Long before visual media got so racy and Fifty Shades of Grey entered family bookcases, fine art featuring erotic or sexually suggestive material was confined to the depths of profanity, blasphemy, and secrecy. Yet, the history of erotic art is not the history of naughty images but a vivid reminder of what human societies consider to be either sacred or profane. Historically, representations of sex were allocated special meanings in Ancient societies, and via Hindu and Buddhist mythology it is not uncommon to see graphic depictions of erotica on the walls of holy temples. Arguably, our current public discomfort for all things erotic stems from the frigid ideologies of the Puritan movement in Britain and America and the wide-reaching influence of British Victorian society. Ever since, depictions of sex have been allocated their own sordid category: pornography.
But as ever, it is up to artists of every ilk to overturn these relatively recent prejudices about representing the erotic. From Modigliani’s languorous lovers, whose forms seem to writhe beyond the realms of representation, to Picasso’s clandestine Cubist renderings of sexual acts, erotica was an inexorable ingredient in the art of Modernism. But even before, in Ingres’ Orientalist daydreams, Klimt’s gilded decadence, and Bouguereau’s neo-classical visions, the desire to portray the most private and natural human urges has never been far from the surface of the canvas. In the modern age things have become rather cynical; sex is used to sell. Today, it is important to remember the transformative power of erotic art as a tool for challenging and overturning the disapproving frowns of the new puritans.