Sex education

Tracing the representation of sex from antiquity to the present, the Barbican’s forthcoming art blockbuster, Seduced, suggests parallels between erotic and aesthetic pleasure, and so questions the distinction between pornography and art. By juxtaposing the works of Francis Bacon, Robert Mapplethorpe and Jeff Koons with the libertine fantasies of their forbears, the curators invite us to explore the extraordinary range of visual symbolism and iconography that has been assigned to sex. The enemies here – as ever – are the Victorians, who implicitly stand accused of alienating humanity from its sexual nature. A cast of the fig leaf used to conceal the genitals of Michelangelo’s David from Queen Victoria’s sensitive gaze is on display as a symbol of the triumph of prudery over exotic and exuberant art. Some effectively censored themselves, like JMW Turner, who secretly sketched sexual acts in his notebook while maintaining a Jekyll-like propriety in the public eye. While the emphasis on sex guarantees a certain amount of prurient interest – under-18s are pointedly excluded – the real interest of the exhibition stems from the interactions between erotic art and various kinds of censorship.

Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now runs from 12 October until 27 January 2008 at the Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London EC2

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