Exhibition visited in November 2007
An exhibition about sex and art is a minefield for any reviewer. Art, at the best of times, is a place where declaring opinions and expressing tastes are likely to meet with violent reactions with those with different aesthetical or philosophical viewpoints. Throw sex into the mix, and you have a forum where the possibility of having one reader agree with you diminishes to some micro-infinitesimal point.
So what can I say about the Barbican’s latest themed exhibition, Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now, that might make sense to anybody else?
What was perhaps most striking about this exhibition was its close focus on the actual depiction of sex, rather than treating sex as a broader theme. The lower floor in particular, which contained art from antiquity to the early twentieth century, had its fair share of penises and vaginas and artistic attempts to represent intercourse. Some were comic, some were very strange, but one noted how difficult the task has been – the artist is trying include a third person, the viewer, in an act that is essentially (although not always) for two people. Many of the bodies seemed oddly shaped, as lovers twisted round to really prove they were engaged in penetration. After a while, you understand why. To prove it’s really sexual intercourse, the viewer needs to see the penis enter the vagina, or at least a moment just before penetration; otherwise the sexual organs are hidden, and the viewer (perhaps like a child spying sex for the first time) is not a hundred percent sure of what is exactly going on.
Unknown artist, Satyr seducing a nymph, c. 45 – 79 C.E. National Museum of Archaeology, Naples – originally in Pompeii. (The curators did a wonderful job in bringing so much antique art to London)
Not all images were like this. In fact, the Japanese prints, such as Kitagawa Utamaro’s Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow), revelled in the confusion, obscuring faces, letting cloaks trail over bodies, and then suddenly revealing valleys of flesh. Notable too, the flowing strands of pubic hair, luxuriating in their freedom, a contrast to the western impulse to deny that such hair even exists. Tracing through the lines of these prints, which parts are male, which parts female? Is it indeed a heterosexual liaison? Who is the dominant partner? The body as depicted in these Japanese prints becomes amorphous, identities become blurred – perhaps a truer definition of what sex really is. The images are all the more powerful for such a perspective. Interestingly it was a tradition followed up a contemporary artist, Nobuyoshi Araki, two hundred years later. His beautiful images lined the stairway of the Barbican gallery, a suite of sixteen or so photographs where often one found oneself never quite knowing which body part you were being treated to a close-up of.
Kitagawa Utamaro, Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow). The British Museum, London
But even the Japanese prints grew a little tiresome after a while. Would it be possible to say that too much sex is boring? Maybe too much sex dulls the mind, and it was perhaps too easy to skip over little gems such as Rembrandt’s etching of the monk engaged in some vigorous rustic activities with a willing partner. Part of the reason for this was because the show’s commitment to historical accuracy, i.e. relating the depiction of sex from antiquity to now. This allowed for the exposure of the attitudes of previous generations, where sex was, according to the exhibition, something that was repressed, hidden away, and uncoupled from daily life. The pre-modern sex depicted in this show has elements of a schoolboy’s eyes-on-stilts curiosity – furtive, sniggering and obsessed by it physical aspects, reaching its apogee in the seaside-tackiness of the (awful) early French pornography on show.
Rembrandt, Monk having sex, 1646, etching, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
The first floor, largely featuring contemporary work, was much more self-reflective. From Mapplethorpe’s eye-watering S&M portraits, through Koon’s knowing parodies to buxey’s orgasmic self-portrait, there was much greater concern for the variety of sexual expression and allowing the subject to escape from the eroticised gaze of the viewer. The show had something of a Whiggish air – progress from a childish view of sex to a much more mature one.
The exhibition’s final piece, Nan Goldin’s portrait slideshow of four ordinary couples, continued this trend. One of the standouts of the show it worked by not straining too hard. Certainly the work was helped by an ethereal soundtrack by John Tavener and sung by the ever-strange Bjork (I’m never quite sure if having a moving soundtrack is cheating or not), but it introduced a tenderness into representing sex that was strangely missing elsewhere in the exhibition. Each set of slides juxtaposed photos of the couples’ sex life with plenty of others them not engaged in sex – having baths, playing with their children, hugging, lying in bed, relaxing on the sofa. The subjects depicted were no longer curiosities, or vessels simply existing so as to represent the sexual impulse, but actual people whose sex life interlocked with a complex set of emotions relating to family, warmth and love. Maybe the best way to depict sex is not to focus on the sex to show what happens around it.