A naughty history of early erotica in art

Eroticism is a powerful and consuming force. What’s more, history shows us that erotic art has been around for longer than you may imagine! This article will examine the naughty history of erotic art to show you how sex and art have been connected for thousands of years. 

Prehistoric titillation in france

To start with erotic art, we have to go back to approximately 37,000 years ago. That’s when one of our early ancestors created the first work of what many believe is erotic art. You’ll find the first example of erotic art and perhaps the earliest-ever cave engraving in history in Abri Castanet, a rock shelter in the South of France. It houses a rock engraving of a shape that looks to be a lone vulva.

While many scholars have different interpretations of it, the majority agrees that the engraving portrays a vagina. Plus, it emphasizes the link between early humanity and sexuality. 

Yet, some dispute its meaning because artwork hailing from the Upper Paleolithic Era rarely contained depictions of humans. Early carvings mainly focused on the relationship between animals and humans. Thus, the Abri Castanet vulva is an extremely rare find in art history. It changes our understanding of prehistoric sexuality. However, what we don’t know is whether or not the engraving was purposefully created to symbolize pleasure, eroticism, reproduction, or life itself. Fortunately, we can look to other early representations of human sexuality to get some clarity.  

Erotic art B.C

The iconic Venus of Willendorf is one of the earliest works of art. The 4-inch figurine portrays a naked female body. It is a limestone sculpture that researchers date back to 28,000 B.C.–25,000 B.C. However, we know very little about its origin and meaning. It is among the earliest surviving figurines from Paleolithic Europe. The statue displays exaggerated sexual features. Most scholars claim that it is a symbol of fertility.

Another example is the notorious Turin Erotic Papyrus from ancient Egypt (approx. 1,150 B.C.). This 8-foot-long scroll portrays 12 erotic scenes with kinky pharaoh orgies in great detail. And we also shouldn’t exclude ancient Greece’s dirty dishes or attic vases that portray graphical sexual acts. There are numerous other examples of early erotic art, and that includes the Sunga period in Indian sculpture and terracotta.

Erotic art A.D 

Early erotica also dates back to Roman times. Perhaps the best example of this is a 20 A.D. sculpture of Pan or the god of the wilderness, a half-man, half-goat creature. One sculpture shows him having intercourse with a female goat. This sculpture is among the most controversial works of art from Antiquity. 

Additionally, erotic art also has roots in ancient Peru. An old civilization called Moche created a wide array of ceramics that portray sexual acts. This culture was active until 800 A.D., and its ceramics reveal some profoundly naughty things about the Moche civilization. Surprisingly, most statues depict anal sex instead of vaginal intercourse.

And of course, who could forget the Kama Sutra? This ancient Sanskrit guide is full of naughty advice and describes up to 64 sexual positions. Originally, it did not include illustrations, but different artists added them over time.

Another notable work of erotic art depicts Priapus, the Greek god of fertility. Sculptures of Priapus date back to first-century Greece. Most portray him with a permanent and oversized hard-on. Interestingly, the Greeks did not consider this to be a good thing, and instead, large penises were made fun of back then. 

From the 1500s, moving forward 

The “I Modi” (a.k.a. “The Ways”) is an erotic text that collectively scandalized the Renaissance. Just like the Kama Sutra, it is among the most famous erotic texts, but it dates back to the 1500s. It contains illustrations of 16 different sexual positions and visualizes them in an explicit way. They were published in 1524, and their creator, Marcantonio Raimondi, was immediately arrested. Raimondi used classical scholarly respectability to disguise his work which is why most of the renderings feature figures like Cleopatra and Anthony. 

And that’s not all. We’ve traveled a long way to get to today’s popular erotic art that’s thriving on Instagram and other social platforms. Cultures from all across the world shaped the landscape for modern erotic art. Some include a Turkish manuscript from 1773 that features a circle of men penetrating each other. Detailed illustrations are also found in Ming Dynasty works such as Lolita, which also contained erotic illustrations. Japanese Shunga art from the 19th century also depicted sex, but in incredibly unusual ways. It showed everything from masturbation to tentacle sex. 

And by the 1850s, we began to use the term “pornographic” to refer to art containing explicit imagery. The most famous example from this period is Courbet’s “Origin of the World.” This was a highly detailed painting that showed a close-up view of the female vagina. And by the time Egon Schiele came into the picture in the early 20th century, erotica fell into the world of fine art.