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Related: definition - description - point of view - picture - portrait - representation - visual arts

See also: depiction of women in advertising


  1. To represent in a picture or sculpture.
  2. To represent in words; describe.
-- American Heritage Dictionary

Depiction of Women in Advertising [...]

Women are not only portrayed in decorative senses in advertising (Wiles 1991), but too often they are portrayed as less-than-human objects—humiliated and subjects of violence. These ads establish the problematic dimensions of gender and sexuality in western society. Quite simply, for those who deny the problem, have a look at these ads. None of these are harmless! -- Dr. Scott A. Lukas, http://www.ltcconline.net/lukas/gender/pages/dehumanize.htm http://www.genderads.com/gender.htm [May 2004]

History of erotic depictions

Related: erotic art - pornography - erotica

Erotic depictions of sexual acts are as old as civilization. Erotic depictions include paintings, sculptures, photographs, music and writings that show scenes of a sexual nature. Though pornography is included, the concept of pornography as understood today did not exist until the Victorian era. Its current definition was added in the 1860s, replacing the older one meaning writings about prostitutes. It first appeared in an English medical dictionary in 1857 defined as "A description of prostitutes or of prostitution, as a matter of public hygiene." Within 5 years though, the second, obscene definition appeared in Webster's Dictionary. "Licentious painting or literature; especially, the painting anciently employed to decorate the walls of rooms devoted to bacchanalian orgies." Previous to that time, though some sex acts were regulated or stipulated in laws, looking at objects or images depicting them was not. In some cases, certain books, engravings or image collections were outlawed, but the trend to compose laws that restricted viewing of sexually explicit things in general was a Victorian construct.

When large scale excavations of Pompeii were undertaken in the 1860s, much of the erotic art of the Romans came to light, shocking the Victorians who saw themselves as the intellectual heirs of the Roman Empire. They did not know what to do with the frank depictions of sexuality, and endeavored to hide them away from everyone but upper class scholars. The movable objects were locked away in the Secret Museum in Naples, Italy and what couldn't be removed was covered and cordoned off as to not corrupt the sensibilities of women, children and the working class. Soon after, England's and the world's first laws criminalizing pornography was enacted in the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. The Victorian attitude that pornography was for a select few can be seen in the wording of the Hicklin test stemming from a court case in 1868 where it asks, "whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences." Despite their repression, depictions of erotic imagery are common throughout history, and remain so.

Early depictions
Among the oldest surviving examples of erotic depictions are Paleolithic cave paintings and carvings. Among the more common images of animals and hunting scenes, depictions of human genitalia, thought to be fertility symbols, may be found. Nude human beings with exaggerated sexual characteristics are depicted in some Paleolithic paintings and artifacts (e.g. Venus figurines). Recently discovered cave art at Creswell Crags in England, thought to be over 12,000 years old, includes some symbols thought to be stylized versions of female genitalia. However there is no indication that these were made for erotic stimulation, it is far more likely that these were objects used in religious rituals.

Archaeologists in Germany reported in April 2005 that they had found what they believe is a 7,200-year-old scene depicting a male figurine bending over a female figurine in a manner suggestive of sexual intercourse. The male figure has been named Adonis von Zschernitz. However, it is not certain that the purpose of these artifacts was individual sexual arousal. Instead, the images may have had a spiritual significance, and are probably connected with fertility rituals.

The ancient Greeks painted sexual scenes on their ceramics, many of them famous for being some of the earliest depictions of same-sex relations and pederasty.

There are numerous sexually explicit paintings on the walls of ruined Roman buildings in Pompeii but the original purposes of the depictions can vary. On the one hand, in the "Villa of the Mysteries", there is a ritual flagellation scene that is clearly associated with a religious cult. This can be seen as religious rather than sexual. On the other hand graphic paintings in a brothel advertise various sexual services in murals above each door. In Pompeii phalli and testicles engraved in the sidewalks were created to aid visitors in finding their way by pointing to the prostitution and entertainment district. The Romans considered such depictions of sex to be decoration in good taste, and indeed the pictures reflect the sexual mores and practices of their culture. Sex acts that were considered taboo (such as those that defiled the purity of the mouth) were depicted in baths for comic effect. Phalluses were used near entryways for the phallus was seen as a good luck charm, and the carvings were common in every home. One of the first objects excavated was a marble statue showing the god Pan having sex with a goat, a detailed depiction of bestiality considered so obscene that it is not on public display to this day and remains in the Secret Museum.

The Moche of Peru are another ancient people that sculpted explicit scenes of sex into their pottery. Their purpose however, was much different that that of other early cultures. The Moche believed that the world of the dead was the exact opposite of the world of the living. Therefore, for funeral offerings, they sent vessels showing sex acts such as masturbation, fellatio and anal sex that would not result in offspring. The hope was that in the world of the dead, they would take on their opposite meaning and result in fertility.

There has been a long tradition of erotic painting in the east. In Japan, shunga appeared in the 13th century and continued to grow in popularity until the 19th century when photography was invented. Similarly, the erotic art of China reached its peak during the latter part of the Ming Dynasty.

Erotic scenes in medieval illuminated manuscripts were a common occurrence meant only for those who could afford the extremely expensive hand made books. Most of these drawings occur in the margins of books of hours. Some think that the pictures satisfied the medieval cravings for both erotic pictures and religion in one book, especially since it was often the only book someone owned. Others think the drawings in the margins were a kind of caution, but the depiction of priests and other officials engaged in sex acts in them suggests political origins as well.

It was not until the invention of the printing press that sexually explicit images entered into mass circulation. Before that time, erotic images being hand made and expensive and were limited to upper class males who deliberately kept them away from the working class, fearing the effect such things would have on the animal lust of the uneducated. Even the British Museum had a Secretum filled a collection of ancient erotica donated by the upper class doctor, George Witt in 1865. The remains of the collection, including his scrapbooks, still reside in Cupboard 55, thought the majority of it has recently been integrated with the museum's other collections. All of this was done to prevent the corruption of women, children and most importantly, the lower classes as they were considered morally unfit to view such things.

Mass circulation

In 1880, halftone printing was used to reproduce photographs for the first time. The invention of halftone printing took pornography and erotica in new directions at the turn of the century. The new printing processes allowed photographic images to be reproduced easily in black and white whereas previously printers were limited to engravings, woodcuts and line cuts for illustrations.

Illustrated magazines containing erotic or risque material began to appear in France at the turn of the century. The majority of these publications would now be termed 'soft core', and the majority of the publications either masqueraded as 'art magazines' or publications celebrating the new cult of naturism. 'Health and Efficiency' was typical of the latter in Britain. Models were carefully posed, and female genitalia was hidden or airbrushed out. There were exceptions, in the form of some underground pornographic magazines, but these tended to be crude productions, often incorporating hand drawn illustrations.

In the second half of the 20th century, pornography in the United States evolved from the so-called "men's magazines" such as Playboy and Modern Man of the 1950s. These magazines featured nude or semi-nude women, sometimes apparently engaging in the act of masturbation, although their genitals or pubic hair were not actually displayed. By the late 1960s, however, these magazines, which by then included Penthouse, began to evolve into more explicit displays, eventually, by the 1990s, featuring sexual penetration, lesbianism and homosexuality, group sex, masturbation, and fetishes.

Moving pictures
The second important development was that of the moving image. William Laurie Dickson, an Edison employee, is credited with inventing the continuous celluloid strip of film. From this came the kinetoscope, a peep show machine showing a continuous loop of film.

The mutoscope, a form of hand cranked machine later appeared. These machines produced moving images by means of a revolving drum of card illustrations, taken from an actual piece of film. They were known in Britain as 'What the Butler Saw' machines and featured at seaside locations, showing (usually) sequences of women undressing or acting as an artist's model.

Pornographic motion pictures are nearly as old as the medium itself. The idea of projecting a moving film onto a screen in front of the audience was a European invention of the 1890s. Almost immediately, erotic films (largely of women disrobing) were produced. Two of the earliest pioneers were Eugene Pirou (who had a background in pornographic photography) and Albert Kirchner, whose trade name was 'Lear'. Oddly enough, Kirchner is chiefly remembered by film historians as the first man to produce a film of the 'Life Of Christ'. Many of the early mainstream films produced by Pathe and Gaumont included female nudity, but this was soon forbidden by the censor (it took some years for the law to catch up with the new technology). This type of filming then went underground, and found a ready market in brothels and gentlemen's private functions.

According to Patrick Robertson's Film Facts, "the earliest pornographic motion picture which can definitely be dated is A L'Ecu d'Or ou la bonne auberge", made in France in 1908; the plot depicts a weary soldier who has a tryst with an inn servant girl. The Argentine El Satario might be even older; it has been dated to somewhere between 1907 and 1912. Robertson notes that "the oldest surviving pornographic films are contained in America's Kinsey Collection. One film demonstrates how early pornographic conventions were established. The German film Am Abend (c1910) is, as Robertson writes, "a ten-minute film which begins with a woman masturbating alone in her bedroom, and progresses to scenes of her with a man performing straight sex, fellatio and anal penetration."

Many such pornographic films were made in subsequent decades, but given the usually clandestine nature of the filming and distribution, details of such "stag films" are often difficult to obtain.

The first explicitly pornographic film with a plot that received a general theatrical release in the U.S. is generally considered to be Mona (also known as Mona the Virgin Nymph), a 59-minute 1970 feature by Bill Osco and Howard Ziehm, who went on to create the relatively high-budget hardcore/softcore (depending on the release) cult film Flesh Gordon.

The 1971 film The Boys in the Sand represented a number of pornographic "firsts". It was the first generally available gay pornographic movie. It was the first porn film to include on-screen credits for its cast and crew (albeit largely under pseudonyms). It was the first porn film to parody the title of a mainstream movie (in this case, The Boys in the Band). And it is the only X-rated pornographic film to be reviewed by The New York Times.

The post-war era saw a number of developments that further stimulated the growth of a mass market.

Technological developments, particularly the introduction of the 8-mm and super-8 film gauges, resulted in the widespread use of amateur cinematography. A number of entrepreneurs emerged to supply this market. In Britain, the productions of Harrison Marks were 'soft core', but considered risque in the 1950s. On the continent, such films were more explicit. Lasse Braun can be mentioned as a pioneer in quality colour productions. Interestingly enough, in the early days, these were distributed by making use of his father's diplomatic privileges.

The relaxation or abolition of censorship in the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries in the 1960s led to an explosion of commercially produced pornography. Now that being a pornographer was a legitimate occupation, there was no shortage of businessmen to invest in proper plant and equipment capable of turning out a mass-produced, cheap, but quality product. Vast amounts of this new pornography, both magazines and films, were smuggled into other parts of Europe, where it was sold 'under the counter' or (sometimes) shown in 'members only' cinema clubs.

Amateur depictions
The invention of the Polaroid camera enabled anyone to take their own amateur sex photographs without having to set up their own darkroom. The photographs from one of the first Polaroid cameras available in Britain featured in the divorce case involving the Duchess of Argyll. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_erotic_depictions [Oct 2006]

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