IT IS the fashion now at exhibitions to embellish the display of paintings with an artist's aphorisms writ as large as Mene Mene Tekel on Belshazzar's wall.
Portentous and sybilline, they are chosen to inflate the utterer's intellectual significance, but on the day devoted to St Scholastica I saw one that with a trifling adjustment made me laugh out loud and shatter the high seriousness that obtains in the old Tate Gallery on Millbank. Scholastica is the patron saint of convulsive children and for a moment I was as convulsed as any by my puerile humour, for above a painting of Samson and Delilah were these words by Henry Fuseli: "The forms of virtue are erect,/ The forms of pleasure undulate."
More apposite the other way round, methought - the forms of pleasure are erect - for this painting is of a rarely illustrated incident in the torrid Biblical romance, the second episode of bondage. "Bind me fast," said Samson, "with new ropes, for then I shall be weak ..."
And bind him Delilah did, and had her way with him, but when the Philistines entered their chamber he broke the ropes like thread. We have the moment of their breaking - a giant of a man, scarcely contained within the picture's frame, naked, lying on his side to face us, his great thighs parted as he kicks off the ropes, his genitals discreetly muffled by the corner of a sheet that draws attention to his tumescence.
Turn Samson so that he is upright and we immediately see that his origin lies in a saved soul from Michelangelo's Last Judgement - certainly the vocabulary of muscular forms is from that great and influential painting, a quarry of noble motifs for artists in the 18th century, but here we see them used for erotic, even homo- erotic, purpose.
Were this picture isolated we might easily take it in dry art historical stride as very much of its time - 1784 - and as likely to be found in Denmark or Sweden as in London, but this minor work by a minor artist of Franco-Italian origin working here, John Francis Rigaud, is far from alone in mood. It is set deep within an exhibition, largely of his greater contemporaries and principally of Fuseli, and by the time we reach it even the most worldweary and philosophical of men must be quivering with the excitement of secret sexual longing and fetishes revealed.
Here in abundance is evidence of man's too willing subservience to dominant women, of the fantasies of pain, bondage and torment at the hands of women that haunt the minds of men and boys. Man's more straightforward interest in women is demonstrated in images of conjugation with them, singly and in pairs, and less directly by proxy in the fetish elements of sharp little shoes and ornately braided hair.
There is evidence too of homo-eroticism, even of quiescent homosexuality, in the long-limbed, muscular and classically handsome superheroes of mythology and history, their forms those of the ecorche figures from which the skin has been stripped to reveal the long strong muscles and tendons that lie immediately beneath - every artist had access to them in the later 18th century. Yet even with these, uncertainty creeps in when Kriemhild holds the head of kneeling Siegfried hard against her groin, and Othar is gentleman enough not to rape Siritha.
Among such images as these it is not the forms of virtue that are erect, but the form of man's most obvious, evident and ever-present instrument of pleasure.
We look on the 18th century as the Age of Enlightenment, and so it was, but it was also an age with a more human side. Physics, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics, anatomy and engineering advanced in leaps and bounds; in many areas of enquiry men suddenly knew the reason why, and where they did not, they understood that collecting, cataloguing and categorising would eventually answer questions they did not know that they must ask; but in the visual arts they asked themselves which female nude they'd like the better to fuck - and used that frank word for it in their letters and journals - this painting or that sculpture. …