Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The nude in art : A brief history of erotica

Erotica is the preferred term used by those who praise sexual manifestations in art. Pornography is a term used by those perpetually disgusted by all things carnal. In the arts of pictorial representation eroticism has a long association with human beings and takes precedence over the ancient genres of the Sacred and the Political. Only subsequent to the advent of photography has pornography become a social issue with many in society regarding obscene imagery as the source of moral and criminal decay. The author attempts to review the history of the nude in art and photography in an attempt to identify the convention we now recognise as pornography. The purpose of the exercise was to try to delineate between these terms, which have become synonymous in recent writings in order to identify a criteria, which defines pornographic imagery. The essay relates to images only. The baseline assumption, which underpins this informed inquiry, was human beings have used the human body to gauge the universe. For the purpose of brevity the author has restricted comparison between erotica and soft porn. For the benefits of the reader soft porn was defined as pin-up-style pictures of semi-naked or naked women and men, close up pictures of female genitalia, oral and genital sex up to including ejaculation (Thompson, 1994, p.2). Depiction of minority sexual practices, such as sodomy, bestiality or paedophilia are termed hard-core porn and does not form part of this discussion.

Robson (1995) claimed the term nude become synonymous with female nude because over time the latter has been most common. This may be because most artists were men. Agreed by experts the consistent theme running through the nude in art of all ages is sexuality and for centuries the nude was an inspiration of artistic creativity in Western art. The human body provided the visual embodiment of ideas and views about the most basic human concern, love, whether earthly or sacred.

Classic Period

The nude to the Ancient Greece depicted deity whereas real people were clothed. Nude figures in both Greek and Roman period were mainly male and embodied human idealism celebrating the strength and beauty of muscularity.

Early Christian Art (1st — 3rd Century AD)

In the book of Genesis, it stated God created man in His own image and likeness. The Judo-Christian belief the Devine was the source of perfection meant images of humans, made in the image of their maker, were idealised. Early examples depicted acts of innocent procreation of the faithful. By the fourth century, a fig leaf mentality prevailed which meant the naked body represented temptation and sin. Many of the early Christian paintings were destroyed or covered up with only a few early erotic images surviving.

The Renaissance (14th - 16th Century AD)

The classic ideals of the perfect body were rediscovered during the Renaissance. Artists like Vasaclus developed a new movement where the characteristics of the classic were combined with the Christian ideal to present the natural beauty, with guiltlessness and innocence. Botocelli was another artist in the same movement but was also aware of the sinful qualities of the nude and frequently played with perspective to incorporate phallic symbolism into his religious works. Djoto di’ Bondone began to paint nudes imbibed with human characteristics including expressions of emotion and sexuality. When Michelangelo created David he not only reintroduced the male nude but incorporated the classic with ordered proportion. No longer idealised the figure looked outward, challenging the viewer. In his religious paintings Michelangelo began to his own sexuality within the compositions. What Michelangelo did for the male nude Titian did for the female, with Venus of Albino (1538). The subject was inspiration for many painters capturing the reclining nude, eyes engaging the viewer as if they were voyeurs. Her hands covering her genitals in both innocent and suggestive way, with the recline and surrounding furniture as if something has just happened or likely to happen. In short, woman as a Goddess and sexual being. Only when the church allowed dissection did artists like, Leonardo d’ Vinci begin to represent true anatomical nakedness. This coincided with a greater acceptance among artisans that humans were not necessarily sinful and man not God become the image to be depicted in all its glory. During this time economic and the aesthetic were paired in grandiose style.

Baroque to Enlightenment

Baroque to Enlightenment After the Reformation, the Catholic Church supported a new art movement called Baroque which celebrated absolutism and the supremacy of the monarchy. Painters like Reuben’s were commissioned to paint the monarchy ascending to heaven heavily decorated with nude figures. Artists following the Enlightenment movement challenged this and featured the individual, the citizen, as the central feature of art. They politicized the nude, which became a figure of equality before God. Now based on scientific dissection, nudes came to represent vulnerability of the human condition.

Early in the nineteenth century a new movement called Neo Classicism, reworked the classical nude into forms of grandising (larger than life). Artists painted nudes, which were in the neoclassic style but deeply sensual (from a men’s perspective). Until the late 19th century women were not allowed to draw nude figures.

Impressionism to Realism

Nude studies declined in popularity in the 18th century as depiction of everyday subjects became the vogue. A century later the Impressionists resurrected the nude but it was the next movement, called Realism, which portrayed the nude, au natural. Rodan became the champion of the 19th century controversial movement. No coincidence perhaps this school of art mirrored the Victorian’s preoccupation with the new phenomenon called photography. Art had moved from Venus rising from the waves to Nini rising from her bed. Artists took shocking subjects and made them as beautiful as possible. A constant symbolism was women as essentially diabolic and their tempting charms a gift of the devil. The body of the artist’s model was frequently depicted as tempting Jezebels or "gorgeous exotic flowers with a deadly tarantula lurking at its heart”. Until now nudes had been the prerogative of the aristocracy but developing technologies meant these were freely available to the masses. Celebration of the sexual human body was more apparent at this time, which coincided with the new science of sexology. Perhaps this movement may have been related to existentialism, a philosophy, God was dead. In any event fractionalisation of the human body (fetishism) was apparent. Realist, bohemian and radical, Gustave Courbet took the nude to gynaecological heights when he painted L’ Origine du monde (1866).

The Modern and Post Modern Nude

The Modern movement started with Manet’s Olympia (1863). The reclining nude in classical pose now engaged her viewers both confidently and shamelessly. To good and sometimes controversial effect, Manet incorporated many qualities of the new photographic genre, including Tableaux Vivants (living pictures). The modern nude came to represent issues of contemporary society such as prostitution. After the First World War (1914-18) major changes arose in the nude. During the 20s grotesque females, many prostitutes, featured prominently in nude art works (Bohm-Duchen, 1992). How much this was influenced by the photographic images of the Great War atrocities is not clear but painters, such as Otto Dix and George Grosz, depicted deformed bodies with a potent mix of relish and disgust. This was also mirrored with high society’s preoccupation with S & M. and "dirty pictures". Although the nude continued to be a theme of post modern art, new print technologies diversified the market and appeal for the nude.

Cubism,Fauvism and Pop Art

The impact of photographic techniques continued to influence the styles of nude painting and Picasso and Matisse used multi perspectives in their nude studies. This led to Cubism, and Fauvism respectively. The godless view of existential Europe, torn by the Holocaust may explain why nudes post World War II became more abstract with the observer left to interact by completing the image.

In the print mode fantasy became a popular genre incorporating sado-masochism, staged to promote viewer reaction. Whether this popular phenomenon was in the spirit of zeitgeist, a cognitive reaction to the stresses caused by global conflict remains unknown.

From the 50s onwards the male nude became more apparent within the genre and women painters added considerably to female nude studies.

By the 60s the influence of mass media became an inspiration for a new movement called Pop Art. Tom Wesselman and Alan Jones both depicted stereotype women existing solely for the sexual gratification of men. The same direction was also obvious in the growing market for soft porn.


Art has been defined as representation of symbolic behaviour, with no obvious utilitarian purpose and cannot be understood without reference to the cultural context within which it takes place. Pictorial images require a structured convention, which provide the means to discriminate between pornography and erotica. According to Bishop & Osthelder (2001) human coital positions have been depicted for thousands of years with the earliest dating between 3200BC and 300 BC. Cave drawings in France (circa 4000BC) clearly show a crouching woman with a man approaching her from behind. In these wall depictions men are clearly shown with their penis visible. The cultures of India, China and Japan featured erotic images as part of their art. Chinese figures depicting erotic positions date from 1st -3rd centuries. Later Chinese brides in The Han Dynasty had their dowries paid in Spring Coins. These had pressed on one-side words of good omen and on the other, copulating deity. Erotic sculptures were found in Hindu temples, (circa. 9th and 13th centuries AD in the North; and 6th to 16th centuries AD in the South). African and South American cultures of antiquity also have examples of erotica with clear evidence found in both Greek and Roman artefacts. The celebration of human union by this means arose not in the full knowledge of sex for procreation, but instead as human pleasure to be enjoyed for its own sake.

The Medium: Chromolithography prints

Until the nineteenth century the medium of paint was unsurpassed. Without limit in colour and style even the most sensuous qualities of the human body had been portrayed in any hue or shadow. Rich patrons commissioned erotic paintings and many well-known painters’ works were held in private collections. New printing technology meant crude depiction from woodcuts was dramatically improved with the invention of metal plate engraving. Lithography, then chalcography became very popular because the new medium supported dozens of bright colours providing unseen ornate designs. Chromolithography followed and overprinting with silver and gold inks widened the range of colour and design. These were expensive and erotic prints retained the patronage of the wealthy but as production costs dropped chromolithography prints became more affordable. By the 1880s, the process was widely used for magazines and advertising. A contemporary development however involved photographic processes, which would eventually become the most compelling medium of the modern age.

The Medium; Photography

From the beginning of the 20th century, the production of nude photographs became a veritable industry and was matched by erotic literature. Nude photography developed early with Frenchman, Lerebours considered the first in 1840. Techniques of the time meant live subjects needed to be able to hold a pose for up to ten minutes. Hence professional models were used for pragmatic reasons as well as aesthetic. Many of these conventions still remain in today’s pornography images, albeit developments in cinematography and now digital enhancement, allow greater latitude. The introduction of photography metamorphosed nude studies with greater emphasis on fantasy. This was encouraged by inventions such as the Verascope, which allowed people to view and take two photographs, simultaneously. Catalogues of stereoscopic images were common and the stereoscopic nude broke new barriers. Improved camera equipment was less constraining on the photographer and they moved out of the confines of their studio to more exotic settings.

At a time when the body became a cult among the west, the illusion of reality, i.e. Tableaux Vivants (living pictures) satisfied the demands of the increasingly fashionable trend for voyeurism and fantasy. Nudes started to appear on postcards from 1896 onwards. Sexploitation of children took place and according to Thompson (1994, p.27) as many as 30% of pornographic catalogues contained "green fruit" i.e. pre pubescent children. Presence of sexually transmitted diseases meant virgins were not likely to carry infection and hence the attraction to younger children. This by itself would not confirm existence of paedophilia, as we understand it today.


According to Bishop & Osthelder (2001, p. 330) the word pornography entered the English language during the nineteenth century. It was made up from the Greek porne, meaning street prostitute; and graphos writing. The word was used to describe the salacious literature and postcards, which were avidly consumed by a growing Victorian middle class. Subsequently the term came to mean many things but mostly pictures and printed material, which were sexually explicit and referred to, or visually, depicted male and female (genital) anatomy cited Itzin (1992) referring to Dworking & MacKinnon (1988). All sexual behaviour implied took place out with the social context of love and marriage. For some, anything, which caused anxiety by stirring sex, was considered pornographic (Faust 1980, p.10). Pornography became a metaphor for genital sexuality, whether the actual sexual acts were depicted, simulated or displaced. In the ensuing years interpretation of an aesthetic genre that presents a variety of sexual material by emphasising content at the expense of all other considerations, has been the cause of many legal debates, which required specific interpretations not always clear to the lay public. Whilst Check (1992, p.350) described sexually explicit material into three groups. These were sexually violent pornography; non-violent dehumanizing pornography; and erotica. The absence of precise definitions has meant the community remains divided on sexual values and attitudes; this has not stopped speculative extrapolation on the functions and effects of pornography. In the UK it took until the PObscene Publications Act 1959 (UK) for Parliamentarians to finally established the existence of "pornography" which was obscene, and "art" which was not. Pornography had no artistic merit; art on the other hand, as a collective, was in the public good. Needless to say a major stumbling block arose in UK legislation when nude pictures were sold as art studies. The Act did not clearly say and juries became very confused. Despite Amendments in 1964, no clear mandate was established. (Thompson 1994, p.21-22).

Pornography was divided between soft core, i.e. legal, girlie magazines where the penis remained limp and nothing entered an orifice; and hardcore, illegal material which depicted sexual arousal with lewd and lascivious display of the genitals. Hard core pornography frequently depicted sadistic forms of rape (Bergen, 1996; Finkelhor & Yllo, 1985). Anti pornographic debates were dominated by two main viewpoints. Moral conservatives, who found sex distasteful and civil libertarians who were unwilling to accept some forms of pornography may cause psychological damage and give rise to wider social problems, (Flood & Hamilton, 2003).

Pornography :The Feminist Argument

According to Curtis (1997) the feminist community remained divided on the matter. Libertarian feminists distinguish erotica as themes of healthy consensual sexuality, and pornography as material that combines the "graphic sexually explicit" with depictions which "actively subordinating, treating unequally, as less than human, on the basis of sex. Protectionist feminists, such as Andrea Working, do not to make such a distinction and view virtually all sexually orientated material as exploitative and pornographic. Working, argued unopposed pornography was an incitement to institutional violence against women. Under this circumstance "pornography was the theory, (and) rape the practice."

Pornography :Gay Debate

Vehement opposition to the anti-pornography ordinance has more recently come from the gay community. This is because standard gay literature, in the wake of sexual repression in the media, now contravenes censorship laws originally supported to curtail pornography.

Pornography :The Moral Crusaders

Christians considered ‘original sin’, or sex out of marriage, was an affront to the family forms the basis for the crusade against pornography. This combined with the "sin of sight" or scopophilia (aka voyeurism) meant seeing sinful activities carried the same condemnation as participating in them.

"anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart." (Matthew 5: 27-28)

All Christians, no matter how devout, have a duty to alert the faithless to the dangers of their lifestyles. (The Book of Ezekiel). The Ezekiel Factor links private morality and the collective public good where salvation cannot be a private concern and needs to be a public collective. This, according to Thompson (1994) appears to be the reason why crusades have lasted so long despite situational factors or justification. In his assessment the author believes 20th century campaigns revolved around sophisticated theologies about God’s design for sex. (Thompson, 1994, p 31). These applied theories were often tautological in nature with no actual independent corroboration to support them. Thompson hypothesised Christians believed human sexuality was made by God and was good only when used according to God’s design.

"Increase and multiply and fill the earth".

Provided sex was used within the context of marriage it was something sacred. By emphasising the physical pleasure of sex, pornography, like all other instrumental desires which do not conform to God’s design, promoted lust.

Pornographic material degraded and dehumanised the state of grace of the human figure made in the image of God. By this logic all non-marital sex was a crime against God and therefore pornography promoted ‘sex crimes.’ In Christian ethos sex crimes became a metaphor for immorality; sexploitation a metaphor for lust; and avoiding offending femininity, a metaphor for spirituality. (Thompson, 1994, p. 33). Faced with the prospect of decriminalisation of pornography in the late fifties, campaigners promoted the mistaken idea perverts were turning their attentions to child pornography. Despite their being no independent evidence to support these claims (Thompson, 1994, p. 26), the call gained credibility.

The idea soft core led on to hard core with more sexual deviations being committed as a result was promulgated, again with no independent justification other than fertile imagination. The chain of these events in the minds of moral campaigners led to more violence, murder and child pornography. (Thompson 1994, p, 30).

Christian groups were arguably attempting to apply Biblical standards to contemporary society, while individually they were merely promoting values and beliefs that had been taught to them.

Pornography :The Communist Manifesto

Lenin was against "free love" and considered it the decadent behaviour of the petty bourgeois or anarchistic. Stalinism and Maoism aimed at liquidation social and cultural diversity and banned pornography in Russia and China respectively.

The convention of pornography

According to Faust (1980, p.19) the authenticity of the sex on view is guaranteed by pornographic conventions. Although these vary from one medium to another, many were governed by early photographic techniques. It is these very criteria, which render it, artless and banal. Pornographic sex is usually unreal but not unrealisable. Since early stag films, pornography has concentrated on intrusive angles and close up shots, revealing more of the genitals than the participants themselves would be able to see. The protagonists have neither personalities, nor private history, and serve only as smooth functioning sexual bodies. Pornographic episodes are usually anonymous with the aim to record rather than understand or interpret human relationships. Events take place in a staged environment convenient and appropriate to the action. There is always a suspension of reality similar to Hollywood movies. Characters play out stereotypical roles, where both female and male are willing partners in lustful endeavours. These conventions are similar in both heterosexual and homosexual pornography. The erect penis is rarely shown in full penetration. To give a degree of realism ejaculation is usually shown over a person (e.g. the money or cum shot).

In both flagellation and bondage pornography material fetishes and fetishist activity overshadow the genitals and genital activity. Stimulated sex organs are absent and concentration is given instead to the accessories such as gags, harnesses, chains and exaggerated contortions of the limbs. Women appear victims or initiator of bondage with breasts and buttocks often emphasised.


The first recorded attempt to outlaw publications about sex was in 1580, when the UK Obscenity Bill sought to outlaw licentious 'posies, books, pamphlets, ditties, songs, and other works'. Later during the Reformation publications were controlled by the Stationer’s Company, which licensed printing presses. During the 18th century most licentious literature was non-English, expensive and restricted to high society. Between 1728 and 1757 there was a clamp down on sexual books and Societies for the Reformation of Manners mainly by outraged Christian groups. The devout took exception to contemporary medical opinion of the day, which promoted healthy sexual exercise, and in at least one reported case where a physician advocated the use of lascivious prints to arouse the passions. Toward the end of the eighteenth century several new forms of sex literature appeared and William Wilberforce formed the Proclamation Society with the aim to suppress all loose and licentious prints, books, and publications, dispersing poison to the minds of the young and unwary, and to punish the publishers and vendors. Later this became the Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1789.

By 1802 it was known as the Vice Society and was very active in its moral crusade against printers, distributors, writers and artists behind the cheep broadsheets, ballads, literature and prints. These were more readily available because of new technologies and falling prices. The Vice Society was convinced erotica incited and encouraged indecent practice but the courts did not always agree. Towards the end of the nineteenth century influential Christian groups convinced themselves sexual impurity rather than greed was the major sin of the age. Systematically moral crusades were orchestrated against obscenity and took on national and international political dimension. Coincidently this came at a time when being excessively successful in business became part of the Christian ethic. Photography and printing technologies were improving and also corresponded to the height of xenophobia as witnessed by the influx of sexually explicit books from overseas.

The Victorians idea of censorship arose from the habit of housing excavated erotica in sealed rooms. These were available for inspection men of high moral fibre. As Bishop & Osthelder (2001, p.330) noted, this equated to gentlemen of wealth, education and influence who were considered incorruptible. The weak and fragile i.e. the working classes, were in danger of being depraved by scenes or descriptions of sexual content. The erotic was something the culture would savour whereas pornography was something the vulgar would abuse. There is no legislation against pornography; instead there is legislation against obscenity and indecency (Itzin, 1992, p. 402).

The 1824 Vagrancy Act outlawed obscene displays and bookshop selling obscene materials. The 1857 Obscene Publications Bill eventually codified a definition of obscenity in law.

"something offensive to modesty or decency or expressing or suggesting unchaste or lustful ideas or being impure, indecent or lewd."

Despite assurances the law would only apply "exclusively to works written for the single purpose of corruption of youth, and of 'a nature calculated to shock the common feelings of decency in a well regulated mind.' The Vice Society used it to prosecute anything they did not like. (Thompson 1994, p.14). Further they promulgated the myth licentious literature encouraged aristocrats to seduce working class women, who were then forced into prostitution. According to Thompson (1994, p.15) the seduction myth reflected a bizarre theological marriage between the Protestant evangelical’s fear of sexual arousal and the Anglo Catholics’ sensibilities regarding Madonna, which turned Eve from the Genesis temptress into a helpless victim of debauched male lust. The activities of the Vice Society had without doubt detrimental effects upon the public's perceptions of women's sexuality. One major downside to the Acts of 1824 and 1857 was the lack of birth control and sex education. Thompson argued instead of the saving souls, the prohibition of pornography had added further challenges to woman of the time.

The combined activities of the crusaders left the legacy called 'Victorianism', the facade of moral consensus behind which many people hid their real proclivities and habits, but which many felt compelled to adopt for fear of public shame. Despite the label this phase in British history existed only between 1920 and the mid 1950s. This represents the time where previous moral crusading had had the desired effect and skewed attitudes to sex, obscenity and morality became the norm. This also corresponded to the time where the state took over responsibility for obscenity prosecutions (Thompson 1994, p17). Sex was harnessed for the benefit of race and nation rather than pleasure, and the masses would have to do what the law permitted. Women, teenagers, and members of the working classes were not supposed to think about sex as leisure. Absence of sex education meant women were stigmatised and single mothers cruelly punished. Immoral women who dared to enjoy sex, even within the confines of marriage, were branded nymphomaniacs (a designated mental disease) (Thompson, 1994 p 20). Prostitution was criminalized in many countries.

Effects of pornography

Concerns, minors may be shocked and disturbed at the site of depictions of sexual behaviour are overtaken with the collective fear children may become more accepting of non-mainstream sexual behaviour by being exposed to pornography. There was little direct research evidence to support the effects of exposure to pornography on children’s attitudes, values and behaviours (Flood & Hamilton, 2003). This is in part due to the ethical difficulties associated with research on exposure to explicit sexual material among individuals below adult age. However research methods and results in any age group differ so much that it is impossible to say with confidence the effects of pornography (Thompson 1994, p. 116). Poorly presented studies have often led to misrepresentation of findings and improper extrapolation, evidenced in support many anti-porn debates. (Thompson 1994, p. 121). In vitro and in vivo problems exist and friendly journals ignore honest reporting in preference to biased interpretation. Repetition of research methodologies are rare and when available reveal contradictory data. Small samples often hinder objectivity and there are more reviews of previous reported works than actual new research into related topics. The US States Commission on Obscenity and Pornography reported in by Thompson (1994) concluded that explicit materials did not contribute to crime or delinquency. It claimed the effects were trivial and transitory: people who viewed pornography were more willing to discuss sex, couples had intercourse more often, and although individuals masturbated more, tough minded attitudes to women were softened. Most of these effects wore off quickly. In the author’s review of the effects of exposure to pornography he reported studies comparing heavy viewers and desensitisation to violence remained ambiguous. Exposure to soft porn did not cause abnormal behaviour but instead was shown to decrease aggression. There was no evidence to support sex offenders universally utilize soft porn in preparation and commission of their crimes. Co-relational studies did not demonstrate a relationship between soft core pornography consumption and rape rates. Rate myths were seldom, if ever associated with soft porn. Thompson was of the opinion from the available research that it was unlikely soft or hard porn triggered violent crimes. (Thompson, 1994 p. 151)

From the literature reviewed, it appears there has been a long fascination with the nude. From early cave drawings to today's computer enhanced graphics the body beautiful remains supreme. Throughout the history of Western Art, the nude has been used to represent all that is glorious as well as those traits that make humans vulnerable, spiritually as well as physically. Until the nineteenth century, paint was unsurpassed as a medium to depict the sensuous qualities of the human body. All that changed with the invention of photography and availability with cheap printing. The nude, no longer the prerogative of those in society who could commission works, became the focus for moral crusades as the introduction of pornography was viewed as criminal decay. Censorship has been around for centuries and suppression of libertine ideas was not restricted to print materials. Through obscenity laws came working definitions of pornography but these has proven as complex as to require legal interpretation. Subsequent campaigns to alienate pornographic material by aligning it to lewd and depraved behaviour have little foundation among the scientific community. In summary pornography, as we understand it today, represents the practice of sex discrimination, which sexualizes the subordination of women and which erotices dominance and submission of women. Erotica, on the other hand, has been defined as sexually explicit materials premised on equality. Many of the conventions, which help define pornographic images, such as: participants have no personality; there is no previous social history to the scene; the figures present as smooth functioning bodies; no attempt is made to interpret human relationships; episodes take place in an artificial environment; characters play stereotypical roles; and women appear victims or imitators of sexual behave, can also be found in everyday works of art. This begs the question whilst it would be uncivilised to censor artistic expression, if these images devalue fellow human beings, then how morally defensible has the nude become in today's society.

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