Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now

The art of seduction: sex through the ages, from every possible angle
From ancient miniatures to modern film, 2,000 years of civilisation's frankest moments go on show

Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent
Wednesday October 10, 2007
The Guardian

The City of London police have been in, and, says Graham Sheffield, artistic director of the Barbican, "they are completely cool. We're kosher." That means, come Friday, the first ever mainstream exhibition devoted to sex will be unleashed upon an unsuspecting British public.

According to co-curator Martin Kemp: "We are not setting out to shock, but it is certainly provoking." Marina Wallace, another of the curators, added: "We want London to be thinking about nothing but sex for three months."

See our gallery of highlights from the exhibition here.

Graphic hardly does justice to the romp through 2,000 years of art history's frankest moments. But the organisers argue that context is all: which is why Robert Mapplethorpe's fetish photographs; Nan Goldin's slide of a man ejaculating while having sex with his male partner; even an eye-opening 18th century Arabic manuscript illustrating 10 men having group sex, are all absolutely fine by the police.

This is a serious, art-historical exhibition, which is why even potentially controversial material - such as certain photographs by Goldin showing nude children as part of her sometimes explicit work Heartbeat - is, according to the curators, acceptable.

"It's partly about intention," said Prof Kemp. "The job of pornography is to do just one thing; and if it's doing anything else, it's not doing its job properly." By implication, then, the exhibition is not pornographic.

The curators - Prof Kemp, Prof Wallace and Joanne Bernstein - have been researching the exhibition for five years. Its scope is vast, covering everything from ancient Greek and Roman vases and sculpture - including the stunning life-size marble Sleeping Hermaphrodite from the Galleria Borghese in Rome - to Old Masters, drawings by Turner and Rodin, and photographs of Jean-Jacques Level's 1966 happening, 120 Minutes Dedicated to the Divine Marquis, in which the artist used obscenity to expose the political obscenity he observed in the French regime at the time at war in Algeria. Memorably, this features a girl with a leek. Except that "she" turns out to be a transsexual.

Good luck charms - Bringing ebusiness opportunities home!The exhibition begins with the "secret cabinets" of the British Museum and the Naples Museum - reserved areas where material deemed too saucy for general consumption was placed to protect delicate nerves and impressionable minds from the late 18th century. Here is an amber, life-size carving of male genitalia, and a tintinnabulum, a Roman bronze windchime featuring a winged phallus. "These are absolutely wonderful objects," said Prof Wallace. "They are good luck charms: the idea is that the penis is the only part of the body that moves up and down without control. That links it to fate or fortune, which also moves up and down of its own volition."

The inclusion of partial re-creations of these reserved areas in museums relates to the programme of the exhibition, which is not to tell us how people had sex, but the way people have represented sex, and, often, attempted to control those representations. If there is a message, said Ms Bernstein, it is that "sex is a universal part of our being. It doesn't matter when or where or with whom sex is had: sex is sex is sex." The Queen, it turns out, is the unlikely keeper of some of the more explicit material - including Annibale Carracci's 16th-century pen and ink drawing of Leda, from classical myth, making out particularly enthusiastically with a swan, the god Jupiter in disguise.

Nearby hangs one of the few works in the exhibition by a woman: the erotically charged Minerva in the Act of Dressing by Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614). Serious academic museums such as the Fitzwilliam, the Wellcome Foundation, and the Victoria and Albert Museum have loaned rarely seen Indian erotic miniatures, 19th-century Iranian manuscripts illustrating various sexual positions, and Japanese prints.

Japanese contortionists

"The Japanese get into positions contortionists would be pressed to achieve. As do the Indian women, though not the men; the expectation on Indian men seems rather less, I am encouraged to see," said Prof Kemp. Back to Europe, and there are tiny, illustrated pornographic books - "small enough to fit into one hand, leaving one hand free", pointed out Ms Bernstein.

The final stages of the exhibition take the viewer through a tiny portion of Rodin's 7,000 drawings of nudes to k r buxey's 2002 video of her face as she is given oral sex, to the background music of Fauré's Requiem.

"We do talk about arousal," said Prof Wallace. "We do want the show to be arousing for all the senses. This is what we want it to be about, rather than nudge-nudge, wink-wink."

• Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now is open to over-18s from Friday

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