Sex is timeless, and depictions of sex in art are no different. However, attitudes toward sex has changed over a millenia, and sexual art has reflected those changes. This is especially prevalent when looking at the history of Christianity and how it has impacted this art. Erotic art has been created both due to sexual freedom and sexual repression (Thomas et. al. ix). Ancient works record some of the earliest pieces of erotic art. Archaeologists have found Greek vases depicting erotic scenes from mythology and between regular people. Etruscan tombs likewise have been found with erotic scenes decorating the walls and sarcophagi (xiv). Yet most surviving sexual art is from the Romans. It is mostly found in brothels and public baths, but archaeologists have also found erotic scenes in homes. One example of this is The House of Mysteries in Pompeii, which features frescoes depicting women worshiping a phallic figure (xv). This Roman art has in turn informed a lot of western art.
During the medieval period, sex was directly equated with sin in Christianity, so depictions in art fell by the wayside in Europe (Thomas et. al. xi). The same occurred during the Renaissance, when once again, sex was a taboo subject. Yet the reintroduction of Classical art revitalized some sense of eroticism in art. Nudes became very popular, and some sexual scenes from myths were drawn. These paintings were often made for the upper class, and were male sexual fantasies. The scenes depicted were associated with violence (often against women), paganism and death (Nichols). An example of this is An Allegory of Venus and Cupid by Agnolo Bronzino. This painting depicts Venus, the Roman goddess of love, and Cupid, her son, in a sensual embrace. The purpose of this painting is to condemn lust by equating it with paganism and death, as the man suffering from syphilis in the background suggests.
Artists ran a fine line between recreating Classical art and maintaining Christian values (Thomas et. al. 130). If they were too explicit, painters could be thrown in jail (Nichols). This resulted in art that used “implicit eroticism:” it was not clear that the scene itself was sexual, but there was a certain eroticism to the work that lent itself to being sexual. An example of this is Dying Slave by Michelangelo. Though the subject matter is that of a dying slave, as the name suggests, the slave’s face is closer to that of a man in ecstasy than someone who is dying.
The church responded to this revitalization by censoring or destroying a lot of this sexual art during the Baroque period. After years of “prudery” in art (Thomas et. al. 244), the Rococo period reopened implicit erotic art. Though no scenes were explicitly shown, the precursor to sex was often alluded to in the form of a man pursuing a women, or, in the case of The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, a man looking up the skirts of a woman.
Over the following century, the evolution of artistic movements resulted in different opinions on sex in art. The birth of the symbolist movement coincided with scientific studies on sex and sexuality. This resulted in a fascination with, among other things, the erotic. Most pieces from this movement were censored; however, it inspired a new era of sex in art. The surrealist movement in particular drew on Freud’s emphasis on sexuality. Many artists believed that sexuality was essential in understanding and expressing oneself and the world around you; as such, artists such as Salvador Dali introduced eroticism into their works (Thomas et. al. 772). This resulted in pieces like The Great Masturabator by Salvador Dali, which depicts a woman leaning up next to her partner’s clothed erection. In contrast, with movements like abstract expressionism and impressionism, a focus on eroticism fell to the wayside due to the focus on experimentation with other artistic techniques (Thomas et. al 386).
With the incorporation of sex into popular culture in the ‘50s the blatant addition of sex into art increased (Thomas et. al. 772). In pop art and consumerism this mostly took the form, once again, of male sexual fantasies. However, with the start of women’s liberation and LGBT social movements as well as the introduction of modern birth control, more diversity in sexual art became apparent. Some sexual art took the form if critiques of sexualization, some were used for profit, and some was an attempt to reclaim people’s bodies (929). However, thereafter sex and sexuality became a more visible part of art history. Do these perceptions of sex as seen through art reflect society’s opinions regarding sex? How do these impact the way we think about sex and sexuality?
Nichols, Tom. Renaissance Art: A Beginner’s Guide. Oneworld Publications, 2010.
Thomas, Joe, et al. 1000 Erotic Works of Genius. Parkstone International, 2014.