While the term ‘erotic art’ often conjures up images of European depictions of nude art, sexuality took hold in Europe much later than other parts of the world. From Rome to India to Japan to the Americas, erotic art existed hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. Sexuality is part of the human experience since our inception as a species.
Many past civilisations celebrated sexuality in a way that would seem extreme today, and erotic art would sometimes be used to promote fertility, teach sexuality, or even to mark graves. These include the frescoes at Pompeii which featured sex acts, erotic sculptures on temples in India, as well as explicit woodblock art called shunga in Japan.
Peru: Feminism through art
The 8th century Moche civilisation in the north coast of Peru were known for their unique ceramic vessels, many of which preserved sexually explicit images that depicted heterosexual fellatio, masturbation, and most commonly, sodomy. Scholars believe the absence of vaginal sex could be indicative of a form of gender equality that cast women as more than just future child-bearers whose value relies on their virginity.
Japan & China: Sex ed in pictures
The Edo art of shunga (“spring pictures” – spring was a euphemism for sex) popularised in the 18th and 19th centuries featured graphic images of sex acts, female sexuality, and homosexuality. Also seen on tableware and furniture, the most widespread art of shunga was produced in printed form by renowned ukiyo-e (woodblock) artists like Katsushika Hokusai and Katsukawa Shuncho. Shunga had functions beyond its aesthetic appeal. It was primarily for viewing and sharing with close friends or sexual partners, and often used to provide sexual education for young couples. It was a common tradition that the bride of a daimyo – a high-standing feudal lord – bought or was gifted shunga art in all forms, to compliment the couple’s wedding furniture.
The Chinese also had their own version of erotic art, which flourished from the late Ming dynasty (14th-17th century) until the early 20th century. The scenes often include snippets of humour, and compared to shunga were less audacious and more refined. Like shunga, erotic art in China also became tools for innocent brides and young couples in need of sex education.
Bhutan: Brash phallus art to repel gossip
In Bhutan, it’s not uncommon to come across large, colourful phalluses painted on the walls of homes. They’re sometimes hairy and sometimes wrapped by a fire-breathing dragon, some with angry eyes and some even ejaculating. They’re painted in honour of Lama Drukpa Kunley, a 15th century saint known as the “Divine Madman” for his unorthodox and sexually-charged ways of teaching – Kunley is said to have subdued a demoness with his “thunderbolt.” Ironically, the Bhutanese believe the phalluses offer protection from evil and dispels malicious gossip.
Pompeii: Art advertising brothels
Ancient Pompeii is well known for its profusion of erotic art which can be seen literally everywhere. Large, erotic frescoes adorn the walls wherever the eye can see, possibly as advertisements for brothels. Meanwhile, paving stones as well as stones in the walls reveal phallic symbols that point the way to the brothels, which unsurprisingly also featured many erotic frescoes and grafitti in their rooms, portraying all manner of sexual adventures. Prostitution was relatively inexpensive and widespread in ancient Rome, and even a low-priced prostitute earned more than three times the wages of an unskilled urban labourer.
India: Going on a spiritual journey
India is home to many temples that are famous for their erotic sculptures, including Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, Virupaksha Temple in Karnataka, and Lingaraj Temple in Orissa. The temples feature mithuna couples participating in Tantric intercourse; some sculptures also depicted acts of bestiality. These carvings are prominent only on the outer walls and not inside the temples, and a popular belief is that it signifies that people leave all sexual desires outside before embarking on a spiritual journey.
Across history, erotic art from around the world represent examples of the centrality of sexuality across all cultures.