This week’s edition of Provoke! section brings something a bit different. Erotica in art has been explored in the variety of our articles focusing mostly on contemporary art, photography, and painting. But we often forget that erotic art and interest in human sexual behavior have been with us from the dawn of humanity. To the delight of three-dimensional art lovers this week we are digging through the art history to find some of the best sculptural works that deal with the theme of eroticism and sexuality. From the Roman ancestors who were obsessed with eroticism as an inseparable part of the hedonist lifestyle, to Indian Kama Sutra art of love-making depicted in various sculptural forms, to some modern examples that continue the millennia-long interest in human sexuality and bodily beauty.
This sculpture is one of Naples’s most prized artworks, and when it traveled to the UK a couple of years ago for the Pompeii Exhibition at the British museum the museum representatives had to include parental guidance notice. The statue depicts Pan, Greek god of the wild having sex with a nanny goat. The Pan himself is half-man, half-goat creature and in the Greek and Roman mythology, he is one of the nature deities famous for his sexual powers and a symbol of procreation. With phallic sculptures being a commonplace in the house of Romans who believed in their power to bring luck, Pan copulating with a goat statue was never questioned as perverse or shocking, as it was part of the religious beliefs. Should it be shocking now?
Apart from their monumental architectural style Khajuraho Group of Monuments in Madhya Pradesh, India are also world-famous for their erotic sculptures that decorate the interior and exterior walls of the temples. There are disputes among scholars whether these visualizations of various sexual behaviors stand for tantric sexual practices or are they representations of Kama as an essential part of the cultural tradition. Further on, it is not certain whether these sculptures represent gods or humans, mythical or everyday scenes. Whatever they stand for, these sculptures bring the orgy-like scenes and various sexual positions, celebrating erotic freedom as a necessary part of human life.
Compared to the explicit scenes of lovemaking in our first two examples, our third sculpture brings a more suggestive approach to the erotic bliss. Made by one of the masters of sculpture from the Baroque era, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the marble sculpture depicts one scene from the life of Teresa of Avila. The moment captured by Bernini is St. Teresa’s ecstatic experience of the divine, an intense moment of the religious ecstasy. Although it was done in the Counter-Reformation style, with the aim to convey spiritual aspects of the Catholic faith it is not certain whether Theresa’s experience of the divine is only spiritual or the scene bears sexual connotations and the ecstasy of St. Theresa is actually a physical orgasm. The art professionals are still arguing about the message of this work and since there is no definitive answer we’ll let you decide if this is an erotic sculpture or not.
One of the all-time favorite sculptors, Auguste Rodin, famous for his piece The Thinker, did a number of erotic sculptures during his career. Perhaps the most recognizable ones which deal with the themes of sensuality and eroticism are his sculptures The Kiss and The Eternal Idol. Carved in marble in the last year of the nineteenth century the sculpture The Kiss brings to life the scene from Dante’s Inferno and the story about two lovers who were punished for their lust and adultery. The sexual tension of the piece is intensified by Rodin’s choice to leave the gap between the lovers’ lips like they are interrupted in their act. This is probably the best known erotic sculpture done by Rodin, but you can look for the others as well.
Invented for practical purposes in Japan, the small netsuke figurines quickly became the valuable art possessions. Since the traditional Japanese garments had no pockets, netsuke were used to secure cords of the pouches that contained personal belongings. Netsuke craftsmanship became popular in the 17th century and these objects are still produced in Japan representing a valuable part of the cultural heritage. Usually carved from ivory or hardwood, these figurines come in different shapes and sizes and you would be surprised to hear that even some explicitly erotic scenes were represented on them. Or it isn’t that surprising since these figurines used to describe every aspect of the culture and erotica is an integral part of it.
Not just one sculpture, but a whole array of sexually themed pieces can be found in South Korea’s park on Jeju Island. Opened in 2004 Jeju sculpture park, also known as Loveland, is focused on the exploration of sex and it encompasses 140 public pieces depictions of humans in various sexual positions, giant phalluses and other interesting and interactive genitalia-shaped statues. Oh yes, it also has the educational purpose with regular workshops, sex education films, and rotating exhibitions. What more can you ask for?
To see how far has sculptural erotica evolved during the centuries we should look at some contemporary art examples. An interesting one is the work of the French sculptor Dominique Regnier. Regnier’s erotic sculptures of women bodies are meticulous and realistic representations of female figures done in a variety of materials from bronze and marble to wood and bone. Admiration for the curves and crevasses is often of the artist’s primary interest and his shaping of the figures is admirable. However, the lack of faces and heads on his sculptures is the main reason why his works are sometimes seen as objectification of women. Are they truly, that’s a question to be answered.
Another female artist on the list is the Chinese sculptor Zhang Yaxi. One of the greatest fascinations for this young sculptor is a female figure, and she constantly explores new ways of reinterpreting her favorite subject. The nude figures of Zhang Yaxi epitomize female sexuality and emotional aspects of female desire. The works of Yaxi are at the same time sensual and provocative, a true celebration of bodily beauty carved in marble and bronze. The works of Zhang Yaxi have been exhibited worldwide and she also has some monumental public pieces behind her.
After our little walk through the art history and after we have revisited some of the best works of the sculptural masters it is time for a little treat, if we can call it a treat at all. I do not know about you, but the sculptures of the American artist Jason Briggs are one of the weirdest things I saw recently, if not ever. Bizarre, disquieting and quite intriguing the ceramic sculptures of Jason Briggs will not leave anyone indifferent. With strong visual references and focus on the tactile aspects of his works, Briggs challenges the viewer’s perception of eroticism. As the artist states, his aim is not to suggest nature, but to create it and perhaps this is why his sculptures strike us as a quite peculiar phenomena.