AD, Larco Museum Collection

I Modi

In Europe, starting with the Renaissance, there was a tradition of producing erotica for the amusement of the aristocracy. In the early 16th century, the text I Modi was a woodcut album created by the designer Giulio Romano, the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi and the poet Pietro Aretino. Erotic Art in Italy took on many forms but was most famously encaptured by artist Giulio Romano for his famous I Modi sketches. Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael to decorate rooms in the Vatican, which exclusively housed the religious elite. His death left Romano responsible for completing his final installation in the Vatican housing quarters in the Sala. The Sala was a gathering place for the religious elite. Paintings in this room depicted Emperor Constantine in a manner that illustrated scenes of victorious spiritual conquests of Christianity over Paganism.

During the time of finishing these works, Romano sketched sexually explicit scenes between mythological famous historical couples. These sketches were made to elicit the simplistic nature of sex between individuals. I Modi gave the public the power to gaze upon material which was banned by the clergy members of the Vatican. The sketches eventually landed into the hands of Marcantonio Raimondi, an engraver who was also classically taught by Raphael. Raimondi published and distributed these prints made by Romano. The drawings quickly gained popularity amongst non-elite people in society and were scattered around Italy's Vatican City. This taboo subject matter in Italy was ordered to be destroyed by Pope Clement. Marcantonio Raimondi was arrested for this reproduction and distribution of I Modi. [17] [18]

In 1601 Caravaggio painted the "Amor Vincit Omnia," for the collection of the Marquis Vincenzo Giustiniani.

An erotic cabinet, ordered by Catherine the Great, seems to have been adjacent to her suite of rooms in the Gatchina Palace. The furniture was highly eccentric with tables that had large penises for legs. Penises and vaginas were carved on the furniture. The walls were covered in erotic art. The rooms and the furniture were seen in 1941 by two Wehrmacht-officers but they seem to have vanished since then. [19] [20] A documentary by Peter Woditsch suggests that the cabinet was in the Peterhof Palace and not in Gatchina. [21]

The tradition was continued by other, more modern painters, such as Fragonard, Courbet, Millet, Balthus, Picasso, Edgar Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Egon Schiele. Schiele served time in jail and had several works destroyed by the authorities for offending contemporary mores with his depictions of nude girls.

By the 20th century, photography became the most common medium for erotic art. Publishers like Taschen mass-produced erotic illustrations and erotic photography.

20th century onwards

Many erotic artists worked in the 2010s. Although, in some circles, much of the genre is still not as well accepted as the more standard genres of art such as portraiture and landscape. Erotic depictions in art went through a fundamental repositioning over the course of the 20th century. Early 20th century movements in art such as cubism, futurism, and German expressionism explored the erotic through manipulating the nude to explore multiple viewpoints, colour experimentation, and the simplification of the figure into geometrical components. [22]

In the mid 20th century, realism and surrealism offered new modes of representation of the nude. For surrealist artist's, the erotic became a way of exploring ideas of fantasy, the unconscious and the dream state. [23] Artist's such as Paul Delvaux, Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst are well known surrealist artist's that dealt with the erotic directly. In the aftermath of the First World War, a shift away from abstracted human figures of the 1920s and 1930s towards realism took place. Artists such as British Artist Stanley Spencer led this re-appropriated approach to the human figure in Britain, with naked self portraits of himself and his second wife in erotic settings This is explicitly evident in his work Double nude portrait, 1937. [23]

The naked portrait was arguably becoming a category of erotic art that was dominating the 20th century, just as the academic nude had dominated the 19th century. [24] Critical writings on the ‘nude’ and in particular the female ‘nude’, meant fundamental shifts in how depictions of the nude and the portrayal of sexuality were being considered. Seminal texts such as British Art historian Kenneth Clark’s The nude: a study of ideal art in 1956 and Art Critic John Berger in 1972 in his book Ways of Seeing, were re-examining the notion of the naked and the nude within art. This period in art was defined by an acute engagement with the political. It marked a historical moment that stressed the importance of the sexual revolution upon art. [25]

The 1960s and 1970s were a time of social and political change across the United States and Europe. Movements included the fight for equality for women with a focus on sexuality, reproductive rights, the family, and the workplace. Artists and historians began to investigate how images in Western art and the media, were often produced within a male narrative and particularly how it perpetuated idealisations of the female subject. [26] The questioning and interrogation of the overarching male gaze within the historical art narrative, manifested in both critical writing and artistic practice, came to define much of the mid to late 20th century art and erotic art. [27] American Art Historian Carol Duncan summarises the male gaze and its relationship to erotic art, writing “More than any other theme, the nude could demonstrate that art originates in and is sustained by male erotic energy. This is why many ‘seminal’ works of the period are nudes.” [28] Artists such as Sylvia Sleigh is an example of this reversal of the male gaze as her work depicts male sitters presented in traditional erotic reclining poses that usually were reserved for the female nude as part of the ‘odalisque’ tradition. [23]

The rise of feminism, the sexual revolution and conceptual art in the mid 20th century meant that the interaction between the image and audience, and the artist and audience, were beginning to be questioned and redefined, opening up new possible areas of practice. Artists began to use their own nude bodies and began to depict an alternative narrative of the erotic, through new lenses. [29] New media was beginning to be used to portray the nude and the erotic, with performance and photography being used by women artists, to draw attention to issues of gender power relations and the blurred boundaries between pornography and art. [30] Artists such as Carolee Schneemann, and Hannah Wilke were using these new mediums to interrogate the constructs of gender roles and sexuality. Wilke's photographs, for instance, satirised the mass objectification of the female body in pornography and advertising. [23]

Performance art since the 1960s has flourished and is considered as a direct response and challenge to traditional types of media and was associated with the dematerialization of the artwork or object. As performance that dealt with the erotic flourished in the 1980s and 1990s both male and female artists were exploring new strategies of representation of the erotic. [26]

Martha Edelheit was a female artist known for her contributions to erotic art as a rebellious stance against typical gender roles, which excluded women artists from participating in free sexual expression. This limited women to often be the subject of many famous Erotic Art pieces which catered to men. Edelheit was criticized for being a female artist who created erotic artwork during a time where men were main contributors in this art. Edelheit was a pioneer in the feminist art movement because she was a woman who created erotic art and also depicted herself in many of her works, which paved the way for women's equality in sexual expression.

Edelheit confronted the common stereotype that this art was pornographic by offering an alternative view of oneself. Her works paved the way for women to openly express sexual desires. Painting nude male subjects were uncommon in the 1970s; her Art turned the tables and allowed for women to be at the forefront of this fem expression revolution that occurred in the 70s. [31]

The acceptance and popularity of erotic art has pushed the genre into mainstream pop-culture and has created many famous icons. Frank Frazetta, Luis Royo, Boris Vallejo, Chris Achilleos, and Clyde Caldwell are among the artists whose work has been widely distributed. The Guild of Erotic Artists was formed in 2002 to bring together a body of like-minded individuals whose sole purpose was to express themselves and promote the sensual art of erotica for the modern age. [32]

Between 2010 and 2015 sexologist and gallerist Laura Henkel, curator of the Erotic Heritage Museum and the Sin City Gallery, organised 12 Inches of Sin, an exhibition focussing on art that expresses a diverse view of sexuality and challenging ideas of high and low art. [33] The erotic continues to be explored and employed in new types of art work today and the profound developments of the 20th century still underpin much of the prevailing erotic art and artistic intent. [34]

The red one by Alfred Freddy Krupa The red woman.jpg
The red one by Alfred Freddy Krupa

Whether or not an instance of erotic art is obscene depends on the standards of the jurisdiction and community in which it is displayed.

In the United States, the 1973 ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States in Miller v. California established a three-tiered test to determine what was obscene—and thus not protected, versus what was merely erotic and thus protected by the First Amendment.

Delivering the opinion of the court, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote,

The basic guidelines for the trier of fact must be: (a) whether 'the average person, applying contemporary community standards' would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. [35]

As this is still much vaguer than other judicial tests within U.S. jurisprudence, it has not reduced the conflicts that often result, especially from the ambiguities concerning what the "contemporary community standards" are. Similar difficulties in distinguishing between erotica and obscenity have been found in other legal systems.

See also

Related Research Articles

Erotica Media, literature or art dealing substantively with erotically stimulating or sexually arousing subject matter

Erotica is any literary or artistic work that deals substantively with subject matter that is erotically stimulating or sexually arousing but is not generally considered to be pornographic. Erotic art may use any artistic form to depict erotic content, including painting, sculpture, drama, film or music. Erotic literature and erotic photography have become genres in their own right.

Hentai Japanese pornographic animation, comics, and video games

Outside of Japan, hentai is anime and manga pornography. In Japanese, however, "hentai" is not a genre of media but any type of perverse or bizarre sexual desire or act. For example, outside of Japan a work of animation depicting lesbian sex might be described as "yuri hentai", but in Japan it would just be described as "yuri".

Pornography in Japan Japanese pornographic industry

Pornography in Japan has unique characteristics that readily distinguish it from Western pornography. Reflecting Japan's views on sexuality and culture, Japanese pornography delves into a wide spectrum of heterosexual, homosexual, and transgender sexual acts in addition to unique fetishes and paraphilias.

Softcore pornography Erotic still photography or film that is less sexually explicit than hardcore pornography

Softcore pornography or softcore porn is commercial still photography or film that has a pornographic or erotic component but is less sexually graphic and intrusive than hardcore pornography, defined by a "lack of penetration" including stripteases, lingerie modeling, simulated sex, and emphasis on the sensual appreciation of the female or male form. It typically contains nude or semi-nude actors involved in love scenes, and is intended to be sexually arousing and aesthetically beautiful.

Erotic literature comprises fictional and factual stories and accounts of eros – passionate, romantic or sexual relationships – intended to arouse similar feelings in readers, in contrast to erotica, which focuses more specifically on sexual feelings. Other common elements are satire and social criticism. Much erotic literature features erotic art, illustrating the text.

Sex-positive feminism is a movement that began in the early 1980s centering on the idea that sexual freedom is an essential component of women's freedom. Some feminists became involved in the sex-positive feminist movement in response to efforts by anti-pornography feminists to put pornography at the center of a feminist explanation of women's oppression.

<i>Shunga</i> Japanese erotic art

Shunga (春画) is a Japanese term for erotic art. Most shunga are a type of ukiyo-e, usually executed in woodblock print format. While rare, there are extant erotic painted handscrolls which predate ukiyo-e. Translated literally, the Japanese word shunga means picture of spring; "spring" is a common euphemism for sex.

Pornographic magazine Magazines that contain content of an explicitly sexual nature

Pornographic magazines, or erotic magazines, sometimes known as adult, sex or top-shelf magazines, are magazines that contain content of an explicitly sexual nature. Publications of this kind may contain images of attractive naked subjects, as is the case in softcore pornography, and, in the usual case of hardcore pornography, depictions of masturbation, oral, vaginal or anal sex.

<i>I Modi</i> 16th century book by engraver Marcantonio Raimondi

I Modi, also known as The Sixteen Pleasures or under the Latin title De omnibus Veneris Schematibus, is a famous erotic book of the Italian Renaissance in which a series of sexual positions were explicitly depicted in engravings. While the original edition was apparently completely destroyed by the Catholic Church, fragments of a later edition survived. The second edition was accompanied by sonnets written by Pietro Aretino, which described the sexual acts depicted. The original illustrations were probably copied by Agostino Carracci, whose version survives.

Erotic photography art photography using erotica, and sexually suggestive appeals

Erotic photography is a style of art photography of an erotic, sexually suggestive or sexually provocative nature.

Lesbian erotica Visual art deciption of female-to-female sexuality

Lesbian erotica deals with depictions in the visual arts of lesbianism, which is the expression of female-on-female sexuality. Lesbianism has been a theme in erotic art since at least the time of ancient Rome, and many regard depictions of lesbianism to be erotic.

Stag film Silent pornographic film genre

A stag film is a type of pornographic film produced secretly in the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Typically, stag films had certain traits. They were brief in duration, were silent, depicted explicit or graphic sexual behavior intended to appeal to men, and were produced clandestinely due to censorship laws. Stag films were screened for all-male audiences in fraternities or similar locations; observers offered a raucous collective response to the film, exchanging sexual banter and achieving sexual arousal. In Europe, stag films were often screened in brothels.

Depictions of nudity

Depictions of nudity include visual representations of nudity throughout history, in disciplines including the arts and sciences. Nudity is restricted in most societies, but some depictions of nudity may serve a recognized social function. Clothing also serves as a significant part of interpersonal communication, and a lack of clothing in public is expected to have a social context. In Western societies, the three contexts that are easily recognized by a majority of individuals are art, pornography, and information or science. Any image not easily fitting into one of these categories may be misinterpreted, leading to disputes.

History of erotic depictions Aspect of history

The history of erotic depictions includes paintings, sculpture, photographs, dramatic arts, music and writings that show scenes of a sexual nature throughout time. They have been created by nearly every civilization, ancient and modern. Early cultures often associated the sexual act with supernatural forces and thus their religion is intertwined with such depictions. In Asian countries such as India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Japan and China, representations of sex and erotic art have specific spiritual meanings within native religions. The ancient Greeks and Romans produced much art and decoration of an erotic nature, much of it integrated with their religious beliefs and cultural practices.

Erotic comics

Erotic comics are adult comics which focus substantially on nudity and sexual activity, either for their own sake or as a major story element. As such they are usually not permitted to be sold to legal minors. Like other genres of comics, they can consist of single panels, short comic strips, comic books, or graphic novels/albums. Although never a mainstream genre, they have existed as a niche alongside – but usually separate from – other genres of comics.

Women's erotica is any erotic material that caters specifically to women target-demographic of various sexual preferences. When erotica is specifically directed at lesbians, it is referred to as lesbian erotica. Women's erotica is available from a variety of media including video games, websites, books, comics, short stories, films, photography, magazines, audio, anime and manga. The content may cover many aspects of sexuality, from relationships to fetishes; the main idea being to convey sex-positivism from a woman's perspective, or to feature female empowerment and sexual fantasies.

Sexuality in Japan

Sexuality in Japan developed separately from that of mainland Asia, as Japan did not adopt the Confucian view of marriage, in which chastity is highly valued. Monogamy in marriage is often thought to be less important in Japan, and sometimes married men may seek pleasure from courtesans. Prostitution in Japan has a long history, and became especially popular during the Japanese economic miracle, as evening entertainments were tax-deductible. Decreased sex drive in the 21st century has been blamed for the low Japanese birth rate and declining growth of the Japanese population.

Sex in film Sex in mainstream film

Sex in film is the presentation of aspects of human sexuality in film. The presence in films of any form of sexuality has been controversial since the development of the medium. Some films containing such sexuality have been criticized by religious groups or have been banned or the subject of censorship by governments, or both. In countries with a film rating system, films containing sex scenes typically receive a restricted classification. Nudity in film may be regarded as sexual or as non-sexual.

Interview of Dylan RyanTristan's Interview

Victorian erotica is a genre of sexual art and literature which emerged in the Victorian era of 19th-century Britain. Victorian erotica emerged as a product of a Victorian sexual culture. The Victorian era was characterised by paradox of rigid morality and anti-sensualism, but also by an obsession with sex. Sex was a main social topic, with progressive and enlightened thought pushing for sexual restriction and repression. Overpopulation was a societal concern for the Victorians, thought to be the cause of famine, disease, and war. To curb the threats of overpopulation, sex was socially regulated and controlled. New sexual categories emerged as a response, defining normal and abnormal sex. Heterosexual sex between married couples became the only form of sex socially and morally permissible. Sexual pleasure and desire beyond heterosexual marriage was labelled as deviant, considered to be sinful and sinister. Such deviant forms included masturbation, homosexuality, prostitution and pornography. Procreation was the primary goal of sex, removing it from the public, and placing it in the domestic. Yet, Victorian anti-sexual attitudes were contradictory of genuine Victorian life, with sex underlying much of the cultural practice. Sex was simultaneously repressed and proliferated. Sex was featured in medical manuals such as The Sexual Impulse by Havelock Ellis and Functions and Disorders of Reproductive Organs by William Acton, and in cultural magazines like The Penny Magazine and The Rambler. Sex was popular in entertainment, with much of Victorian theatre, art and literature including and expressing sexual and sensual themes.


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