LONDON - By any standard, the rediscovery of Pompeii in 1748 was a key moment in the expansion of knowledge. Lava, pouring down from Mount Vesuvius in the year 79CE, petrified a Roman port and holiday town, leaving for the modern world its first detailed glimpse of urban life in antiquity. The slow archaeological unveiling of Pompeii, still in progress after two and a half centuries, also unsettled the West's collective understanding of sexuality, a point vividly illustrated in one of this season's major London exhibitions, Seduced: Art and Sex From Antiquity to Now, which runs till Jan. 27 at the Barbican Art Gallery.
In Pompeii's fashionable houses, the most prominent and beautiful wall paintings enthusiastically depicted coitus. On the streets brothels advertised themselves by painting huge penises on overhanging signs. Unabashed eroticism appeared in designs on jugs, lamps and jewellery.
It was inescapable: A great ancient republic, in many ways a model for recent societies, depicted sexuality as frankly as Europe and America depicted landscapes. How was a Christian society to deal with this fact?
The recovered art was historic, and therefore precious, but it was lascivious, and therefore offensive. Embarrassed politicians and curators decided to segregate it. It ended up in a special section at the archaeological museum in Naples, the Gabinetto Segreto, closed to all but scholars who could claim "serious" interest. Seven years ago the Gabinetto finally opened to the public, though you still have to buy a special ticket and endure a tendentious guide's persistent reminders that this is history, not pornography.
At the beginning of Seduced, spread over two floors in the Barbican Gallery, we're confronted by examples of erotic frescoes from Pompeii, their colours delicately aged under the lava. They set the tone of the show by reminding us that sexuality has often inspired high art and often been hidden.
Seduced is perhaps the most ambitious show on this subject ever organized. Certainly it's an astonishing curatorial accomplishment. Over five years, three British academics found some 300 items, representing two millennia and dozens of cultures. Loans came from museums across the world, and many private collectors.
The curators have put together 19th-century Iranian manuscripts illustrating various sexual positions, elegant Chinese paintings that surround sexual excitement with the serenity of lovely gardens and Indian illustrations whose models appear to have been contortionists. Leonardo da Vinci's Leda and the Swan is here, represented by a lovely copy of that lost masterpiece. So is Rembrandt's Jupiter and Antiope, an etching in which Jupiter prepares to rape a Theban princess. The modern artists include Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Francis Bacon and Louise Bourgeois. Robert Mapplethorpe's photos of gay sadomasochism are included, and so is an 18th-century Turkish drawing of an outlandish orgy: A circle of 10 men engages in collective, simultaneous sodomy, each of them wearing only a colourful jacket and fez.
The British Museum has lent an exquisitely executed woodblock print by the great Kitagawa Utamaro. It creates a sense of mystery while it literally depicts sex organs. An elegantly coiffed geisha, her lovely kimono open, strums the koto while her partly supine client penetrates her, thoughtfully holding his chin in one hand, a fan in the other. Utamaro's joke is unclear: Is he making fun of these multitaskers? Seduced contains many comic elements but I heard no laughter in the Barbarican. Looking around, I saw nothing but spectators with carefully arranged faces. Whatever freedom the art expresses, no one wants to be caught bringing a light heart to a subject we have always been told to treat with gravity.
The artists also have their forms of evasion. Oral sex, for instance, gets shown by indirection: We see reactions, but not the actions that cause them. A self-portrait in oil by the 22-year-old Picasso, Erotic Scene, shows him smiling as a woman fellates him, her long black hair hiding her face as well as his crotch. (The portrait is borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which has apparently never exhibited it.)
Nearby, Andy Warhol's Blowjob, the 1963 film of a man's face filmed while he experienced oral sex, runs continually, all 35 minutes of it. There's also a feminist answer to Warhol's film, Requiem, made in 2000 by k r buxey, a British video artist. In place of Warhol's anonymous stranger on the screen, buxey videotapes herself enjoying cunnilingus to a sound track of Fauré's Requiem. The music underscores buxey's expressions, which recall the ecstasies of female saints in medieval paintings. (At the end, buxey murmurs a quiet "thank you" to her unseen partner.)
Freedom in the 21st century, compared with the inhibitions of earlier times, inevitably becomes one of the show's themes. But even today this kind of work can't be exhibited without at least vestigial anxiety. The show is closed to everyone under 18, lest the authorities charge the Barbican with corrupting the young. The curators demonstrate their unease by announcing in a wall text that "Sexual reproduction is the process by which we have come into being."
While possibly grateful for this information, the visitor may wonder why it's there. After all, not one item in the show refers to reproduction as the purpose of sexual activity: The subject is sexual pleasure. But the curators apparently found it necessary to insert a healthy, edifying note, to justify themselves in the spirit of our times. They also point out, in case we didn't notice, that "We have excluded exploitative images that are savagely aggressive or degrading." The campaigns against child pornography have obviously impressed them.
The exhibition's oddest exhibit doesn't claim to be art. It's a plaster cast of a 50-centimetre-high bronze fig leaf intended to protect the modesty of Queen Victoria. In 1857, when the Grand Duke of Tuscany presented to England a cast of Michelangelo's David and it was installed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the management of that museum feared that the queen would find David's genitals offensive. The fig leaf was duly made, to be hooked onto the statue when she visited the V&A. This is one point in Seduced where visitors feel free to laugh -- but discreetly, of course, in memory of the good queen herself and the sensibility of her era, a period that art has ever since been trying to escape.