Is this the first time sex was depicted in art?

Is this the first time sex was depicted in art?
Is this the first time sex was depicted in art?

In the first of our new series The Art of Feeling, Kelly Grovier explores the history of love in painting and sculpture – from a crude prehistoric valentine to a chiselled canoodle.

It’s complicated. Love, that is. And art too. From the earliest known portrayal of physical affection (a Stone Age statuette of lovers embracing) to the opulent clinch of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (1907-8), the history of art pulses with passion. While cherished for the fervour of feelings they capture, works such as Rembrandt’s sweetly simmering 17th-Century double portrait The Jewish Bride (1665-9) and Auguste Rodin’s chiselled canoodle The Kiss (1901-4) are far more fraught than they first appear.

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Lean in a little and one quickly begins to detect subtle tensions unsettling the surfaces of these masterpieces. Such details, often overlooked, have the power to transform these deceptively simple depictions into something more mysterious, complex, and emotionally conflicted. “I love you as one loves certain obscure things,” Pablo Neruda once wrote, in words that aptly capture the essence of these enigmatic expressions, “secretly, between the shadow and the soul”.

At first glance, the 11,000-year-old clump of carved calcite known as the Ain Sakhri Lovers (named after the cave in the Judean desert near Bethlehem where the artefact was identified in 1933 after its discovery by a Bedouin) is disarmingly touching in its translation of fiery passion into the inert physics of cold stone. Like a crude prehistoric valentine, the 11cm (4.3in)-tall heart-shaped figurine depicts the entwinement of a couple whose bodies meld into one, as if celebrating the self-abnegating nature of love. So entangled are the two physiques, it is impossible to discern even the genders of the figures portrayed, as they crystallise into something elemental – irreducible as ore.

Is this the first time sex was depicted in art? View image of (Credit: British Museum)

Rotate the Ain Sakhri Lovers 90 degrees in either direction, however, and the object’s attitude changes dramatically. When glimpsed from one side or the other, the stone silhouette is suddenly interrupted; eclipsed by a rigid phallus that stands to attention like a helmeted soldier. The shift in focus – from a pair of souls romantically merging into a single substance, to a throbbing totem with one thing on its mind – alters the thrust of the work’s meaning, and sets the tone for ensuing representations of physical affection in the millennia that follow.

Lost in orbit

Fast forward to Medieval India and that friction between the urgencies of flesh and the yearnings of spirit remains undiminished in sculptures of romantically intertwined couples (known as mithunas) that adorn Hindu temples. One such work, created for a 13th-Century temple in Orissa, in northeast India, has long been thought to symbolise the blurring of physical and spiritual desire. The erotic relief portrays a man and woman lost in each other’s loving stare as they close in for a kiss. Complicating any stable interpretation of the work’s meaning, however, is the manner in which the sculpture would have been seen by temple-goers. Walking anticlockwise, as was customary around the temple, worshippers would have had a ceaselessly shifting vantage on the sculpture – a circumambulation that would have served to animate the work’s romantic embrace.

Is this the first time sex was depicted in art? View image of (Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

From certain angles (and particularly when glimpsed from the right-hand side, behind the young woman’s head), the couple would appear to be consummating their kiss. When encountered again from the left-hand side (as worshippers return to the work in their rotation around the temple), the pair would appear prised apart – suspended endlessly in an almost-kiss. Forever readjusting itself in relation to the observers’ orbiting gaze, the stone sculpture would seem paradoxically to proclaim both the fixity and fleetingness of love.

Is this the first time sex was depicted in art? View image of (Credit: Alamy)

The role that our own eyes play in defining the drama and meaning of a work is once again at play in one of the most adored paintings in Western art – The Jewish Bride, Rembrandt’s poignant portrayal of a man and woman frozen in a moment of tenderness. The title by which the work is commonly known was unhelpfully attached to it two centuries after it was painted, and has led to some confusion about the story it actually tells. In all likelihood, Rembrandt’s subject comes from the Book of Genesis and features the Old Testament couple Isaac and Rebecca, who sought asylum in the realm of the Canaanite King Abimelech. Convinced he might be killed by lustful men keen to abduct his beautiful wife, Isaac presented himself as Rebecca’s brother. Rembrandt’s work captures the moment when the two let their charade slip to share an unguarded moment of intimacy.

What punishment, he asks us, does true love deserve?

In previous depictions of the same scene, including ones by Raphael and even a preparatory drawing by Rembrandt himself, the drama is intensified by the presence of Abimelech, who hides in the margins of the work, spying on the couple. By removing from the surface of his painting the intrusive stare of the King, whose prying eyes only we can see, Rembrandt has not diminished the complexity of his work. He has merely transferred that voyeurism to us, the viewer. We become the king and must hold in our sights the fate of the couple who are at once faithful (to each other) and deceitful (to us). By enlisting our eyes in the story he is telling, Rembrandt raises the stakes on seeing. What punishment, he asks us, does true love deserve?

Is this the first time sex was depicted in art? View image of (Credit: Alamy)

An unexpected pantomime of eyes invigorates too the playful passions of Antoine Watteau’s comic oil-on-panel La Surprise, 1718. The work finds the artist slowly shifting his focus from the wild exhibitionist embrace of an uninhibited couple on the left (whose bodies are beginning to slip out of the frame), to the more central guitar-wielding Mezzetin sitting next to them. A stock character in Rococo paintings, the lonely Mezzetin is a prankster who seems here to be re-tuning his strings in the hope of hitting upon the perfect cacophony of notes that can break the lovers’ spell, and give him a shot at the girl. So discordant are the sounds plonking from the mischievous musician’s five thumbs, the whole body of the little dog at his feet is cocked in disapproval – both at the public display of affection and its grating soundtrack. The witty work takes as its subject not the all-enveloping bliss of love, but how annoying that bubble can be to those outside it.

Is this the first time sex was depicted in art? View image of (Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

It is difficult not to see a layer of spiteful fun also undermining the ambience of the 18th-Century Japanese designer Suzuki Harunobu’s woodblock print Lovers Walking in the Snow, from the 1760s. Indicative of the so-called ukiyo-e (or ‘floating world’) style, which chronicled the indulgences of the increasingly affluent merchant class, the image sees a pair of posturing lovers ambling aimlessly. Showing the couple swaddled stylishly in their own self-involvement, the print would appear at first glance to epitomise the conspiracy of love. Look closer and a jagged snarl of winter-whittled branches above the oblivious couple holds their fate in its icy maw.

Is this the first time sex was depicted in art? View image of (Credit: Wikimedia)

The luckless portent of those sniggering icicles in Harunobu’s woodblock print will assume a different superstitious shape a century later in Simeon Solomon’s Pre-Raphaelite reverie Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864. In Solomon’s watercolour, the ancient Greek writers embrace in a garden on the island of Lesbos, surrounded by symbols of their poetic prowess: pen, ink, paper and a lyre leaning to the right. But it’s the feathery caress of lovebirds behind the two women that seduces our eye until we see it: the haranguing squawk of an ominous blackbird beside them, who disrupts the dream and reminds us just how intolerant of same-sex affection Solomon’s age was.

A flight of whimsy?

Even the most seemingly whimsical portrayals of love invariably conceal a sharper edge that cuts against saccharine sentimentality. Take Marc Chagall’s charming testament to domestic bliss, Birthday, 1915, which imagines the artist and his soon-to-be wife Bella (they married the same year that the painting was made), floating cheerily around their bedroom. But it’s her failure to fully let go and close her eyes to the world as they twist in a kiss that alerts us to an abiding nerviness troubling the space. The painting was, after all, born of deeply unsettled times. The outbreak of World War One the previous year had trapped the couple in Russia and prevented the artist from taking Bella with him back to Paris, where he’d begun to establish a reputation. The world was on edge and the proximity of a knife lying within easy reach in the painting on the sideboard beside them introduces a hint of menace and mystery. Will one pull it on the other? On us? Suspicion swirls. Love is lovely, but watch your back.

Is this the first time sex was depicted in art? View image of (Credit: Alamy)

Throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st, artists have continued to explore the essence of passion in all its confounding complexities. From the aggressive smack that snaps the neck of the woman in Klimt’s The Kiss, to the suffocating vision of the hooded snoggers in René Magritte’s The Lovers (1928), the art of love in more recent times is often inflected with violence. The balance between love and the darker energies that disturb it is difficult to maintain. In 2003, British artist Cornelia Parker’s controversial decision to interfere in the display of Rodin’s romantic marble clinch The Kiss, by wrapping the iconic sculpture in a mile of string, demonstrated how the equilibrium can be disturbed. Parker named her intervention The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached), saying that “I wanted to give it back the complication it used to have: that relationships can be tortured, and not just this romantic ideal. So the string stood in for the complications of relationships.”

It wasn’t enough that Rodin’s underlying work (which was conceived as a portrayal of Paolo and Francesca, a pair of lovers from Dante’s Inferno, seconds before they are stabbed to death), was already taut with narrative tension. Parker felt the work needed updating – its unease teased more palpably to the surface, if not dragged out of it. But the gratuitous string that Parker wound around the sculpture felt less like a projection of the complex nature of Paolo and Francesca’s passion than a coercive tether that restricted our perception of the work’s meaning. In the end, neither the mysteries of art nor love can be bound or measured.

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