Sunday, February 25, 2007

Victorian Cover-Up

An exhibition scheduled to open in October at the Barbican in London is apparently so risqué that no one under 18 will be admitted. It also promises to capture certain aspects of the Victorians' conflicted attitudes toward sex.

"Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now" will chart more than 2,000 years of sex in art via 250 objects, from ancient Greek pottery to works by Jeff Koons. "We think we live in a very liberal climate," says Kate Bush, Barbican's head of galleries, "but this exhibition will reveal how contingent on time and place is our attitude to sex."

The Victorians will be well covered (er...uncovered) in the exhibition, which is thought to be the first-ever survey of the visual representation of the sexual act. Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley and examples of nineteenth-century pornography are included, as is a 20-inch plaster cast fig leaf (shown here) commissioned to hide the private parts of a copy of Michelangelo's David presented to Queen Victoria in 1857 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. (The story goes that on her first encounter with the David, the queen was so shocked by its nudity that the proportionally accurate fig leaf was quickly made for it.) The sinuous and deeply veined leaf could be attached to the relevant part of David's anatomy by means of two metal hooks (yeow!) Both casts are now part of the Cast Courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum; the fig leaf is so famous in its own right that it has its own web page.

Another section of the exhibition will focus on the sexual lives of nineteenth-century painters and sculptors, including Auguste Rodin and JMW Turner, who filled his private notebooks with explicit sketches of individuals engaged in sexual acts--drawings that one "would never immediately associate with the artist's other work," according to co-curator Marina Wallace.

"Presenting a powerful sensory experience, the exhibition highlights the relationship between viewer and artwork and provides the historical and cultural framework for us to question our own boundaries," say the curators. "Where does art stop and pornography begin? Is an explicit painting from an ancient Pompeian brothel acceptable (hallowed by time), while its modern equivalent is not? Because something can claim 'aesthetic merit' can it be exempted from charges of obscenity?"

Good questions for us, and questions that preoccupied many thinking Victorians. More on this in the months ahead...

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