A Brief And Gloriously Naughty History Of Early Erotica In Art (NSFW)

Art history, you nasty.

07/28/2015 10:03 am ET

In the words of almighty queen Audre Lorde: "The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire."

In other words, eroticism is powerful. It always has been. And art is there to prove it.

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In fact, the very first artistic venture of all time just may have been a tribute to eroticism's all-consuming force -- a simple cave drawing of a vulva, to be precise. How does one navigate from said minimalist genitalia to the more recognizable erotic artworks of folks like Egon Schiele and Gustav Courbet? You came to the right place.

Today we're examining art history's raciest nooks and crannies, from 32,000 B.C. to the early 20th century. Be warned, this tour is not for the prudish -- or those on a work computer. For the rest of you, please enjoy our NSFW glimpse at the eternal love affair between eroticism and art. 

Prehistoric Titillation in France 

Around 37,000 years ago, in Southern France's rock shelter Abri Castanet, one bold (or very bored) artist dared go where no prehistoric creative had ventured before. With care and precision, he or she carved into the rock a lone vulva. Not only is this vision of prehistoric vagina the earliest erotic artwork known to date, it may also be the oldest cave engraving, period, proving once and for all that artists love their nudes.

A PREHISTORIC PETROGLYPH OF A VULVA VIA WIKI COMMONS

 

Mound of Venus in Austria

Very little is known about the iconic limestone sculpture now known as "Venus of Willendorf," created between 28,000 B.C. and 25,000 B.C. in Willendorf, a village in Lower Austria. Now, however, the bodacious babe and her prominent labia have become an iconic example of early artistic renderings of the fertile female nude. 

VENUS OF WILLENDORF VIA WIKI COMMONS

 

Proto-Playboy in Egypt

Turns out Ancient Egypt was home to the world's first naughty men's magazine. Measuring in at 8.5 feet, a massive papyrus scroll, dubbed The Turin Erotic Papyrus, features 12 erotic vignettes and a variety of sexual positions. The 1150 B.C. issue centerfold features an orgy of horny pharaohs. 

TURIN EROTIC PAPYRUS VIA WIKI COMMONS

 

Dirty Dishes in Greece

Around 500 B.C., the ancient Greeks were known to throw symposiums, or drinking parties, where groups of toga-clad individuals would gather to eat, get drunk and talk philosophy. The rituals often featured kylixesshallow cups with humorous and often suggestive images adorning the rim and bottom, which revealed themselves only when the wine was properly guzzled. 

EROTIC SCENE ON THE RIM OF AN ATTIC RED-FIGURE KYLIX, C. 510 BC. VIA WIKI COMMONS

Also all the rage in Ancient Greece was pederasty, an erotic relationship between an adult male and a teen boy. At the time, Greek culture was saturated with images of such relationships, often realized via Attic vases. Somewhat strangely, the boy's genitals are rarely depicted with an erection, even when being fondled, and penetrative sex is never depicted, only intercrural. 

ATHENIAN AMPHORA, 5TH CENTURY BC VIA WIKI COMMONS

Dicks and Stones in India

India's Śuṅga Empire lasted between 187 and 78 B.C., and was defined by a burgeoning of art and philosophy. This was when royal patrons first started sponsoring the arts, specifically sculptures of stone and terra cotta, some of which featured some pretty graphic imagery, as depicted below.

SHUNGA EMPIRE SCULPTURE (INDIA), 1ST CENTURY BCE. METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART. VIA WIKI COMMONS

Panhandling in Rome

One of the most iconic examples of early erotica is this Roman sculpture dating back to 20 A.D., featuring Pan, a half-goat, half-man Satyr from Greek mythology, having sex with a goat. When the British Museum displayed the work in 2013 they provided viewers with a warning sign, but spokesperson Olivia Rickman told The Huffington Post ancient Rome wasn't ashamed of displaying sex and explicit imagery. "It was not something to be hidden away," she said.

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Hot for Pottery in Peru

The ancient Peruvian civilization Moche, active from 100 A.D. to 800 A.D., was another group who recognized the naughty potential just lurking in your ceramics cabinet. The Moche culture was particularly known for depicting anal sex rather than vaginal, sometimes with an infant breastfeeding during the act. 

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Kama Sutra In India

Vātsyāyana's famed Kama Sutra is a Sanskrit guide to getting it on that dates back to between 400 B.C. and A.D. 200. The guide features descriptions of 64 types of sexual acts, while articulating how desire can lead to a virtuous life. Although the first edition did not feature illustrations, it wasn't long before many artists stepped up to try their hand at immortalizing the wheelbarrow. 

KAMA SUTRA ILLUSTRATION VIA WIKI COMMONS

A Permanent Erection in Greece

Meet Priapus, a Greek fertility god known for his oversized genitalia and permanent erection. Only, back in the first century in Greece, being well endowed was not a good thing, and his image was used mainly for laughs. Statues of Priapus and his perma-hard-on were commonly found in ancient doorways, and those who passed by were meant to stroke the statuesque penis. 

GALLO-ROMAN BRONZE STATUETTE (CA 1ST CENTURY CE) OF PRIAPUS DISCOVERED IN PICARDY, NORTHERN FRANCE, MADE IN TWO PARTS, WITH THE TOP SECTION CONCEALING A GIANT PHALLUS VIA WIKI COMMONS

The Tripod in Rome

In Rome, Priapus was also a thing, and, unlike the Greeks, the Romans admired his large member. Sometimes they made depictions of Priapus with his large erection being weighed on a scale agaisnt a satchel of gold, because why not. 

FRESCO OF PRIAPUS, CASA DEI VETTII, POMPEII. VIA WIKI COMMONS

Risky Renaissance in Italy

The Italian Renaissance was collectively scandalized by an erotic text called I Modi (The Ways), illustrated by Marcantonio Raimondi, in which 16 sexual positions were explicitly visualized via detailed engravings. The originals, published in 1524, were destroyed and Raimondi was arrested, but copies of the original graphic encounters survive today. To provide scholastic credibility to his work, Raimondi hilariously rendered each of his sexual encounters using famous or mythological couples, like Antony and Cleopatra or Mars and Jupiter.

JULIA WITH AN ATHLETE IN I MODI. VIA WIKI COMMONS

Turkish Delight

We don't know too much about this 1773 Turkish manuscript, made by illustrator Shaykh Muhammad Ibn Mustafa Al-Misri, except that it was eventually featured in "Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now." And it involves an interconnected circle of penetration in matching fez hats.

SHAYK MUHAMMAD IBN MUSTAFA AL-MISRI TUHFET MULK. VIA WIKI COMMONS

China's Lolita

At the tail end of the Ming Dynasty -- around 1610 for the uninitiated -- an anonymous author published Jin Ping Mei, an erotic novel sometimes compared to Nabokov's classic. The accompanying illustrations, which date back to the 17th century, capture the ribald spirit of the text.

XIMEN AND GOLDEN LOTUS, ILLUSTRATION FROM 17TH-CENTURY CHINESE EDITION VIA WIKI COMMONS

Shunga in Japan

Shunga are the erotic woodblock prints popular in Japan's Edo period, around the turn of the 19th century. The renderings, at once salacious and silly, were dispersed throughout all members of society, given to samurais for good luck and as sexual guides for virginal brides. The images features sexual acts of all kinds -- from masturbation to cunnilingus to octopus sex. 

THE DREAM OF THE FISHERMAN'S WIFE, HOKUSAI, 1814. VIA WIKI COMMONS

Victorian Vagina

It wasn't until the Victorian era, specifically 1857, that content was deemed
"pornographic" in the contemporary sense, and mainstream culture began restricting the viewing of such explicit imagery. That, however, didn't stop Croatian-born, Austrian-based artist Franz von Bayros from rendering a naughty compendium of fetishistic illustrations, titled "Tales from the Dressing Table." In the series, young ladies clad in pearls and petticoats engage in lesbian romps, light BDSM and even some tasteful bestiality. 

FRANZ VON BAYROS VIA DELTA OF VENUS

Ménage à Trois in France

In the late 1800s, French artist Édouard-Henri Avril, under the pseudonym Paul, began illustrating the popular erotic lit of the time, the often-dubbed "galante literature."

PLATE XVIII FROM "DE FIGURIS VENERIS" VIA WIKI COMMONS

Nude Daguerrotypes in France

Before 1839, erotic artwork was limited to drawings, paintings and sculptures. That is until Louis Daguerre came along and the world could enjoy detailed, realistic erotica thanks to the power of the daguerrotype. Because early daguerrotypes required three to 15 minutes of exposure time, the recipe for erotica shifted a bit. No longer able to capture the action of two people engaged in sex, erotic imagery focused on a sensual depiction of a nude woman, holding very still. 

COLOURED DAGUERREOTYPE BY FELIX-JACQUES MOULIN, C.1851-1854 VIA WIKI COMMONS

Courbet's Close-up in France

Finally! Gustav Courbet's wonderfully graphic "The Origin of the World" shakes things up in 1866. With the infamous crotch shot, Courbet fought against societal standards deeming nudity only necessary when coupled with mythological idealization. Courbet changed course a bit with a radically realistic portrayal of a vagina, bush and all. 

GUSTAVE COURBET, THE ORIGIN OF THE WORLD, 1866 VIA WIKI COMMONS

Cop a Schiele in Austria

Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele, a protégé of Gustav Klimt, was a famed 20th-century painter known for his raw, sexual depictions. Although he had his fair share of controversies -- like reportedly being arrested for beginning an affair with a 17-year-old model -- Schiele was one of the first critically acclaimed artists to usher erotica into the realm of fine art. 

KNEELING GIRL, RESTING ON BOTH ELBOWS 1917 VIA WIKI COMMONS

That's where our brief tour through early erotic art comes to a close.