Everybody has an opinion on art — even the ones who don’t think they do.
Most of the controversy surrounding art today is whether a piece of art is actually a work of art. Typically, these “art or not” conversations revolve around what we, the uninitiated, call “modern art.” For laymen, the term covers everything from abstract art to conceptual art and even minimalist art. We’ll make arguments about it not being art because “I could do that” or “It doesn’t really take any skill” and in extreme cases, we’ll even murder an artwork for not passing our standards on what makes “good art.”
“Good art” to most of us laymen is classical art — images of nude goddesses like Venus rising from the seafoam. But turn back the hands of time a bit and you’ll find that what we consider good art today was once seen as vulgar, “not art” or “bad art,” a few centuries ago.
Enter the world of erotic art.
What Do We Mean by Erotic Art?
Our conversation went something like this. I told a friend I was thinking about how to talk about erotic art. Should I write a raunchy “Top 10 Sexiest Works of Erotic Art” or a more somber, academic, and dry take on an otherwise highly titillating topic? The reply I got was something along the lines of, “So you’re writing about porn?”
It seems simplistic at first. Many people would be quick to say that there’s a lot that separates great works of art from vulgar, even if exciting, photos and videos of naked people doing the horizontal tango.
My first impulse was to say that there’s a difference. Erotic art is a celebration of the human form and of sensuality and sexuality which is about as pedantic as it gets. But then, does a beautifully shot nude with perfect lighting, carefully drawn eyeliner, and suggestive posing completely exclude the possibility of it being art or the other way around?
Hans Maes picks apart existing definitions of erotic art and provides us with the simple statement that, “Erotic art is art that is made with the intention to stimulate its target audience sexually, and that succeeds to some extent in doing so.”
But this comes with its own issues. If erotic art is art made to sexually stimulate its viewer then by definition, there is nothing to separate it from pornography. Yet should we really be uptight about it?
There’s a lot of similarities between simple pornography and erotic art that mostly comes down to one factor: people throughout history have been notoriously horny. It’s a fact of life that even the greatest artists who we often put on a pedestal of artistic genius aren’t above indulging in.
Don’t believe me? Take it from Dr. Andrew Lear who specializes in sexuality in art. He’s the host of a channel called “Sexy Secrets of Great Art” where he uncovers much of the mysticism we normally assign to erotic art.
In the same way that many of us think of pornography as vulgar today, depictions of human bodies were seen in the same light at many points throughout history especially in deeply religious cultures where Christianity is dominant. You couldn’t even say the word “pregnant” on air in the 1950s. Forget depicting naked people and showing them having sex.
So how did artists get around this? They built erotic art into the most widely accepted form of art — religious art. Artists in the Western world have been using classical mythology as a free pass to depict sexual scenes on the canvas without being subjected to moral outcry since time immemorial. But what many of us don’t realize is that artists always need new material so when painting suggestive scenes of Artemis bathing with her huntresses got old, they turned to painting sexy scenes from the Bible.
Yes, from the Bible. When it comes to being horny, there are no limits to human ingenuity.
“Christianity is not a very sexy religion,” Lear jokes. Where classical myths have everything from sex with clouds to horses, the story of Christ’s conception is very sanitized. He’s born of a virgin mother who never does the deed with his divine father, much unlike the sons of Zeus before him. The same remains true for most of the Bible. There’s not a lot of sexy stuff going on there unless the Song of Solomon is enough to get you off.
But artists had a secret trick up their sleeve: painting the few sexy stories over and over again ad nauseum. Favorites included the attempt of two old men to “seduce” the beautiful young Susanna and by “seduce” I mean coerce her into being raped. Yeah. They didn’t have a lot of ways to let off steam back in the day. But then again, it’s not like consensual non-consent kinks don’t exist today.
It was no surprise when in the mid-17th century, Catholic clergymen came together in the Council of Trent to outlaw all erotic art in religious imagery. They decreed that “All lasciviousness [in church artwork] shall be avoided in such ways that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting lust.” It was then followed by several laws against the creation and possession of erotic art. In keeping with the theme of bringing up modern equivalents, think of it as the Spanish Inquisition’s version of Tumblr’s ban on pornographic content.
Hortensio Felix Paravicino, a preacher and art connoisseur who wasn’t a fan of erotic art, said at the time that “The finest paintings are the greatest threat: burn the best of them.”
Censorship much. Clearly, he’s the kind of man who would have an aneurysm if he found out what we get up to on the internet. Forget even telling him about fandoms and furries.
Though, that does make one a little curious. What works of erotic art would Paravicino have wanted to burn?
Let’s take a look at some of history’s raunchiest pieces of erotic art.
Erotic Art Works and Their Controversial Backgrounds
1. Leda and the Swan by Antonio da Corregio
On March 1986, an Abstract Expressionist painting entitled “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III” would find itself on the receiving end of several stab wounds from a man by the name of Gerard Jan van Bladeren. After five months of jail, he went back to stab “Cathedra”, another of Barnett Newman’s paintings.
It wasn’t the first painting to be vandalized by angry museum-goers who didn’t like seeing art that didn’t meet their notions of it. But why did Antonio de Corregio’s 1532 painting “Leda and the Swan” get shanked?
The story of Leda and the Swan, which tells of the rape of Leda by Zeus, is a popular Greek myth that found its way to Corregio’s canvas and was given over to Federico II Gonzaga, the Duke of the Italian city of Mantua. From there, its story gets dirtier. Art historians speculate it may have been intended for Isabella Boschetti, the Duke’s mistress.
When the Duke died, it passed into the hands of Philip II, King of Spain until it reached Philippe of Orleans, Regent of France, in 1721. Louis, the Regent’s son, found the painting offensive and stabbed Leda repeatedly in the face.
Thankfully, the French painter Antoine Coypel was able to restore the painting. It is now part of the collection of Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
2. The Swing by Jean-Honore Fragonard
A woman on a swing? How scandalous!
It’s difficult for the untrained modern eye to figure out what makes this painting so controversial without any clue of the cultural context and euphemisms of the Rococo period. But peel your eyes away from the cotton candy pink gown worn by the woman in the center of the painting and pay attention to the man on the lower left and lower right sides of the painting.
On the lower left, one man looks up her skirt as one of her court shoes flies off with reckless abandon. Behind her, a man tries to pull her swing back towards him.
Can you make a guess at what this piece of erotic art means?
Fragonard’s “The Swing” is a piece commissioned by Baron Louis-Guillaume Baillet de Saint-Julien of his mistress. The request was simple enough on paper but its suggestive nature made it too salacious for most respectable artists of the time. Fragonard took Saint-Julien up on it and the rest was history.
The man on the left, intended to represent Saint-Julien, extends an arm directly pointed into the opening of his mistress’ skirt while she joyously sways her legs above his body. Is it clearer yet? Good. Now take a moment to mull over the fact that at 2:02 of the scene where Anna sings “For the First Time in Forever“, the movie directly puts the Disney princess in the role of the mistress.
3. The Nude Maja by Francisco Goya
The great Spanish artist Francisco Goya is partly known to us today for his “Black Paintings”, a series of 14 paintings painted directly onto the walls of his house that depicted horrific nightmare scenes of, for example, cannibalism.
But before he started work on the morbid “Black Paintings”, Goya created an erotic art piece that landed him on the bad side of the Spanish Inquisition. Entitled “La maja desnuda”, the painting depicted a maja, a kind of lower-class woman known for their flamboyant attire, completely naked and facing the viewer. The maja places her hands behind her head, using them as a pillow while looking at the viewer with come hither eyes as she tilts her body towards us.
The piece was likely commissioned by Manuel de Godoy, the then prime minister of Spain, along with its twin, “La maja vestida” which shows the maja fully clothed. Supposedly, the prime minister hung the dressed version in public and, with the pull of a cord, it would flip over to show the undressed version.
When it was discovered by the Inquisition, Godoy had no choice but to reveal the painter. Goya had enough sense to know he shouldn’t rat out the prime minister and thus he dodged questions by drawing comparisons to more respected works of erotic art like the previously shown painting by Titian.
Other than uptight Spaniards, what else is so controversial about this work? Well, it’s just one of the first Western erotic art pieces to show a woman’s pubic hair without depicting her as a prostitute.
4. Olympia by Edouard Manet
Created by French painter Édouard Manet, not to be confused with the other Impressionist painter, Claude Monet, finished “Olympia” in 1863.
At first glance, there’s little to tell modern viewers what was so scandalous about this painting. We’ve seen full nudes of women before especially in Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” from which “Olympia” borrows much of its composition. You don’t even have to squint to see the similarities but it may take more work to spot the differences.
The outrage came from the fact that Manet was no longer painting a warm, welcoming goddess of love but a jaded French prostitute. Where Venus’ eyes seem to invite us to embrace her, Olympia stares us down with cold disdain. Unlike Venus, her hand is stiffly pressed onto her thigh in a protective gesture.
Victorine Meurent, the prostitute who modeled for Manet, is both a woman of her own and a symbol for other women in the sex industry. Real women whose bodies do not exist in the idealized space of Titian’s Venus. Yet even Titian must have had a model for his Venus.
Maybe the answer to “So you’re writing about porn?” is a resounding yes — and it’s about the women in erotic art, too.