Seduced: Art & Sex from Antiquity to Now  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now (October 12, 2007 – January 27, 2008) was a Barbican Centre exhibition exploring the erotic art through the ages. The exhibition was similar to the Phyllis and Eberhard Kronhausens' traveling exhibition in the late 1960s.

The exhibition contained work of a sexually explicit nature and was rated over 18 years only. It featured around 300 works, spanning over 2000 years, including Roman marbles, Indian manuscripts, Renaissance and Baroque paintings, Chinese watercolours, Japanese prints, 19th century photographs and modern and contemporary art. Bringing together many rarely seen works and fascinating curiosities from public and private collections in Britain, Europe and the United States, Seduced presents the work of around 70 artists, including Araki, Bacon, Bellmer, Boucher, Carracci, Dumas, Fragonard, Goldin, Klimt, Koons, Mapplethorpe, Picasso, Rembrandt, Rodin, Schiele, Turner and Warhol.

In Seduced, the first exhibit the visitor encountered is the 18 inch plaster cast of a bronze fig leaf for Michelangelo’s sculpture of David from the Victoria & Albert Museum, specially made to spare Queen Victoria’s blushes. From ancient Rome a dramatically lit marble sculpture of a Satyr and Nymph in a wild embrace, captures the moods of arousal, surprise and ambivalent resistance. Displayed alongside is flex, 2000, a film by British contemporary artist Chris Cunningham of naked bodies, joining in a complex and sometimes unsettling ‘ballet’, suspended in space.

The loves of pagan gods, whose behaviour was considered highly immoral by most civil standards, provided the vehicle for sexual subjects from the Renaissance onwards. Leda and the Swan is a fine example by French 18th century artist François Boucher who paints the moment when Jupiter, who has taken the form of a swan, is seducing Leda. Without the ‘cloak of mythology’, erotic representations caused outrage. Among the most censored works in 16th century Italy were I Modi (The Positions); designed by Giulio Romano, engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi, and accompanied by sonnets specially written by Pietro Aretino, I Modi dared to depict in images and describe in words the sexual exploits of everyday men and women, unleashing the sexual fantasies of mere mortals. They caused widespread scandal, papal rage and the imprisonment of the engraver.

The exhibition also revealed how works of art with a sexual content have been concealed, subjected to limited access, widely distributed, or openly displayed over time. In ancient Greece, very explicit images of heterosexual and homosexual sex were rife and yet these same images have been typically downplayed in the antiquarian context of museums. The great English landscape painter, J. M. W. Turner, made secret sketches of sexual acts in his notebooks. The Dutch Master, Rembrandt van Rijn, made little known etchings of a sexual nature. Intricately detailed Japanese prints, issued in very large numbers, are extremely explicit and were intended for use in brothels as well as in private homes, for the pleasure of men and women alike.

The survival of sexually-charged items has often involved special acts of collecting and restricted viewing. The Reserved Cabinet in Naples (Gabinetto Segreto) was created in 1819 when King Francis I visited the National Museum with his wife and daughter and demanded that a large number of items ─ including fragments of frescoes from a Pompeii brothel, household objects depicting sexual scenes and phallic amulets ─ be removed from public view and hidden in a secret underground room. Re-opened, closed, re-opened again by Garibaldi as an act of national liberation, and then closed again for nearly 100 years, the collection was briefly made accessible at the end of the 1960s, the time of the sexual revolution. It was finally re-opened for public viewing in 2000, the year of the Papal Jubilee. Seduced also included photographs and films from Dr Alfred C. Kinsey’s Collection. The infamous sexologist was the first scientist to use pictures as ‘primary material’ for research during his controversial surveys of human sexual behaviour in the 1940s and 50s in America.

Since the early 20th century there has been a major trend in art to push the boundaries of acceptability, with the increasing use of photography and film by artists making the separation between art and pornography more complex. Celebrated artist Jeff Koons actively alludes to imagery from the world of pornography, using the clichéd poses, costumes and paraphernalia of the porn industry. Robert Mapplethorpe, a photographer of superb technical skill and consummate style, conducts an often startling dialogue with the world of male bondage, domination and submission. The exhibition includes Mapplethorpe’s notorious series X Portfolio, 1978, shown uncensored and as it was originally intended to be displayed by the artist.

Other highlights in the exhibition included The Voice of Sex, a sound installation featuring readings from erotic texts, such as the Kama Sutra, Lolita and late 18th century books by the Marquis de Sade; Andy Warhol’s 41 minute film, Blow Job, 1963; and Requiem, a video by British contemporary artist k r buxey, made as both riposte and homage to Warhol’s work. It showed the artist from the shoulders up enjoying oral sex. Also presented was Picasso’s virtually unknown painting Erotic Scene (Known as La Douleur), 1903, borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on show in the UK for the first time.

Artists in the exhibition were: Jean Agélou, Shaykh Muhammad Ibn Mustafa Al-Misri, Apollodoros Painter, Nobuyoshi Araki, Charles Eloi Asselin, Francis Bacon, Aubrey Beardsley, Hans Bellmer, François Boucher, Louise Bourgeois, Briseis Painter, k r buxey, Jacopo Caraglio, Agostino Carracci, Annibale Carracci, Jules Adolphe Chauvet, Giulio Clovio, Robert Crawshay, Chris Cunningham, Raffaele da Montelupo, Pacecco de Rosa, Charles Nicholas Dodin, Marcel Duchamp, Marlene Dumas, Tracey Emin, Lavinia Fontana, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Henry Fuseli, Luca Giordano, Hendrick Goltzius, Grundworth, Haronobu, Katsushika Hokusai, Gustav Klimt, Jeff Koons, Koryusai, Utagawa Kunisada, Jean-Jacques Lebel, Etienne-Henri Leguay, Pierre Louÿs, Robert Mapplethorpe, André Masson, Jon Mitton, Monsieur X, Hishikawa Morohira, Félix Jacques-Antoine Moulin, Czekj Nefzaoui, Pablo Picasso, Marcantonio Raimondi, Man Ray, Auguste Rodin, Giulio Romano (Pippi), Thomas Ruff, Ruknuddin, Julião Sarmento, Egon Schiele, Wang Sheng, Studio of Gai Qi, Jindřich Štyrský, Triptolemos Painter, Toyen (Marie Čermínová), J.M.W. Turner, Kitagawa Utamaro, Rembrandt van Rijn, Enea Vico, Simon Vouet and Andy Warhol.

The exhibition was curated by Martin Kemp, and the catalog ISBN 1858944163 that accompanied it with essays by Marina Wallace, Joanne Bernstein, Caterina Albano and Martin Kemp.

See also

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