Art has always been intrinsically linked to expression, passion and sensuality, but across the centuries, there have been surprisingly few unambiguous depictions of the carnal act in its naked glory. Here, Jonathan Jones chooses his favourite 10 erotic pieces
Katsukawa Shun’ei (attributed to)
Ten scenes of lovemaking, a scroll painting
(Edo period, 1795-1810)
Japanese Shunga art is explicit about sex in a way western artists never found easy before the 20th century. Free from any Christian identification of sex with sin, Shun’ei here offers an erotic luxury. As you unfurl the scroll, detailed and beautifully coloured scenes of lovemaking reveal themselves. Time stands still. The cares of life are forgotten in a relaxed, mutually fulfilling utopia of pleasure.
Satyr and Satyress
(1510-1520) V&A, London
In Greek and Roman mythology satyrs are goat-legged followers of the wine god Bacchus, hairy votaries of sex, dance and ecstasy. In Renaissance art they are walking penises, embodiments of lust, who chase nymphs or spy on sleeping goddesses. Here, however, the brilliant craftsman Riccio imagines a satyr couple, tenderly embracing in some balmy woodland nook. Being half goat, they are all desire. Love is wild.
(1967) Tate, London
When Picasso draws or paints a kiss – and he returned insatiably to this subject – it is no chaste romantic touch of lips but a carnal encounter of tongues. The oral entangling in this late work by the most sexual of artists is impossible to misunderstand. Clearly it is not so much a kiss he is portraying as an ecstatic allegory of all the copulations he can remember or imagine.
Two Women Embracing
(1915) Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
Egon Schiele is a great artist who found his subject in the bedroom. In the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud was researching sexuality and Gustav Klimt was painting sensual dreams. Young Schiele took this respect for sex to a new level in superbly drawn masterpieces like this depiction of women in love. He turns his erotic curiosity into moving, beautiful, arousing art that may well be the most sublime pornography ever created.
Made in Heaven
(1991) Whitney Museum, New York
When Jeff Koons married porn star and (later) Italian MP Ilona Staller (Cicciolina) he marked their union in a series of works, including this poster, as well as glassware and sculptures of them having sex. The imagery is indistinguishable from porn with Koons identifying himself with pop culture at its most shameless.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
In Bed, the Kiss
Desire is beautiful. Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrayal of two women in bed is intimate and frank, and free from all the prejudices we ascribe to his age. Toulouse-Lautrec lived among and regularly portrayed the prostitutes, dancers and artists’ models of Montmartre. His pastels recording the real lives of his women friends are his true masterpieces. Love is easy, and love is free.
After Michelangelo Leda and the Swan (After 1530) National Gallery, London There are strong hints of homosexuality as well as fellatio in this depiction of Leda making love to a swan. In ancient myth, Jupiter took the form of a swan to seduce Leda. Such myths were transformed by Renaissance artists such as Titian into alluring sensual painting. Michelangelo provocatively makes the coupling real. The model for Leda was his assistant Antonio Mini. The work barely conceals Michelangelo’s fantasy – or record – of his own penis meeting Mini’s mouth.
Leda and the Swan
(After 1530) National Gallery, London
There are strong hints of homosexuality as well as fellatio in this depiction of Leda making love to a swan. In ancient myth, Jupiter took the form of a swan to seduce Leda. Such myths were transformed by Renaissance artists such as Titian into alluring sensual painting. Michelangelo provocatively makes the coupling real. The model for Leda was his assistant Antonio Mini. The work barely conceals Michelangelo’s fantasy – or record – of his own penis meeting Mini’s mouth.
The French Bed
(1646) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Images of sex abound in Renaissance and baroque art, usually in mythic couplings of woman and cloud, boy and eagle. Rembrandt here shows the thing itself, stripped of mythology or metaphor. A couple – probably Rembrandt and his lover Hendrickje Stoffels – are going for it in spite of the cold that keeps them semi-clothed in their bed.
The Great Masturbator
(1929) Reina Sofia museum, Madrid
Surrealist leader André Breton urged artists to unleash their unconscious. Along came Dalí confessing to desires that appalled Breton. This painting acknowledges its creator’s seamy mind, sleazy fantasies and onanism. The sex act that requires one participant is Dalí’s image of art, a narcissistic daydream that feeds on memory to create something self-contained.
I Modi (The Positions)
Renaissance Rome was rocked by I Modi, a printed sequence of graphically illustrated sexual positions. It was designed by Giulio Romano and engraved by printmaker Marcantonio Raimondi. This was luxury art porn. Despite being banned, it became a European bestseller.