By Loren Olson.
Loren is an art editor at Rizzoli, New York. Here she walks us through some of her favorite erotic artworks throughout history:
It’s no secret that there are some downright raunchy bits of art history. When a work of art from centuries ago can cause a tightness in our chest and a stirring elsewhere, it is a great testament to an artist’s ability to move us. Here are a few favorites:
1. Konarak Sun Temple, c. 1250 AD, Odisha, India,
Carved in the stone that sheaths the Konarak temple exterior, couples entwine in loving acts, dancing on decorated plinths. And not just couples—groups of three or four; sometimes a lone god at his solitary pleasures. The figures are smiling with what the Indian historical body that preserves Konarak calls “mutual enjoyment and zest.” We know the temple was constructed in the 13th century to resemble the chariot of a sun god, but the exact purpose of the figures on the exterior, called mithunas, remains unclear. One popular explanation holds that the ecstasy of sexual love can be compared to the religious ecstasy of merging the soul with the ultimate reality.
2. Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1503-04, Museo del Prado, Madrid
This surreal triptych from the 1500s can be interpreted as a moral warning against the pleasures of the flesh, or a utopian vision of life in Eden before the banishment of Adam and Eve. Everything is fleshy, dripping, fecund, sticky. The figures’ hands slide over each other and themselves. Strawberries stand in for fuzzy delicate skin, other shapes look like veiny, slick interior membranes. Everyone is laying, oozing, tasting. There is amazing variety to the activities in Bosch’s landscape: He achieves an eroticism without distinction or shame. There might be horror in Hell (over on the right panel), but the pleasure in Eden is bursting through every opening it can find.
Jupiter and Antiope, 1659, Etching, Drypoint and burin, first state (of two), Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
There is something very tender and sympathetic about Rembrandt’s drawings and drypoints, depicting ordinary people through their daily cares, but this one has a prurient bent. Antiope is totally exposed – you see her mouth open, and her body kind of unflatteringly positioned in the bed – not posing, but really asleep, belly relaxed. Jupiter is creeping in from below, peeping the darkness between her thighs (hidden even from the viewer – we are looking for it too) with intensity. His expression is pervy but also like an old sommelier with his nose in something good.
4 & 5) Kitagawa Utamaro
1) Lovers in an upstairs room, from Uta makura (‘Poem of the Pillow’), color woodblock print, Edo period, 1788 AD, The British Museum, London
2) Ehon Komachi-Biki, color woodblock print, Edo period, 1802 AD
No mere smut, volumes of shunga were passed down through generations as part of a bride’s trousseau. Couples would read them together for instruction and inspiration. Some of these get extremely weird. There are possessed ghost vaginas, trysts with foxes, neighbors pleasuring each other with sticks from across the street. And that’s without touching on tentacle porn, and its great mother, Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. But some shunga can be super romantic, like the glimpsed suggestion of Utamaro’s Lovers in an Upstairs Room, or sweet and casual, like this one where a reach around frustrates a woman’s attempt to put up her hair.
6 & 7) Gustave Courbet
1) Woman in White Stockings, 1864, Oil on canvas, The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
2) Le Sommeil, 1866, Oil on canvas, Petit Palais, Paris
Courbet’s raunchiness is direct and confrontational. First, his Woman in White Stockings: If it weren’t for her thighs, we’d have a straight shot at what she teased the artist with a moment before. The subject is in control: Whether she just came up from a swim or (more likely) is postcoital, her look is totally seductive. With her dress gathered up on top of her, we know that her asscheeks are pressed into the dirty ground.
On the opposite end of the spectrum we have Courbet’s plush Le Sommeil. This creamy painting depicts two lovers resting after exercise vigorous enough to snap somebody’s pearl necklace. Painted for the private quarters of Courbet’s patron Halil Serif Pasa, a Turkish diplomat living in Paris, the work remained hidden from public view for over a century.
Courbet is also a master of cold nipples – the bluish tenderness of his Woman in the Waves is worth a long look.
8 & 9) Egon Schiele
Left: Friendship, 1913 | Right: Kneeling Semi-Nude, 1917
Massively influential, Egon Schiele’s raw and brooding figures share shades of Beat travelogue and heroin chic. His subjects are tall bony boys and girls with long legs and bedhead. They are open with their eroticism, even bored with it. And I’m going to be boring here and say their sexy ennui is very contemporary.
10 & 11) Amedeo Modigliani
1) Reclining Nude, 1917, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
2) Reclining Nude with Loose Hair, 1917, Osaka City Museum of Modern Art, Osaka
Known for his gracious almond-eyed figures, Modigliani was a sensualist with a talent for capturing his sitters’ languid stretches at the best possible moment. His figures’ flesh looks firm, full, and supple. Their openness dares the viewer to join them on the bed, divan, or floor.
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