Warning: this blog contains images of full-frontal female and male nudity; if you are likely to be offended by those images, please do not read on.
On a recent TV programme on BBC4, Andrew Graham-Dixon mentioned (just in passing) that, in the nineteenth century, it was illegal for a woman to pose in the nude for a male artist. Really? Didn’t anyone tell Ingres?
Graham-Dixon was showing TV viewers nude paintings of ordinary Danish women. He said they would have created a scandal if they had been shown in public. So it was OK to put nude figures into classical poses, but not into modern-day, realistic ones?
Ingres’ Odalisque or Botticelli’s Birth of Venus was art but a Danish working woman was not?
That raises quite a poser — what is the distinction between art and not-art? If a seduction scene or a nude is not art, does that make it porn? And does the passing of centuries change things?
I’ve just come back from a study trip to italy, to Pompeii, Herculaneum and other ancient sites. Pompeii is full of art, and even at a distance of nearly 2000 years, some of it is amazing. There are certainly lots of wall paintings, like this delightful Cupid riding a crab.
The picture below shows the symposium, on one side of the famous Tomb of the Diver, found at Paestum, near Naples, and dating from 470BC. It’s generally accepted that the depiction of the symposium is art.
But if you look closely you’ll see that the two men on the right are doing exactly what you think they’re doing.The two on the left with the wine cups, by contrast, are playing a game called kottabos where the one who’s finished his wine throws the last drops and the other one is supposed to catch them in his cup. Boys will be boys? Especially at a symposium…
When Pompeii’s art was created, it was of its day (ie modern) and often realistic, though it’s possible that, even in the 1st century AD, some viewers might have called it graphic and arousing. They wouldn’t have called it porn though; that’s a relatively modern concept. To the Romans, explicit sexuality seems to have been part of day-to-day life.
This is the glorious wall painting of Venus in the garden of the House of Venus in the Shell. A stunning background for a cool glass of wine in the garden of an evening, don’t you think? And unlike Botticelli’s Venus, this one is totally nude. Does that make it porn rather than art?
And she’s definitely art, isn’t she, rather than porn?
But female statues, back then, were generally clothed, like this one (right) of Athena (Minerva), a 1st century replica of a 5th century BC Greek original, also in the Naples Museum.
Venus/Aphrodite seems to have drawn the short straw, as far as clothing was concerned. In so many depictions, she’s either nude or semi-nude. Can’t imagine why, can you?
Secret Collection of Erotica in Naples Museum
This is the gate to the famous Gabinetto Segretto in Naples Museum which contains the collection of erotica and objects from Pompeii and elsewhere. The picture has been cropped to exclude the two giant carved phalluses that are sitting on a table just inside the door. Difficult to term them art, perhaps, though some might disagree.
Until recently, it wasn’t possible to get into the secret collection without an appointment.
Go back a little further and women weren’t allowed in at all!
Apparently — shades of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial — that was to protect us poor females from sights that might send our weak brains distracted.
Judging by the reactions of the females I saw in there during my visit, the distraction takes the form of hysterical laughter. I have never seen so many impossible sexual positions in one collection. When coupled — sorry 😉 — with so many depictions of giant phalluses, what else was a female supposed to do but laugh?
To be fair, the phallus was a good luck symbol for the Romans, which is why it figured in things like door chimes (pictured) and wall reliefs.
The seduction (below) was one of the more restrained depictions in the Gabinetto Segretto. Ditto the Three Graces.
Venus in the sea shell is part of the erotica collection, too. Not clear why she was included. She doesn’t seem more erotic than the wall painting from the garden. But, as usual, she’s lost out on the clothing stakes…
The Pompeii Poser…
For us, viewing the depictions nearly two thousand years on, it’s all just art, isn’t it?
Well, have a look at the ultimate Pompeii Poser, possibly the most famous wall painting in Pompeii, and decide for yourself whether it’s art or whether it’s porn…
Priapus, the god of fertility,
weighs his penis against a bag of coins over a basket overflowing with fruit.
Wall painting at the entrance to the House of the Vettii.
Considered by Romans to be a symbol of good luck and fertility
But if you’d prefer something less explicit, try the cave canem floor mosaic below, which is probably the second most famous image from Pompeii…