Since the ancient times, art has been a fixture of human development. It has helped us figure out our emotions and thoughts and has progressed social values and culture. Art has been there for us to share our experiences and showcase what drives and motivates us for tens of thousands of years. While different eras have different concerns superficially, the core of what it means to be a human has stayed remarkably similar for the duration of our existence on this Earth. Nothing showcases this better than the remarkable and enduring emphasis we place on sexuality and sex in art. Sex has always – and will always – be a continual theme in art, from ancient fertility pieces to Picasso and beyond. Understanding the history of sex in art throughout the ages gives a rich and interesting look at how artistic precursors have formed the art we love today. Here is a look at sex throughout the ages and how it has played a role in the ongoing world of art.
The Venus of Willendorf, 28000 – 25000 BCE
As one of many Venus figurines that were created in the Paleolithic period, the Venus of Willendorf is one of the first sculptures that we possess that comes out of this time period. In an age obfuscated by many mysteries, it is items like this that give us a glimpse into the world of the Paleolitic, and give us an idea of what life was like back then.
Carved out of oolitic limestone, this figure is only a few inches long and could have most likely fit into the hands of the bearer as an item of great importance. Visually, the sculpture has obvious significance: the naked, full body of a female, with careful attention placed on erogenous zones (compared, for instance, to the blank face or absent hands and feet). This has lead scholars to posit that this figure was in some way related to fertility, possibly being used for some kind of ritualistic reason. In any event, the intent of this object seems clear: to venerate and praise the notion of a ‘life-giver’.
Whether the object was a functional item used in rituals or, like the Venus de Milo, a simple representation of beauty, it seems unmistakably about the concept of sexuality and procreation. Even back in the prehistoric times, human beings definitely saw the importance and value of sex in art and sexuality.
Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” ~1490CE
Jumping forward considerably in time, our next example is one that is both religiously relevant and quite a scandal for medieval tastes. The Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych by the Netherlandish artist that was representative of the prevailing Christian dogma at the time: that God created Adam and Eve and the world itself for us to enjoy and that we would be punished if we abused this gift. While not necessarily meant to be ‘read’ literally, the triptych structure of the paintings implies that one follows the other – that we are not meant to enjoy “the garden of earthly delights” because of the consequences involved.
In spite of this message, the overt sexuality of the second, middle portion of the triptych probably denied it acceptance as an altar piece, or even admittance into churches and cathedrals in general. Instead, it is generally believed that this piece was commissioned, and created for a private entity.
The interesting thing about the Garden is not that it warns us about the doom-and-gloom of Christian punishment, but that the most prominent and, debatably, most interesting aspect of the entire piece is the middle scene – the garden itself. In this land where everyone is nude, happy, festive and carefree, we see an almost adolescent glee on its inhabitants. It seems more like a dream of utopia than a dire warning, and has led some scholars to believe that this scene more accurately represents a metaphorical spiritual transition and less a literal hedonism. By enjoying, yet overcoming, the pleasures of the earth, we can be released into the afterlife. Perhaps in this interpretation, the hellscape on the right could be representative of the hell of not having played in the garden.
Gustave Courbet’s “Origin of the World,” 1866CE
Art has been the vehicle to express the opinions and cultural leanings of societies for as long as societies have existed, yet unfortunately, some of those leanings have led to unrealistic, unfair, or downright censorious treatment of people of color and different genders. A prevailing theme throughout much of the ‘Western Canon’ of fine art is an objectification and ‘pedestalization’ of women. Gustave Courbet, with his piece, “Origin of the World,” took a then-prudish French society and showed them face to face the beauty of the natural, feminine body. On top of this, with his stark, even graphic, realism, he also heavily implied a sexual overtone with this work, which solidifies the painting as an object of perpetual discussion about the role of sex in art.
The portrait received much attention and, to this day, still is the object of shock and even censorship. Even though the portrait has influenced many other artists to date, such as Orlan or even Marcel Duchamp, it has still been in the crossfire of censorship even to this very day:
In February 1994, a French novelist, Jacques Henric, printed his newest novel, “Adorations Perpétuelles” with the portrait prominently displayed as its cover. In the ensuing hysteria about the outrage this cover created, the French police had to visit bookstores to get them removed from their windows. Some bookstore owners decided to comply and have the books removed, but others, in defiance, decided to maintain the presence of the book in their windows.
In 2011, Facebook censored Origin of the World image after it was posted by an artist based out of Copenhagen. Many people decided to also post the picture out of solidarity and Facebook eventually went on to delete other pages about the painting.
These two examples are only a few of the most recent: basically since the inception of this image into the cultural mind of France, this painting has been at the source of controversies around the world.
The power of sex in art and sexual imagery is still seen as scandalous and this painting is a great example of it in action. Ultimately, while the effect of this masterpiece has been to shock multitudes of people, its imagery is simple, natural, and beautiful. If we can’t acknowledge these simple, plain facts about existence, what does that say about us?
Keith Haring’s “Once Upon a Time,” 1989CE
As a major contributor to the pop art movement as well as an advocate for LGBT rights in New York City and beyond, Keith Haring’s work has always been outspokenly in favor of the liberating quality of sexuality. When he created the bathroom mural at “The Center” (the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center), he created a celebration of the Stonewall Riots, which were pivotal in the fight for LGBT rights.
This orgiastic mural covers four interior walls of the bathroom and contains a variety of explicitly sexual acts, figures, symbols and desires, all exclusively homosexual in nature. The title is an idyllic reference to the times before the HIV and AIDS scare, back when, even though underground and secret, men were having regular, carefree sex in the very same bathrooms.
While quite different from his readily sold and ‘accepted’ pop art (with its playful and almost childlike figures, shapes, poses,and colors), this is an important glimpse into the private world of Haring – his sexuality meant much to him, and this mural emphasizes this. It is no surprise that this man had a deep inner life that meant much to him, especially considering his activism.
This nature of sex in art is dual-purpose: as a highly sexual work displaying an orientation deemed ‘abnormal’ for much of its contemporary existence, the mural acts as both protest and reaction to predominate norms and also as a veneration of the beauty of the many forms of sex itself. Pieces like this are integral to the ongoing discussion of social norms.
The ongoing landscape of sex in art is ever shifting
But the constant throughout the entirety of art history is an important one: human beings themselves. It comes as no surprise to us that sex in art and sexuality have heavily dominated artistic thought and action, either implicitly or explicitly, ever since the dawn of art itself. We are highly emotional and instinctual creatures and it is only natural to express these feelings outwardly through our creations. While the details may change depending on the social stigmas (or lack thereof) of the time, and while people and locations may shift as well, the force of emotion that our sexual natures bring out will always be a prime motivating force for the art world. From outward expressions of protests and shock, to the more intimate, introverted examinations of our sexual natures, art of all kinds will be influenced by raw emotion until we as a species cease to exist.