The art of seduction

Are these images tasteless? Did the Old Masters simply produce a better class of pornography? A new exhibition offers some answers, says Tom Lubbock

In the early 1970s, Kenneth Tynan was in the first stages of conceiving his erotic revue, Oh! Calcutta!, and found himself at a live show in Hamburg. If Tynan had gone to a venue on the fringes of Soho, he might have foundequally enchanting spectacles, featuring any number of well-built and clean young people. He might have enjoyed, for example, a group scene, with at its centre a young man and a woman, both naked, sweetly making love, mouth to mouth, fingers to nipples; or another, in which a naked child whips a naked man with a topless woman looking on; or a naked woman displayed, bound in chains to a rock; or a naked woman having full sex with a large bird; or an orgy involving adults, children andanimals both living and dead–though nothing in Hamburg or in Oh! Calcutta! went quite so far as that.

This venue is, of course, the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. And the spectacles I’ve described are paintings by (respectively) Bronzino, Veronese, Ingres, Michelangelo (attrib) and Poussin. And every day, with no admission fee and no age restrictions, the public are admitted and children – children – are allowed, indeed encouraged, to look at these things. And somehow we don’t notice. We’re experts at not noticing. Even with our post- Freud minds, or perhaps especially with our post-Freud minds, we’re inoculated against seeing what’s in front of our noses.

We’re quite good at spotting sex when it isn’t expressly there. We might well observe how strangely erotic a Crucifixion is, for instance. But as for noticing how unstrangely erotic, how overtly lascivious, the busy tongues and fingers in Bronzino’s Allegory with Venus and Cupidare, that seems to be beyond us. Wittgenstein noted how Freud himself would offer sexual interpretations of all kinds of dreams, but oddly never got around to mentioning explicitly sexual dreams; yet these, as Wittgenstein said, are “as common as rain”.

Likewise, explicit sex among the Old Masters – as common as rain. But it may take a stranger to see it and point out that not only the Emperor but everyone else has no clothes and are at it like dogs. The poet Baudelaire recalled taking a friend to a museum: “Louise Villedieu, a five franc whore, when accompanying me one day to the Louvre... started blushing and covering her face; and plucking at my sleeve, she asked, before the immortal statues and paintings, how people could put such obscenities on public display.”

And when it is pointed out? Well, you have to admit it. OK, in a way, if you insist, there is a great deal of open sex going on in the art of the Old Masters. Obviously.

Today, an exhibition opens at the Barbican Gallery dedicated to this obvious point. Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now begins with a fig leaf. It’s a cast of the bronze fig leaf that was made, for the benefit of Queen Victoria, to conceal the genitals of the replica of Michelangelo’s David in the Victoria and Albert Museum. But the target of the show is really the fig leaves we still wear over our eyes whenever we enter the precincts of art.

The notice outside warns that this exhibition contains work of a sexually explicit nature. It contains very little else. It presents such a parade of pictorial prick and bum, such a variety of postures, from Greek pots and Roman murals, from Leonardo, Rembrandt, Fragonard, Fuseli, Turner, Rodin, Picasso, Duchamp, Bacon, Warhol, Jeff Koons, that we’ll never be able not to notice it again.

Most people, coming across the heading Art and Sex, would think of the nude.

And nudes, female and male, are certainly part of it. Lying and posing in varied postures of passive availability or active flaunting, they’re clearly up for it. The Venetian nudes of Giorgione and Titian are openly playing with themselves. And it may even seem that the nude is the main way that European painting does sex. It all gets displaced on to the voluptuous body – or rather, on to the relationship between this body and the viewer. Japanese woodcuts may depict graphic scenes of intercourse between men and woman, with enormously enlarged genitalia, so that no detail of the action escapes us. But Western art doesn’t show these things directly.

It does,though. Seduced includes some of those Japanese prints, such as Hokusai’s extraordinary undersea vision of an octopus performing cunnilingus on a girl diver, while intricately enveloping her in its tentacles (eat your heart out, Leda). Andit has an amusing Turkish image of a ring of trouserless gentlemen wearing fezzes, each entering the one in front from behind. But the exhibition also emphasises that sex in European art is not confined to solo nudity. Scenes of interpersonal lust – penetration, masturbation, fellatio – are part of the canon, too.

The centrepiece of European sex art is a legendary series of images called IModi – “The Postures”. A Renaissance Kama Sutra, itwas designed by Raphael’s pupil Giulio Romano, engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi, and published in 1524. In his Lives of the Artists,Vasari recorded the fact with disgust: “In 20 sheets, the same number of positions, attitudes and postures in which immoral men lie with women, and – which was worse – for each position Messer Pietro Aretino created a most obscene sonnet.”

Aretino’s accompanying poems, full of cul and cazzo and potta, are pretty raw. As for the images, legendary is what they mainly remain. The Pope had Raimondi imprisoned for obscenity, and the church police ruthlessly hunted down and destroyed his prints. Just one original engraving survives, though others are preserved in crude copies.

In the Barbican show, IModi are represented, perhaps appropriately, only by a series of key-hole glimpses – a set of tantalising, postage-stamp-sized fragments that someone cut out from the original prints and stuck into an album. Whoever made this edit, they were for some reason mainly interested in the figures’ facial expressions. The odd foot or breast appears. Almost everything else is to be imagined. Butfaced with such images, and with many others just as flagrant, the old question returns. It may be sex. Can it possibly be art?

Around the time Tynan was in Hamburg, the art historian Kenneth Clark was appearing as an expert witness before Lord Longford’s Committee on Pornography, and he gave his opinion on this question. "To my mind art exists in the realm of contemplation… The moment art becomes an incentive to action, it loses its true character. This is my objection to painting with a communist programme, and it would also apply to pornography."

His objection would presumably also apply to painting with a Christian programme; that is, to a large proportion of European art from Giotto to Caravaggio – but let that pass. What Clark articulates is an idea that we’ve all picked up somewhere or other. Art stands apart. It should never be, as Clark nicely puts it, “an incentive to action” – though in this case it isn’t quite action that we’re talking about, but something rather more involuntary.

The issue, the problem, the thing that art as art must not incite or show, is sexual arousal. Actually, even Clark didn’t wholly rule it out. In his study of “The Nude”, he insisted that “no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow”. Others have put it more strongly. “Je peint avec mon bitre,” Renoir boasted: “I paint withmy prick.” And the show contains a forest of erections – by Aubrey Beardsley, Egon Schiele, the contemporary painter Marlene Dumas, and a rare Roman marble that hasn’t had it knocked off. As for the viewer, in one his last poems WB Yeats intoned: “Michael Angelo left a proof/ On the Sistine Chapel roof/Where but half-awakened Adam/ Can disturb globe-trotting Madam/ Till her bowels are in heat...”

Yeats imagines a complacent tourist in the Vatican, some proper American matron perhaps, confronted by that magnificent body and finding herself dissolving inuncontrollable lust. Nor does Yeats feel there’s anything wrong in this; one reason we have art, he says, is to help us “fill the cradles right”.

This view has good historical support. The Renaissance art critic, Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, celebrated the art of painting for its ability to stimulate the viewer in all sorts ofways. A picture “will cause the beholder to wonder when it wonders; to desire a beautiful young woman for a wife when he sees her painted naked; to have fellow-feeling when he sees affliction; to have an appetite when he sees the eating of dainties… etc.” Sexual arousal is calmly listed as just one of the uses of painting.

Again, a perfectly respectable 17th-century critic, Giulio Mancini, giving guidance on the best way to hang pictures in thehome, advises: “Lascivious pieces are to be placed in private rooms, and the father of the family is to keep them covered, andonlyuncover them when he goes there with his wife, or an intimate who is not too fastidious. And similar lascivious pictures are appropriate to the rooms where one has todowith one’s spouse; because once seenthey serve to arouse one, and to make beautiful, healthy and charming children…” To fill the cradles right, in short.

This gentleman’s backroom stuff makes you think of Goya’s pair of matching pictures, MayaClothed and MayaNaked, designed to be hung one in front of the other, andhinged, so that the dressed image could be swung back to reveal the naked one; pictorial striptease.

Or there is Courbet’s astonishing paintingTheOrigin of the World: simply a closeupview, between open thighs, of a woman’s pudenda. It was painted for a Turkish- Egyptian diplomat, who kept it behind a cover in his dressing room. It was believed lost – before it turned up, on his death, in thecollection of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who had also hung it behind a sliding panel. It will be on public view in the big Courbet show that opens this month at the Grand Palais in Paris.

The image can go beyond arousal, almost to consummation. When the surrealist Georges Bataille remarked that “no collector could ever love a work of art as much as a fetishist loves a shoe”, he hadn’t really thought the matter through. For, while an image of a house will never be a substitute for a house, nor an image of an apple for an apple, an image of a man or a woman can be a working substitute for the real thing – almost as good or, depending on your inclinations, even better.

There are many tales of iconophilia. The ancient historian Pliny gives one of the first, the story of a statue of Venus in the town of Cnidos, the masterwork of the sculptor Praxiteles. A young man became infatuated with this figure with a half-smile on its face, broke one night into its sanctuary, and “embraced it tightly in his arms, warming the cold marble with his burning kisses”, and ejaculated – “contaminating it with his lust, so that the stains ever after remained, as a monument to his impiety.” And Leonardo himself recalled: “It once happened to me that I made a picture representing a sacred subject which was bought by one who loved it – and then wished me to remove the symbols of divinity that he might kiss it without misgivings.”

Yet, having got to this point in the story – having agreed that there’s a great deal of sex in art, and that there are no hard distinctions between art and erotica and pornography, and that sexual arousal is a normal, not necessarily despicable response to images, while perhaps stopping short of active iconophilia, beyond the occasional peck – having got to this point, what then? Or, so what? Sex: there’s a lot of it about. But as for art, shouldn’t it have something to add?

That’s the limitation of this show. Sex is its punchline, its QED. As the curators declare: “Seduced is a celebration – a celebration of the makers of images who present such varied delights and surprises, of the artistry devoted to one of the great givens of the human condition.” But sex, beyond a pretty basic level, is not a given. It’s a matter of experience, and of taste. As the poet Ezra Pound observed: “Sex, in so far as it is not a purely physiological reproductive mechanism, lies in the domain of aesthetics…”

Which is where art really comes in. The makers of I Modi, after all, were passing onsomeuseful tips, some how tos and why not trys. And in more subtle and insinuating ways, many of the artists in this show, and many who aren’t, have explored and extended the repertoire of desire.

It’s normal to think that artists – the Pre-Raphaelites, say – can coin new kinds of beauty. But they also coin new varieties of sexiness. They imagine physical shapes and sensations we didn’t know we wanted. The body types invented by Donatello and Michelangelo, Titian and Rubens, Ingres and Courbet, even Francis Bacon, aren’t just sex objects, they’re sex-object lessons. But you don’t need an exhibition to make this point. Any major collection will do. So take that thought with you next time you go to the National Gallery. The Old Masters, they teach us how to love.

Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now, Barbican Art Gallery, London EC2 (020-7638 8891), today to 27 January

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