Sexually explicit art is found in all cultures. From Japanese “Shunga” to Thailand’s phallic shrines, works of art have always celebrated sex, sexuality, and the human body. Artists as diverse as Pablo Picasso and Jeff Koons blended high art and kitsch in an attempt to push the boundaries of good taste. It’s estimated that every second 28,258 Internet users are viewing pornography; in other words, in a digital culture saturated with hardcore, sexually explicit images, erotic art no longer has the power to shock.
There was a time, however, when works of art by great masters were considered vulgar and pornographic. Some of these pieces were banned from public viewing; others were ignored. And some of these artworks still have the power to be, if not shocking, then at least taboo. Here are 10 of the most sexually controversial works of art.
10 Unknown: Pan Copulating with Goat
Roman art is filled with disreputable objects of pagan licentiousness. There are ancient artifacts displaying everything from marital sex to men with men, women with women, threesomes, prostitution, and bestiality. In fact, there are sections of the Naples and British Museums that are similar to the browser categories found on pornographic websites. Though not thought to be freely practiced in Rome, there’s no shortage of sex between men and animals in Roman mythology. Pan Copulating with Goat is one of the best-known art objects in the Naples Museum.
9 Pablo Picasso: Nude in a Black Armchair, 1932
The female nude has always inspired, enraptured, and enraged. From Titian and Correggio’s Greek fantasy nudes to John Currin’s busty, satirically sexualized pin-ups, how can one begin to sort through the annals of art history in an attempt to find the epitome of female perfection? There are too many masterpieces to choose from. Nevertheless, while art is subjective, money is not, so in order to include a female nude on this list it makes sense to pay homage to the most expensive female nude painting ever sold.
Painted in 1932 and described by the former director of the Museum of Modern Art as “a squishy, sexual toy,” Nude in a Black Armchair sold for $45.1 million in 1999. The curvy, colorful painting is of Picasso’s mistress –Marie-Therese Walter. The voluptuous lines and juxtaposing colors (black and pink) are reminiscent of Henri Matisse, and the plant, a symbol of fertility, heightens the painting’s sexual theme.
8 Jules Joseph Lefebvre: La Cigale, 1872
Despite winning the Prix de Rome in 1861 and exhibiting 72 portraits in the Paris Salon between 1855 and 1898, Jules Joseph Lefebvre is a second-tier artist. Still, the French figure painter, theorist, and educator had a proclivity for painting beautiful naked women. La Cigale resides in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. While the woman’s smooth, milky white skin and idealized proportions (as well as her Barbie doll lack of vagina) are in keeping with the classical figure painting trends of the day, the expression on her face isn’t. Call it a sexualized pout. Call it the look of the girl-next-door playing shy. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a coy, contemporary, Lolita-like expression that not only and heightens the sexual charge of the painting, but drives men crazy.
7 Edouard Manet: Olympia, 1865
While staid and quaint by today’s sexual standards, when Edouard Manet’s Olympia was exhibited at the 1865 Paris Salon it shocked the public. It wasn’t Olympia’s nudity that viewers found scandalizing, but her self-assured and confrontational gaze. Moreover, it was the vulgarity of the painting’s sexual symbols that stunned people; the orchid in her up-swept hair, the pearl earrings and black choker, a clothed servant bringing her flowers from a suitor, and the sexual rebellion symbolized by the black cat at the foot of the bed were too risqué for 1865 Paris.
Edouard Manet styled Olympia after Titian’s Venus of Urbino, and the “apparent” mockery of an old master raised eyebrows as well. However, this wasn’t Manet’s first brush with controversy. In 1862, his painting The Luncheon on the Grass, which depicts two female nudes having lunch with two fully dressed men in a county setting, caused an uproar and was rejected by the Salon. Today, both paintings hang in the Musee d’Orsay, in Paris.
6 Hokusai: The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, 1814
“Shunga” is a Japanese erotic art genre. Hokusai’s masterpiece, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, is one of the most salacious images in the history of the genre. The classic woodblock print shows a large, pink octopus performing cunnilingus on a woman who’s gone pearl diving. The woman’s head is thrown back in ecstasy, and a second, smaller octopus is kissing her mouth.
5 Robert Mapplethorpe: Jim Sausalito, 1977
American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was no stranger to controversy. His highly stylized black and white photography included everything from celebrity portraits to still life, but it was the homoeroticism of his male nudes that sparked a national debate over the public funding of controversial art. In the 1960s and 70s, Mapplethorpe photographed the underground bondage and S&M scene in New York. The starkly beautiful photos go beyond pornographic titillation or reportage; there's an erotic charge, but Mapplethorpe is less concerned with drawing a line between erotic art and pornography and more concerned with creating ominous and forbidding worlds of shared fantasy. According to The Guardian, “Mapplethorpe’s dark, decadent images recall the great masters and sear themselves into you brain.”
4 Egon Schiele: Woman With Black Stockings, 1913
Egon Schiele, Austria’s most famous artist provocateur, left behind a treasure trove of erotic art. Influenced by Klimt and Mahler, Schiele led the second generation of Viennese modernists, and his eroticized, animalistic representation of the human body resulted in some of the most liberating artworks of the 20th century. There’s a dirty-minded frankness to Schiele’s nudes and semi-nudes, and looking at his works, viewers have the uneasy feeling they’re discovering secrets and trespassing on private lives.
Combining high art and sexuality, Egon Schiele viewed the erotic as a heroic subject. In 1912, the artist was accused of the abduction and sexual abuse of a minor; the charge was dropped, but Schiele’s reputation as being morally depraved stuck. “I’m going to be unforgettable,” said a young Schiele, and indeed his drawings and paintings of women, with their twisted limbs and provocative poses, remain vital and unforgettable today.
3 Meret Oppenheim: Object, 1936
Meret Oppenheim’s “furry cup,” a surrealistic celebration of cunnilingus, is probably the most famous erotic artwork of the 20th century. Supposedly, the creation of the object was inspired by a conversation between Oppenheim and Picasso in a Parisian cafe. Picasso complimented Oppenheim’s fur-covered bracelet, a conversation took place about how “anything” could be covered with fur, including the café’s cup and saucer. When Andre Brenton held a Surrealist exhibition devoted to objects, Oppenheim bought a teacup, saucer, and spoon –items traditionally associated with feminine decorum –covered them with the fur of a Chinese gazelle and turned them into a sexual pun, creating one of the most recognizable pieces of erotic art.
2 Balthus: The Guitar Player, 1934
At its debut in 1934, The Guitar Player was show for 15 days, covered, in the back room of a gallery. In 1977, the painting appeared for a month at Pierre Matisse’s 57th Street gallery, and disappeared again. The Guitar Player wasn’t even shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2013 show: Balthus: Cats and Girls. Paintings of young girls have a tendency to shock and scandalize, therefore a work of art portraying an older woman erotically positioning a young girl like a guitar is the type of painting banished for eternity to Pandora’s box. Is it a surrealist work, a practical joke, or a commentary on puberty and adolescence? Who knows? Balthus rejected art world conventions and believed his paintings should be seen and not read about. Nevertheless, The Guitar Player is one of the few paintings by a major artist that’s still considered taboo.
1 Gustave Courbet: L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World), 1866
Gustave Courbet’s 1866 close-up of a woman’s genitals caused a scandal as recent as 2011. In February 2011, Facebook took down the painting after a Copenhagen artist posted it. In a show of solidarity against censorship, other Facebook users changed their profile pictures to The Origin of the World, and Courbet’s painting was once again the center of media attention. Courbet rejected academic painting, particularly smooth and idealized nudes. Not only is the addition of the model’s pubic hair shocking, but in framing the body with its head, arms, and lower legs outside of the frame, Courbet emphasized the woman’s sex with pornographic clarity.
The 2011 Facebook incident isn't the only time in recent history that Courbet’s painting caused a controversy. In 1994, Jacques Henric used a reproduction of the painting for the cover of his novel, Perpetual Adorations. The French police stormed several bookstores and had the owners remove the book from their windows. The same thing happened in Braga, Portugal in 2009, when Catherine Breillat attempted to use a reproduction of the painting for her book, Pornocratie.
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