A phallos-bird flies into the Barbican
Readers of the Stothard blog will have guessed that I have been prepping for the Greeks vs Romans battle at the Cheltenham Literary Festival tomorrow. So off to the new “Seduced” exhibition at the Barbican Gallery, the new show on “art and sex” through the ages to see how the ancient world fared.
It was, of course, a walk-over for the Romans. True, there were some very pretty Greek pots, decorated with various scenes of (rather uncomfortable-looking) copulation. But the Roman material was predictably more inventive. The show had got a real star in the gorgeous marble hermaphrodite from the Borghese Gallery in Rome. Come up to her from behind, and you’d think she was a lovely sleeping lady, walk round to take a look at her face – and, whoops, you find that she’s not exactly a lady, after all: she got breasts and a penis.
There were also some wonderfully writhing satyrs and nymphs, not to mention a good range of Pompeian erotica. I’ve always thought that one of the best ways of undermining male phallic power was to cast a phallus in bronze, give it some wings (that’s the “phallus-bird”) , hang bells on it, then hang it up as a wind-chime . And that, of course, is exactly what the Romans did – as you can see in the show.
The exhibition actually goes up to the twentieth century and is well worth a look (I particularly liked the “nipple-buttons” on sale in the shop). But overall I thought it was rather less than stimulating.
I did have another motive for going, as I’d been asked to review it for “Night Waves”, that excellent Radio 3 arts programme (the kind of thing the BBC exists to do, I emphasise – on the outside chance that any Trustee is reading this). So I gave the whole of it a pretty good going over.
The problem was not just the individual pieces they had chosen (and actually there were some good things: connoisseurs will appreciate my pleasure at seeing Warhol’s “Blow Job” (that's a still from it on the right) next to k r buxey’s “Requiem”). It was the slightly serious, po-faced tone of much of the information material. Although the Barbican is getting a lot of publicity for giving the whole exhibition an “18 certificate” (under-18s are not allowed in, even though they can surf much raunchier stuff than this on their own computer screens), when you get inside there’s a whiff of health and safety about it all. At the entrance to the harder core rooms (Mapplethorpe, for example, or -- bizarrely -- the Kinsey room), there is polite little notice to the effect of “This room contains explicit material which some visitors my find offensive”. Hooray I thought, isn’t that why we’ve come?
But what got me crossest, when I got home with the catalogue, was what they seemed to think they were saying about the Greeks and Romans. No surprise that antiquity was painted, as it usually is, as an admirable age of freedom of sexual expression (so, excuse me, why was there such a fuss about Praxiteles’ representation of the first female nude in marble?). Worse was the medley of misinformation. Have the Greeks and Romans gone so far off the cultural radar that even academic writers like these feel OK pontificating about ancient history without actually checking with someone who knows?
Athenian pots from time to time get described as ‘Etruscan’. OK, they were mainly found in Etruria (and Josiah Wedgwood – who called his factory Etruria in honour of that -- would have felt at home). But they weren’t made there. And even a Romano-phile like me wouldn’t want to give any credit for these to the Italian soil.
But take the first sentence of the preface. “Inherent in the Latin meaning of ‘seduced’ is the concept of ‘bringing close to oneself’ from seducere.”– Hang on. . . There may be a few examples in Latin where that idea is a factor, But the point about seducere is the se- which means “away” or “separate”. Just the reverse.
‘O tempora O mores’, as Cicero would say.