Sexy Art –  Arty Pornography

a review by Michael Davenport

Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now is playing (sic) at the Barbican Art Gallery, “playing” rather than “hanging” since many of the exhibits take the form of film or audio tape.  With some 300 works, the show covers 2000 years, stretching from Roman sculpture, through Indian miniatures and Japanese prints, Renaissance paintings, Victorian photographs to contemporary works in many different media. It has been curated by Marina Wallace of the Central St. Martin’s College of Art and Design, Martin Kemp, Professor of the History of Art at Oxford and Joanne Bernstein, a London-based curator.

The catalogue and publicity surrounding Seduced is full of comments about the distinction between art and pornography. It is hard to take these seriously. Kate Bush, the head of art galleries at the Barbican claims that “[t]he show takes a wide view of sex, including autoeroticism. But… it’s an art exhibition not a sex museum. And the show is not about pornography.” On the other hand “a key criterion for art has been that of ‘quality’. Having said that, just because an image manifests high artistry, it cannot automatically be excluded from the category of the pornographic. More significant is that an artistic image operates in the multiple visual and psychological fields in a way that works against the one-dimensional thrust of pornography. The pornographic image has one job to do: to arouse for the purpose of eventual climax. It may do its job with artistry, but it does not aspire to the reach and interpretative openness of art.”

Given that, in the words of the free exhibition guide, “sex is one of the great givens of human existence” and pornography is concerned with the provision of sexual pleasure, why is it necessary to draw odious comparisons with “art”? They both have a role – like whiskey and gin. They don’t have to be judged against each other. In any event – happily – the exhibition includes examples of both. To pretend that the Victorian photographs of women displaying their privates – or in one case being anally penetrated by a gentleman in white tie and tails – is more that straightforward pornography is nonsense.

Of course there is a vast and well-covered in-between land of arty porn and porny art but there is one set of photographs that is difficult to place in any such taxonomy. Those are the illustrations which accompanied Alfred Kinsey’s surveys of sexual behavior in his books, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953).  The photographs are explicit recordings of different sexual practices from Coitus Female Sitting Ventral-Ventral (or C ? SIT VV) to Homosexual Male Genital-Oral Contact (or H ? GO). Sadly the abbreviation for the Male in clerical costume with bound nude female is merely CLERIC. Most of these are by unknown photographers though one appropriately named John Willie is responsible for Sadomasochism Female, Bondage Gagged (SDM ? BNDG GAG). It is difficult to see how these photos, fascinating though they are, can be classified as either art or, except perhaps for the last mentioned, pornography – but they certainly evoked more interest at the exhibition than the fine Indian miniatures or the Japanese prints which tended to be of the boring C ? ? style.

The exhibition starts with the 50cm. high stone fig leaf commissioned to hide the genitals of the cast of Michelangelo’s David presented to Queen Victoria by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. This is usually displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Apparently the queen found the nudity of the figure shocking and the cast was used during royal visits to the museum. It was last used in the time of Queen Mary (1867-1953) though it is not clear whether it would be used again if the current queen were to visit the gallery. It is normally kept just behind the cast for ready access.

Some fine Roman marbles – including one of Pan and the Goat – and Greek cups (kylixes) depicting athletes and their huge erect penises chasing one another,  are followed by some examples of bawdy frescoes from Pompeii. After they were recovered in the excavations, these frescoes were subjected to censorship at the Bourbon Museum in Naples on the orders of Charles, the 18-year old King of Naples. Interested visitors – most of them English – had to seek permission to visit them.  Now visitors merely have to pay a supplement to visit the “Reserved Cabinet” at what is now the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.

What the catalogue does not discuss is the role of these explicit images at Pompeii and Herculaneum. There has been some controversy among art historians about whether Pompeii was a sort of Pattaya Beach of the ancient world.  John R. Clarke in Looking at Lovemaking, Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art and Roman Sex  has argued that Pompeii was a sex resort but others argue that most of the naughty art in Pompeii came from the bedrooms of private houses or from the one definitely-established brothel there – where a large number of the explicit frescoes in the Naples museum might have been used in a line above a long shelf to remind the customers where they had left their clothes.

Anyway, moving on to the Renaissance and Baroque, without in any way denigrating the collections of Indian, Japanese and Chinese lovemaking, I was struck by a number of excellent paintings, drawings and prints lent by a large range of museums and private collections.  Like the Pompeiians, the outwardly pious Philip IV probably kept Titian’s Danaë with its connotations of Ovidian gossip in his bedroom, along with his other loves of the gods. Danaë is also the subject of the two delightful drawings by Annibale Carracci, lent by HM the Queen (no fig leaves required).

The catalogue gives a lot of space in several essays to Giulio Romano’s I Modi. This was a book of sixteen plates – engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi, the greatest engraver of the time – depicting the “Loves of the Gods”. These engravings of the Gods coupling with unidentified women in a range of positions were accompanied by lewd poems by Pietro Aretino, I sonetti lussuriosi. The books were banned by Pope Leo X and almost all the copies were destroyed and Raimondi gaoled.  It is the ecclesiastical intolerance and censorship of the church that appears to interest the curators of the exhibition – who also wrote the catalogue – rather than the pictures themselves.  In fact the exhibition includes one of the original engravings by Raimondi, together with one of Aretino’s poems, (now in the British Library) and copies of some details of several of the others.  Romano is also represented by a drawing of Apollo kissing and “touching up” a youth, and a painting of two naked lovers fondling on a bed.

The Baroque period is represented, inter alia, by a fine, but not particularly erotic, Luca Giordano ofVenus, Mars and the Forge of Vulcan while, among the Rococo, we find a delightful Fragonard of the bedding of “the beautiful servant”.  There is a good but typical Boucher drawing of a naked women lying on her stomach on a chaise-longue with legs akimbo,  and a rather poor painting of Leda with the Swan inspecting her genitalia attributed to Boucher but almost certainly wrongly so. This last was likely painted later “in the style of Boucher”, with pornographic intent. There are also several examples of illustrations from de Sade’s books with imaginative – but not very practicable – scenes of group sex.

Apart from the Japanese prints and some saucy photographs, the 19th century is thinly represented. Courbet’s notorious painting of a woman’s thighs, L’Origine du Monde,  is there. So is the insipid Ingres oil which later became the source of Picasso’s famous series of etchings of Raphael and La Fornarina, a number of which are included in the exhibition. Most of Turner’s erotic watercolours drawings, originally discovered after his death by Ruskin in 1857, were burnt the following year to protect the artist’s reputation, but some hundred inexplicably survived – though the Turner scholar Ian Warrell has suggested that Ruskin may have invented the fire. Anyway the three from the Tate included in the exhibition do demonstrate that Turner could equally well apply his talents to scenes of sexual intimacy as to great landscapes and seascapes.

Among the works – mostly drawings and watercolours – by Rodin, Schiele, Klimt and Picasso there is a sexual explicitness rarely seen in museums. Many are of interest – the Klimt drawings of masturbating women and couples having sex have a particular intimate charm – though few appear to be finished works intended for public display.

Works from the more recent art scene include a selection of Mapplethorpe photos of homosexual sadomasochism where the models in his terms were “playing with the edge” while the artist was playing with the edge that separates art and pornography. There are also some of Jean-Jacques Lebel’s photos of the infamous 1966 Happening, 120 Minutes Dedicated to the Divine Marquis, and the touched-up photos of Jeff Koons in flagrante with his ex-wife, Italian MP, La Cicciolina. Unlike the Schieles and Klimts, the Romanos and the Fragonards, the Indian miniatures and the Roman sculptures, indeed most of the earlier work (other than the photographs) these look dated and shallow. The same, I would say, will be the fate of contemporaries such as Marlene Dumas who also uses photographic images from magazines and strip clubs, and Thomas Ruff whose photographic collection of “Nudes” – originally published with a text by the French author Michel Houellebecq – is based on obfuscated internet pornography.  On the other hand, k r buxey’s film Requiem (2002), of her face as she reaches orgasm, as well as Andy Warhol’s Blowjob, a film of the face of a pretty boy while being fellated, do seem, perhaps thanks to the eternal relevance of the subject, to have a longer-lasting resonance.  However  one may doubt the authenticity of the Warhol film as it lasts a full forty-one minutes. Who can keep going that long, in either role?

Lynda Nead of Birkbeck College in her book The Female Nude, states that “if art is seen to represent the sublimation or transformation of sexual drives, then pornography conveys the sexually unmediated; it incites and moves the viewer to action.” That makes sense. Would it be oversimplifying to suggest that from, say, the middle of the last century, we have been steadily moving from the whiskey of sexy art towards the gin of arty pornography? Not that one is in any way better than the other. We just need more of both.


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Fig leaf for the cast of Michaelangelo’s David,

half metre high, plaster, c. 1857

Victoria and Albert Museum

Fig leaf for the cast of Michaelangelo's David

Jeff Koons,

Ilona on top (Rosa background),1990. Private Collection, Berlin

December 2007

Jeff Koons, Ilona on top (Rosa background)