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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 October 20; 335(7624): 827.
PMCID: PMC2034719
Review of the Week

Reader, I didn't blush

Reviewed by Colin Martin, independent consultant in healthcare communication, London

An exhibition focusing on representations of the sex act down the ages shows that the way sex is depicted is as unchanging as sex itself, Colin Martin finds

Spanning 2000 years of art from around the world, Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now is the first exhibition to deal specifically with explicit representations of sexual intercourse. Although earlier exhibitions have covered other aspects of sex, its curators believe that it is the first to deal specifically with coitus.

“We are all here because of a sexual act,” say curators Marina Wallace, Martin Kemp, and Joanne Bernstein. “The union of two bodies is an act of extraordinary physical and emotional immediacy. The prelude, the process of seduction, the act itself, and the immediate aftermath provide the focus for our exhibition.” Their selection of works is panoramic, with no holds barred, although the 250 works primarily show consensual sex between adults. Rape is restricted to depictions of mythological incidents, in which male gods have assumed many inventive guises to force themselves on nymphs.

Entry to the gallery is restricted to over 18s; however, thoughts of sex shops, men in raincoats, or catalogues wrapped in brown paper are inappropriate. Fig leaves have fallen—the first exhibit is a plaster leaf made to cover the genitals of a plaster cast of Michelangelo's David to spare Queen Victoria's blushes—but intellectual propriety remains firmly in place throughout the show. Intimate viewing spaces, decorated in 18th century colours, hint at earlier, private closets of erotica but are ideal for close inspection of works on paper.

Depicting Jupiter's exploits was a standard recourse for Western artists when patrons sought overtly sexual subjects. Rembrandt's 1659 drypoint etching Jupiter and Antiope depicts the god as a lusty half man, half goat, lasciviously pulling aside bedcovers to reveal Antiope's discreetly shadowed pudenda. Unlike artists in Europe, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese graphic artists of the 17th to 19th centuries depicted sex more explicitly. Illustrations for Japanese woodblock prints known as “shunga” were intended for use in brothels and private homes, to excite both sexes. A Japanese watercolour painted around 1830 shows a man and woman stimulating each other, their genitalia instructively depicted on a larger scale than their naked bodies. Oysters are scattered in the foreground.

The exhibition considers the roles of Sigmund Freud and Alfred C Kinsey in interpreting and studying sexual practices. Freud's work revealed that traumatic memories were often related to sexual experiences before puberty. His influence is apparent in contemporary work by Viennese artists, including Egon Schiele. Eros (1911), a young man with a red erect penis, and Woman with Black Stockings (1913), displaying her pudenda, convey feverish, psychologically charged sensuality. Later, the Surrealists were indebted to the psychoanalyst's notion of unconsciousness as the seat of erotic desire.

Kinsey's work is represented by a series of projected images of photographs of sexual acts, which constituted the “primary material” he used in his groundbreaking surveys of human sexual behaviour, climaxing in the publication of Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female (1953). The Association of Women Students at Indiana University, which in 1938 asked him to teach human sexual biology to married students or those about to marry, can't have known what they were starting.

Collecting and classifying specimens was second nature for the entomologist Kinsey, who compulsively collected 75 000 erotic photographs and films and 7000 other kinds of visual images of sex. “No other survey with a scientific basis has ever been enriched by a collection of imagery in such a fundamental way,” comments Wallace.

An unknown photographer's 1943 image, donated to the Kinsey Institute in 1960, classified as Coitus Female Supine Ventral-Ventral Male Prone, captures a naked couple on the front seat of a car. The man's head turns over his left shoulder towards the photographer with a quizzical expression, in a sensuous tableau that could equally have been carved by a Roman sculptor, showing a startled satyr caught in flagrante with a nymph. Attitudes regarding displaying depictions of coitus might alter over centuries; the depictions, however, haven't changed.


Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now

Barbican Art Gallery, London, until 27 January 2008

Rating: ****

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