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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 October 2007, 11:03 GMT 12:03 UK
Erotic art traces history of sex
By Emily Buchanan
BBC News

It's an age-old question. When is art art and when is it simply pornography? A provocative exhibition at the Barbican in central London is helping fuel the debate.

Jupiter and Antiope by Rembrandt'
Rembrandt's 1659 work Jupiter and Antiope is part of the exhibition

Seduced - Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now contains works spanning 2000 years, by some of the most famous artists in the world, showing human beings in their most intimate moments.

Kate Bush, the Barbican's head of art, has spent five years putting the collection together.

"It's not about porn. It's a thoughtful exhibition, a celebration of what connects all human beings across time and cultures," says Ms Bush.

The aim of the show is to explore the history of what's accepted as art and to throw light on our current attitudes.

And certainly those attitudes have changed. The first exhibit is a cast of the bronze fig leaf which was made so that Queen Victoria would not be offended by the replica of Michelangelo's statue of David in London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

If you take the Japanese works they are very explicit. But they are sumptuous, beautiful, delicate and refined
Professor Martin Kemp

The visitor then passes a room of pottery showing the antics of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, through the voluptuous bodies of the Renaissance to contemporary works such as the stylised satirical photographs by Jeff Koons poking fun at the porn industry.

Martin Kemp is one of the show's curators and a professor of history of art at Oxford University.

'Sex and joy'

He says putting the exhibition together has taught him "how similar we are in terms of images of sex and joy, but also about the unease in the representation of this private act".

"There's no civilisation which hasn't had problems with it," he adds.

Requiem by KR Buxey
KR Buxey's Requiem (2002) shows her face as she receives oral sex
The curators have made a point of only including works which show sex between consenting adults. There is nothing which suggests violence or sex with children.

While many of the works can be seen at any major gallery on permanent exhibition, this collection bans under-18s from attending.

Certainly when a work is old it appears to us as more acceptable as art rather than pornography.

Professor Kemp says art is also more complicated than porn, arousing a mixture of emotions. The other big difference is the quality.

"It became clear where pornography stops and art starts," he explains.

"If you look at the frescoes from Herculaneum, they employed major artists.

"If you went to Soho to a brothel today, you don't expect major artists to be deployed.


"If you take the Japanese works, they are very explicit, more so than in the West.

"But the levels of artistry are high, they are sumptuous, beautiful, delicate and refined."

The Beautiful Servant (Pointless Resistance) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard
The Beautiful Servant by Fragonard is subtitled 'Pointless Resistance'
The Japanese prints were made by leading masters including Hokusai. The woodblock prints show men and women in elaborate clothes and equally elaborate poses and were intended for use in brothels and private homes.

There are also Chinese works showing beautiful scenes of gentle love-making in quiet gardens. Chinese erotic art is a little known tradition because so much was destroyed in the Mao era.

The exhibition throws light on how different cultures at different times have viewed sex.

What it reveals above all is how styles of art have changed over the centuries, while human beings and their desires have essentially stayed the same.

Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now runs until 27 January 2008.

Images from the erotic exhibition

Gallery urges visitors to strip
30 Jul 05 |  Entertainment
Art sex exhibition bans children
22 Feb 07 |  Entertainment

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