Who Invented Porn?

‘Kayso today we’re gonna talk about porn a lil’ bit. (Do I have your attention now?) If you climb into the Way Back When machine you’ll find that pretty much every civilization, every culture, from the dawn of man right through to now, created erotic imagery.

Paleolithic rock carving, Lakshmana temple in India

As long as there’s been sex, there’ve been depictions of it, because people like looking at them and because in many of these cultures sexual images and/or acts were thought to have supernatural or spiritual implications. (Sex is some powerful mojo.)  But the concept of “pornography” didn’t really exist until the Victorian era — so pornography wasn’t really invented at all, it was defined.

The Victorians were great admirers of Roman culture and civilization, and that was pretty straight forward and going along quite nicely right up until about 1860, when they excavated large areas of Pompeii. That’s when they discovered that their cultural idols were big pervs, and it shocked them right out of their stockings. (One of the first excavated objects was a statue of the god Pan screwing a goat.) Since they didn’t know what to do with all the frank, forthright sexuality on display everywhere, they decided to hide as much of it as they could.  It’s like all of contemporary Western Civilization became the “see no evil” monkey.  (Their thinking was that the only people who could really “handle” looking at this stuff were upper class scholars, aka: rich white men.)  And when I say the stuff was “everywhere”, I mean it — it wasn’t just the big erotic fresco murals and beautiful raunchy pottery, there were penises and testicles carved into the sidewalks for decoration, and big penises were often depicted near doorways because they were considered good luck symbols.

So yeah, the Victorians wigged out.  Anything they could pick up and move got taken away and locked up in the Secret Museum in Naples, Italy — they actually bricked up the doorway for a while. Anything they couldn’t cart off (like big walls) they covered up and closed off to the public.  Locked metal cabinets were installed over some of these frescos, accessible only to “people of mature age and respected morals” (aka: rich white men).  This censorship was considered a way to “protect” the sensibilities of women and the working class (aka: all the rest of us).

Around the same time “pornography” showed up in Webster’s Dictionary as “licentious painting employed to decorate the walls of rooms sacred to bacchanalian orgies, examples of which exist in Pompeii.”  And while some specific sexual activities had previously been illegal, this was the first time in world history that just looking at sexual images became outlawed.  Which, if you think about it, is fairly wacky.  (And fairly subjective to boot — one person’s art is another’s porn, and vice versa.)

Side note:  that Pan/goat statue was considered so radioactively pornographic it stayed hidden away until the year 2000, and is still in the Secret Museum in Naples. If you can’t make it over there, here’s what it looks like:

Look away, quick, or you might be corrupted!

So I could go on and on about this (and I often do but I’m going to restrain myself today, though if your curious, here’s an interesting graph representing stats on the current state of internet pornography.), because this is what I was thinking about not so long ago — it struck me as odd that this period that produced one of my absolutely all time most favorite painters, Ingres, was also this time of intense sexual repression.

I decided that I wanted to capture something of the flavor of this era without actually riffing on a specific painting, and scrawled a few notes as I was falling asleep one night. I hoped to do something a little bit cheeky about women getting what they want even in a restrictive society… about being free. A lot of my paintings start out in scrawl form — I have a little notebook with me all the time, and I’ve been known to pull it out and start scribbling and drawing like a total dork no matter where I am.  (If you saw me at the Fox Theater for the New Pornographers show I had my notebook out several times, nodding my head in time to the music and sketching out ideas for the upcoming Playboy Bunny exhibition at random intervals during the show.)

Don't be all judge-y, I really was half asleep when I was drawing.

Once I knew what I wanted to do, it was off to the American Conservatory Theater to rent a costume. This place, and the people who work there, are off the chain wonderful.

They really got what I was going for and came through in a major way. Then it was time to take a few reference shots.  I have a hard time not cracking up in these situations — for every viable photo there are probably about twelve of me my laughing my head off.  Also, under the lights that dress was swelteringly hot!


And finally it was time to paint.  And paint.  And paint.

It’s funny because I was totally putting off painting the dress pattern, frankly it scared me witless.  I stared at it for a whole day, and at one point had a real crisis of faith, a total “I can’t do this, I don’t know what made me think I even wanted to or was capable of doing this.”  But as so often happens, music saved my soul — Carl Carlton came on Pandora right then and totally lifted me, and as so ALSO often happens, once I started painting the fabric pattern I had an absolute ball.  And I like how the piece turned out — pretty much everyone who sees it does a double take when they figure out what they’re looking at, what’s really going on.

Here’s “The Bluebird of Happiness.”  (I made her dress blue because she’s also the Bluebird of Happiness, not just the little blue bird that got out of its cage. Get it?)

I had somehow forgotten that I really love tackling the  hard stuff, getting so lost in something that there’s no room in my head for anything else.  Painting a really intense pattern, or anything challenging, can kind of put you into a trance state, and the rest of the world just falls away…

As always, the frosting on the cake is the frame and my pit crew at Back To The Picture on Valencia Street knocked it outta the park again.

Then off to 941 Geary (conveniently located at 941 Geary) which is a terrific new space Justin Giarla opened up around the corner from his Shooting Gallery and White Walls galleries.  Rock on, Justin. Here’s the opening night of “As They See It.”

Great, right? And this is only *half* the space!

I can’t remember what I said right here that made Justin call me a geek, but take a look at those side-combed bangs of his and tell me — who’s the big geek?  Oh wait, we’re both rockin’ the side-swept bangs….

Why yes I *am* drinking root beer...

And that’s the whole shebang, start to finish!

13 responses to “Who Invented Porn?

  1. Love this Isabelle – and I learned so much – I grew up with tons of Japanese porn all over my grandparent’s house – my grandpa loved it – for xmas one year, all on my own, with my own money at the age of 10 I bought my grandpa a coffee table book of japanese erotica…advanced!

  2. I love this painting. It’s hilarious and sexy as hell!

    Thank you for Standing Up to the Puritans!

    xoxox m

  3. FLIPPING FANTASTIC!

  4. O-la-la! The pattern is ecstatic and the painting is seexxxy.

    Congratulations on seeing this idea through.

  5. Wow- totally gorgeous! I love the quality of the light, your expression + the pattern on the dress ;-)
    You reminded me of how great it feels to get in the zone while working on a painting…

  6. Seeing this has made my morning! Fantastic work, as always, and a good read to boot.

  7. Iz, thank you. Nobody reports on process like you! Any new work making its way to NYC in the near future?

  8. Yeah, group show @ 99% Gallery in Sept!

  9. penis!

  10. I love it! I came across this while trying to find out when pornography was invented, but am totally glad I got to discover an awesome artist in the process (:

  11. FUCK YOU PEOPLE I <3 PORN

  12. William Kreiss

    The paintings are wonderful and so are your bangs lol.

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