BOOK REVIEW / Pots of porn in the Attic: Greek erotica - by Martin F Kilmer, Duckworth pounds 50

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The Independent Culture
'WHEN correctly viewed / everything is lewd.' So claimed the American satirist Tom Lehrer in Smut, his glorious hymn to obscenity. But even at his wildest, Mr Lehrer did not suggest that cups and vases could be sources of erotic excitement.

The Greeks were more imaginative. Their equivalent of those top-shelf magazines was painted pottery. Martin Kilmer's severely academic tome is the first to examine systematically thousands of examples of erotic scenes from what he identifies as 'Attic, red-figure pottery c 520- 460BC - a high point in the development of Athens as a centre of the visual arts'. The artefacts come mainly from Etruscan graves.

The work is a joy, in part for its po-faced academicism. Consider:

On R192 by the Thalia Painter, a man figure (12) sits (as though toppling backwards) on the floor and touches the inner thigh (genitals?) of a dancing naked woman. His face is not close enough to touch her vulva, but that is without doubt a plausible next step. In R361 the A side that Beazley dubs 'Inspection', R Sutton takes as preparation for cunnilingus. The scowl which he sees on the woman's face he interprets as her expression of displeasure at the prospect. I am not convinced of this interpretation, though it is possible.

There are several hundred explict pictures, many of which would be too extreme for legal sale, even from the top shelf, in this country. Ejaculation, urination, excretion, pentration, oral and anal sex, homosexual intercourse, bestiality and what the courts describe as 'penetration with instruments' are all depicted, along with 'normal' group sex. We're talking Color Climax Corporation of Copenhagen here, not Penthouse.

So what was going on? Were these vessels something to be brought out secretively when the lads popped round for a late symposium? Or were they the equivalent of the best china, proudly displayed to friends and neighbours? Are we witnessing filth or religious rituals? Are the settings brothels, down-home orgies or temples? Were these (often very athletic) activities routinely practised? Are the scenes sociological fact or psycho-sexual fantasy?

You can stumble into deep waters here. For example, Kilmer devotes much time to learned yet inconclusive discussion of whether particular participants were slaves or free. This could supposedly tell us things about the socio-sexual contact across class lines. Yet, as Kilmer concedes, even if we could identify slave and free, we would be none the wiser until we decided whether we were witnesses to everyday events or to the pictorial breaking of taboos.

Then there is the question of collection and survival. Many of the great collections of the 18th and 19th centuries were put together by rich men with, shall we say, specialised tastes. Material that would appeal to them was collected, preserved and brought to their attention; other material was dumped. Their heirs often had what they deemed the most perverted parts of collections destroyed. Perhaps this is why there is less homosexuality on display here than in Classical literature. What's more, museums which built up or inherited collections of erotica often hid them away uncatalogued. So, as Kilmer admits, his sample may well be seriously skewed.

Although the author notes rather primly 'my knowledge of hard core printed visual pornography of the 20th century is admittedly limited', Professor Kilmer knows his porn. He points out that the most significant difference between ancient pottery and modern pornography, with its strong fantasy element, is that the former lacks the brutal sadism and masochism, bondage, beating and mutiliation that are almost commonplace today. Moreover, he remarks: 'Pornography in the 20th century tends to place a very low value on women, to portray them as proper objects not only for sex but for violence and degradation, and much recent (serious) erotic art contains an element of violence.'

In contrast, this Attic erotica contains relatively few scenes of violence against women and, when it does occur, the images often contain signals of disapproval by onlookers. On the whole, the pornography exhibited here involves people who seem to be enjoying themselves. No wonder the killjoys wanted it suppressed.

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