Strictly Forbidden

“Sex in Art:” A Ground Breaking Exhibition Stirred Debate at London’s Barbican Center

News | Ana Valjak | February 2008

From the fig leaf added to protect the modesty of Michelangelo’s David in 1857, to the artistic pornography in the photos from Jeff Coons, from sex as an everyday commodity in ancient times to the brutal sadistic sex of Robert Mapplethorpe –  all this was in the exhibition Seduced: Sex in Art from Antiquity till Today, that ran for four months starting in October 2007 till January 2008 at London’s Barbican Center, the famed cultural complex in the city’s business district.

The goal was to mount something sensational and even trivial but that was still a rich and seductive experience, said Joanna Bernstein, one of the curators of the exhibition.

This ambitious show with works by Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso, Rembrandt, Andy Warhol, J.M.W. Turner, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, among others, took five years to assemble and can be viewed as a sequel of the 2000 exhibition Spectacular Bodies, The Art and Science of Human Bodies from Leonardo Until Today, the enormously successful show by Martina Wallace and Martin Kemp at London’s Hayward Gallery.

This show started with the famous leaf made to cover David’s private parts so that Queen Victoria would not blush when she visited the Victoria and Albert Museum. From there it continued with a series of unsigned sculpture from antiquity, focusing on sexual habits and intercourse between humans and gods, as described in mythology. That theme was often the inspiration for artists in the Renaissance and throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, including Auguste Rodin, Picasso and today’s Chris Chunning. The exhibit was hard going at times. The works of Robert Mapplethorpe, in particular, are brutal, revealing painful homosexual experience, purposely on the border of pornography and art.

Although highly respected, the works from antiquity, unearthed by archaeologists from the Renaissance through the modern era, were usually hidden from the eyes of women and children. The best known examples are Gabinetto Segreto in the Archaeological Museum in Italy, whose entrance was highly controlled up to the middle of the 18th century, or the ex secretum in the British museum.

The exhibition was extremely varied, also including artworks of the 19th century in which artists abandoned historical topics and started using their own experiences. A woman could suddenly be portrayed as a human being made out of flesh and blood, she can be both a model in the artist’s studio and his mistress. The exhibition had a rich collection from the French sculptor Auguste Rodin to the Austrian artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, whose work is clearly influenced by their countryman Sigmund Freud.

Like Schiele, Picasso painted his early sexual experiences, and the show included an interesting, little known oil painting from the Blue Period of a prostitute orally satisfying the young Picasso. There were also drawings by Picasso of Rafael and his model.

Some of the most remarkable parts of this selection were the reaffirmations of the Marquis De Sade through the arts of French surrealists. The same group of artists, published in the 19th century, had forbidden and ignored stories of Marquis De Sade.

The iconic artworks of the 20th century were also included in the exhibition at the Barbican Center: Bacon’s distorted bodies, Warhol’s Blowjob, works by Mapplethorpe, Koons, Thomas Ruffo etc. Andy Warhol was presented through two black and white movies. In one, The Kiss, – clearly inspired by the Motion Picture Production Code of that time –  couples are kissing longer than three minutes and the whole movie is 54 minutes long. This clashes with the industry rule that couples were not allowed to have lips touching longer than three minutes.

In Blowjob, for no less than 45 minutes the audience watches the face of a man who is obviously enjoying oral sex, filmed in such a way that the audience has the feeling that it is standing behind the camera and is almost inside the scene at the same time.

Seven photos of Mapleton’s X Portfolio were mounted here in London for the first time, with a set of 13 images in their original boxes followed by poems of Paul Schmidt. The same Portfolio was intended for the Corcoran Gallery in New York but was refused.

A year later, The Perfect Moment was shown in Cincinnati. It was heavily criticized, and the director of the gallery was sued for obscenity. Sadism and masochism showing homosexual and heterosexual activity made the photos hard to look at.

Amongst many other well known artists, the exhibition included the work of Jeff Koons showing the porn star "Ciccolina" (Ilona Staller), which the artist defended as the ability to show a bourgeois audience the satisfaction of banal products of mass culture without the feelings of guilt.

Seduced is not for the squeamish, but, thanks to the generosity of museums and galleries around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Louvre in Paris, the Tate Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, the Picasso Museum in Barcelona and 20 more, it is safe to say that this exhibition broadened the viewpoints of art audiences at the Barbican.

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