Sexology and the City; an Upcoming Show of Sex-Related Art and Objects Reflects over a Century of Research into the Most Primal Ofhuman Behaviour, Says Ben Luke, and the Exhibits Still Have the Power to Shock, Titillate and Surprise

The Evening Standard (London, England), November 6, 2014 | Go to article overview

Sexology and the City; an Upcoming Show of Sex-Related Art and Objects Reflects over a Century of Research into the Most Primal Ofhuman Behaviour, Says Ben Luke, and the Exhibits Still Have the Power to Shock, Titillate and Surprise


Byline: says Ben Luke

IT SAYS a lot about the Wellcome Collection's new exhibition that we can't show you a great deal of what's in it. From a totemic phallus on an ancient Peruvian jug to a series of photographs of people today sitting proudly alongside their homemade sex machines, The Institute of Sexology features a wealth of sexrelated stuff that's too strong for these pages.

The show's essentially a bold invitation to talk about -- and indeed look at -- sex. Initially prompted by the latest edition of the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, which the Wellcome Trust funded, it explores the history of research into sexuality through more than 200 artworks, objects, photographs and archive material.

These take us from pioneering but now amusingly conservative 19th-century sexologists to a doctor -- Jean-Martin Charcot -- who turned the study of sexuality into a brutal kind of entertainment. An engraving by Andre Brouillet shows Charcot giving a lecture on hysteria -- then connected with the dangers of female sexuality -- in the hospital of La Salpetriere, Paris, in 1887. His subject, a partially undressed woman called Blanche, stands in front of him as he explains her case to the men around him. Turning the medical study of a vulnerable woman into a kind of entertainment looks cruel today but Sigmund Freud, who studied at the hospital between 1885 and 1886, enjoyed the theatricality of Charcot's approach, writing that he "had the nature of an artist". Freud later hung a print of Brouillet's painting above his famous couch.

The exhibition also includes work by contemporary artists who add to the debate in unexpected and often provocative ways. And, of course, it looks at the famous -- and sometimes infamous -- figures who've defined sexual studies in our imagination, from Sigmund Freud to Marie Stopes and Alfred Kinsey.

Many of the exhibits -- a taste of which follows -- are funny, a lot of them are eye-popping, and some of them, especially when they expose prejudice and sexual violence, are genuinely shocking. What they all add up to is a rich exploration of this most complex and ubiquitous, universal yet private, of subjects.

scandalous shockers ?. Few artworks exposed the late 19th-century attitudes to sex as powerfully as Oscar Wilde's 1893 play Salome, the retelling of the New Testament tale of the young woman who performs the "dance of the seven veils", as Wilde called it, for her stepfather (and uncle) King Herod, in return for the head of John the Baptist. The sensuality of Salome's dance and the brutality of her request fitted the fin-de-siecle obsession with hysteria, which equated women's sexuality with madness. Wilde's play created a scandal and was banned in late-Victorian London, technically because it was illegal to depict biblical characters on the stage. Aubrey Beardsley's menacing yet elegant illustrations perfectly reflect the tone and themes of Wilde's play, and The Climax (shown here) captures one of its most controversial and startling moments, when Salome says of John the Baptist's severed head: "I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit."

henry's fruity fun ?. The man who gave the Wellcome Collection its name, Henry Wellcome, gathered more than 600 erotic objects as part of his vast holdings reflecting the history of medicine, including a small porcelain fruit containing a tiny couple engaged in sexual foreplay. Wellcome collected objects that illustrate a theory of "phallic worship", connecting sex with religion, so many of his objects are ancient fertility symbols. But it's a dizzyingly broad collection -- chastity belts, a box of rather exquisite wood and tortoiseshell sex aids from Japan, a frankly alarming anti-masturbation device for men made from spiked metal, and this rather more gentle ceramic trinket, below, from the Far East. …

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Sexology and the City; an Upcoming Show of Sex-Related Art and Objects Reflects over a Century of Research into the Most Primal Ofhuman Behaviour, Says Ben Luke, and the Exhibits Still Have the Power to Shock, Titillate and Surprise
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