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Artistic pretexts

Related: rationale - education exploitation - art - function - gratuitous - motive

In the history of art censorship, artists have had to resort to pretexts in order to depict nudity, depict violence and other transgressional subject matter. Some favourite pretexts have been mythology, martyrology, education, the supernatural and fantastic. Artists wanted to avoid the impression that the choice of their subject matter was gratuitous.

Themes of pre-1860s erotic art

Before the 1860s, artists needed an excuse or pretext to depict eroticism and nudity in their paintings or engravings. Mythology or martyrology were very popular pretexts to paint nudity and eroticism. Below is a list of popular subjects to depict nudity:

The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Some of the stories included in Saint Anthony's biography are perpetuated now mostly in paintings, where they give an excuse for artists to depict their more lurid or bizarre fantasies. Many pictorial artists, from Félicien Rops and Hieronymus Bosch to Salvador Dalí, have depicted these incidents from the life of Anthony.

Massacre of the Innocents
The theme of the "Massacre of the Innocents" has provided artists with opportunities to compose complicated depictions of massed bodies in violent action. Artists of the Renaissance took inspiration for their "Massacres" from Roman reliefs of the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs to the extent that they showed the figures heroically nude. Peter Paul Rubens painted the theme more than once.

Leda and the Swan
The motif of Leda and the Swan from Greek mythology, in which the Greek god Zeus came to Leda in the form of a swan, was rarely seen in Gothic art, but resurfaced as a classicizing theme, with erotic overtones, in Italian painting and sculpture of the 16th Century.

The Three Graces
On the representation of the Graces, Pausanias wrote,

"Who it was who first represented the Graces naked, whether in sculpture or in painting, I could not discover. During the earlier period, certainly, sculptors and painters alike represented them draped. [...] But later artists, I do not know the reason, have changed the way of portraying them. Certainly to-day sculptors and painters represent Graces naked."

Venus became a popular subject of painting and sculpture during the Renaissance period in Europe. As a "classical" figure for whom nudity was her natural state, it was socially acceptable to depict her unclothed. As the goddess of sexual healing, a degree of erotic beauty in her presentation was justified, which had an obvious appeal to many artists and their patrons. Over time, "venus" came to refer to any artistic depiction of a nude woman, even when there was no indication that the subject was the goddess. [Jan 2006]


Erotic art
Before the 1860s, Western artists needed a pretext to depict eroticism and nudity. ... Before the 1860s, artists needed an excuse or pretext to depict ...Mythology or martyrology were very popular pretexts to paint nudity and eroticism (see themes of pre-1860s erotic art on this page). ...

... because they were a good pretext for painting partly imaginary and partly exotic clothes, bizarre footwear and striking headwear. ...

Le déjeuner sur l'herbe/"The Lunch on the Grass" (1863) - Edouard ...
... do not share the masses' obsession with the subject: to them, the subject is only a pretext to paint, whereas for the masses only the subject exists." ...


Sexploitation is a term that was first used in the 1940s which describes media that is merely an excuse to purvey sex. The term indicates a subgenre of ...

Exploitation film
... such as prostitution or teenage violence, but also exploit the sensitivities of sensation-hungry filmgoers seeking an excuse to see nudity or bloodshed. ...

Sex comedy
Of course, it's all just an excuse to revel in the vicarious thrills these subjects provide, but the finger-wagging tone of the voice-over narration, ...

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