Category Archives: Exhibitions

What The Pompeiians Really, Really Liked…

A review of the British Museum’s Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition, which first appeared on the Erotic Review.

Richard O’Brien visits the British Museum’s Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

In Théophile Gautier’s Arria Marcella, three young French tourists visit Pompeii. All three, in typical Romantic fashion, are both charmed and alarmed by the coming together of old and new; by the ancient ruins and the railway line, the way that its smashed-open houses look as if the residents have just popped up to stock up on garum. But one, Octavien, finds himself dumbstruck by ‘a heap of black coagulated ashes’ which preserve ‘the outline of a beautiful bosom’; the form of a torso preserved throughout the ages, when ‘many vanished empires have left no trace behind them.’  Later that night, he experiences a fantastic vision in the ruined city that puts him in direct contact with the past, and with the female figure who testifies both to its vivid physical existence and its transience. But by the morning, his time-transcending love affair has shattered into dust and ashes.

Gautier’s story tells us little about the real Pompeii, but a great deal about our attitude to the Roman world. Other than adding a dash of eros into archaeology a full century before Indiana JonesArria Marcella sets up a relationship with the past familiar from any historical documentary or drama; that the best way to get intimately acquainted with a vanished empire is to imagine how its residents got intimate with each other. When we visit a show like the British Museum’s Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which offers us the prospect of looking into the eyes – and under the sheets – of a long-dead civilisation, frozen for eternity by Mount Vesuvius, in a sense we are all Octavien.

Some of the artefacts in the show – a fat Hercules drunkenly pissing, a gorgeous mosaic of a nameless woman, her lips still impossibly rouged – have the paradoxical thrill of the familiar, the feeling that what we are seeing could belong to right now, but enchants precisely because it doesn’t. Gautier’s time-tourist rejoices when a real Roman understands his schoolboy Latin – but if our forebears are just us with more interesting accents, is what we like about this kind of show the image it provides of our own selves?

Fresco showing a satyr and maenad in an intimate embrace. House of Lucius Caecilius lucundus, Pompeii. © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei

When it comes to the ‘erotic’ art on display, however, it’s soon clear that the past is another country, and its systems of governance almost entirely phallocratic. For our purposes, there’s disappointingly little from the fabled Secret Cabinet in the former Bourbon Museum in Naples, a room so scandalous it once required three separate keys and an Oxbridge degree to get into. There is, however, an abundance of cocks – cocks upon cocks upon cocks, in the case of one especially illuminating garden ornament. There are cocks on children’s jewellery; cock-lamps you could fill with oil and light. There are cocks on statues of public notables; not drawn on, but moulded from brass and affixed at cock-height in a style of sculptural representation known as a ‘herm’, which was so common they actually had a name for it. The prevailing Pompeiian philosophy appears to have been ‘If you liked it, then you should have put a cock on it’, and based on these artefacts alone, there were clearly a number of things that the Pompeiians liked.

But setting this flight of phallic fancy aside, these items speak of one of the exhibition’s central themes – the Pompeiians seen at home, as ordinary citizens, with their everyday objects and their safeguarded treasures, not just their gold and silver, but their figs and flour. And in describing this particular fashion in home decoration (‘Coming next year: The Cath Kidston ‘Balls’ Range!’) as ‘erotic’, we do a disservice to the cultural uniqueness we are supposed, as visitors, to be appreciating, absorbing it into our own live-and-let-live permissiveness.

Pottery oil lamp in the shape of a satyr with an enourmous phallus. © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei

Whatever your own views on the human penis – join the debate! – it seems a little, well, cock-eyed to assume that every time it appeared in the Pompeiian home it did so in an erotic context. Some of these representations are comic; some stand for good luck, health and prosperity; some apparently exist because the eye of the glans struck someone as apt to make a damn fine candle-holder. It’s our own post-Christian prurience that wants Graeco-Roman genitalia to signify in the same way ours do. It’s a feedback loop of shock and expectation. And by focusing on what seems to be the permanent sexual exposure of those whose lives Vesuvius both claimed and prolonged, we forget the questions raised by our voyeuristic fascination with their deaths. A museum guard  at closing time chivvying the gawping visitor past the plaster casts of a carbonised family doubles an indignity it’s convenient to ignore.

Which doesn’t mean all the art in the exhibition is entirely innocent, either – there are frescoes of blurry, energetic lovers, a surprisingly dead-eyed satyr feeling up a somewhat impassive maenad, and the pièce de resistance, a sculpture of the Great God Pan balls-deep in a she-goat which, in the face of substantial odds to the contrary, is not without tenderness on the part of caprine deity and artist alike. But for me, the closest the museum comes to bringing us into bed with the Romans is a textual, not a sexual, artefact: a crude, cramped graffito which, translated, reads: ‘I wish I were the gem [of your signet ring] just for an hour, to kiss you when you moisten it.’

Looking for the erotic art of Pompeii, it’s all too tempting to become Octavien, our burning eyes lifting the skirts of history. But nor should we approach these artefacts like Actaeon – the hunter who stumbled upon the virgin goddess Diana bathing, and was turned into a stag and torn limb from limb by his loyal hounds. The Romans weren’t scared of sexuality, and unlike us, the people this exhibition honours didn’t confine the human body and its more enjoyable functions to a secret cabinet, behind closed doors. All of these objects were designed to be viewed – what none of their makers realised is just how long there would be an audience for the images they captured of their physical lives.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

British Museum

Until 29 September 2013
Advance booking essential

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Art and Exhibitions interviews

Here are some interviews about art and museum exhibitions across Europe I conducted for EURadioNantes.

Richard O’Brien meets Elisabeth Taburet-Delahaye, curator of the Musée de Cluny.

As the curator of France’s national Museum of the Middle Ages, it’s Elisabeth Taburet-Delahaye’s task to bring the past to life, and occasionally, to use it to cast a light on the issues of the present day. The museum’s current exhibition, in life in medieval Croatia, illustrates a community of artistic exchange which adds to our understanding of the period’s international culture; particularly relevant when such questions of exchange are back on the table, as the country joins the European community. An upcoming show, on Ancient Near Eastern games, demonstrates the continuity of pastimes in past times. The museum constantly stresses the renovating element of the Middle Ages – so often overlooked – and has itself recently undertaken a renovation of its best-known work, the ‘Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestries. Elisabeth Taburet-Delahaye explains the process of conserving such a crucial historical artefact; but even when cleaning the surface of the tapestry, the life of the past is still at a distance. Here Elisabeth discusses with Richard the historical event she would most like to have been present for, to see the citizens of medieval Paris in all their joyous, leaping life.


Richard O’Brien meets Mar Dixon, organiser of the #AskACurator social media event

Even for those of us who love museums, sometimes it can seem like artefacts are acquired and preserved and exhibitions are organised behind closed doors. As visitors, we all have nagging questions ; how do you really know what dinosaurs looked like ? Whose job is it to reconstruct Ming vases ? How do you clean a Roman coin ? Mar Dixon organised Ask A Curator Day to answer just these questions. Through a Twitter hashtag, museum punters are put in direct contact with the staff who prepare collections and exhibitions for the general public in institutions all around the world. Mar explains how this can be beneficial for curators themselves as well as ordinary museumgoers. The results of her enquiries are available on her website,


Richard O’Brien meets Dr Tobias G Natter, to discuss the exhibition ‘Naked Men’ at Vienna’s Leopold Museum.

Long before Hemingway took Fitzgerald to the Louvre’s Greek sculpture galleries to reassure his fellow writer about the size of his Gatsby, our culture has had a troubled relation to the depiction of the naked male form in art. Now the Leopold Museum in Vienna has assembled an exhibition to rectify the balance, presenting solely images and sculptures of naked men from the Enlightenment to the present day. Richard O’Brien speaks to curator Dr Tobias G Natter, to find out how the public perception of the male anatomy has changed throughout artistic history, and to discuss the attitudes which, among other things, his exhibition is helping to expose.


Richard O’Brien meets Colin Harrison, curator at Oxford’s Ashmolean Musuem

The Ashmolean Museum holds the world’s largest collection of artefacts relating to Edward Lear, the famous 19th century nonsense poet who was also a talented ornithological painter. When curator Colin Harrison realised no other museum had commissioned an exhibition to celebrate the bicentenary of Lear’s birth, he sprang into action, putting together a show at the last minute, mostly from private loans. He spoke to Richard O’Brien about the challenges and pleasures that the task provided. Or in other words:

There was a curator called Colin

Who heard the Oxonian bells tollin’

‘There’s no show about Lear?

Well, we’d best have it here!’

Said that lover of nonsense, old Colin.


Richard O’Brien meets Ian Hunter, from the Littoral Arts Trust

In 1937, the Nazi government of Germany staged an exhibition in Munich. The theme: entartete Kunst, translated as ‘degenerate art’. Ian Hunter, director of British arts charity the Littoral Arts Trust, stresses the importance of the works and the artists the Nazis attempted to suppress for the development of European art; although they were only grouped together by their censors, their shared rejection of the classicist purity of form so valued by a party obsessed by the idea of Aryan perfection was at once deeply troubling and inspirational, depending on where you stood. One artist forced to leave his homeland as a result of a purge that had as much to do with aesthetic as with political concerns was Kurt Schwitters; his final Merzbau installation in Cumbria, in the North of England, already serves, in its fragmentary, isolated nature, as a memorial to the potential artistic future that the Nazis attempted to destroy. But Ian Hunter wants to create a more permanent, and more general, memorial in the beautiful landscape of the Lake District to the generation of artists who, in their iconoclastic originality, showed most clearly the capacity of creativity to resist the forces of evil.


Richard O’Brien meets Andy Ellis, from the Public Catalogue Foundation.

Every British citizen owns over 200,000 oil paintings; but that doesn’t mean you’ll find them hanging in an ordinary home. In museums, libraries, schools and police stations across the UK there is a huge collection of publicly owned art, and over the last decade Andy Ellis has been tirelessly working to photograph and digitise every holding for the ‘Your Paintings’ project. It’s a mammoth undertaking, but the outcome will be a world first; complete online access to an entire national art corpus. Here Andy discusses the project’s genesis, how his team went about their task, and his plans for the future of ‘Your Paintings’. You can look at the paintings here, and if you’re British, you should, because you literally own them:


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Grayson Perry’s The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman/Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem

The New Year is traditionally a time for looking to the past as well as the future, and for the first post of 2012 I’d like to cast an eye over two of the last year’s cultural big hitters, both of which do exactly what the season encourages. Three days before the end of 2011, I made it to Grayson Perry’s British Museum exhibition, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, and Jerusalem at the Apollo Theatre, in what’s billed as the final incarnation of the original production of Jez Butterworth’s 2009 play on the London stage. The two work together well, because both focus on the interplay between the modern and the ancient; between history and timelessness.

Knock knock

A point made by Perry in his copious exhibition notes is that we are more inclined to admire, even venerate, an artefact that has the ‘patina of age’ over a noticeably contemporary production. It’s in this spirit that The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman contains historical relics side by side with replicas, and asks us to consider the difference in value between an ‘authentic’ object and a convincing fake. Many of Perry’s own objects are deliberately convincing fakes: one of the first to meet the visitor’s eye is a piece entitled Early English Motorcycle Helmet, covered in a copper rust that tricks the eye into associating it with items found in an Anglo-Saxon tomb hoard, a la Sutton Hoo. Throughout the exhibition objects that appear contemporary turn out to be historical, and vice versa – by removing the items from their usual interpretive context, Perry allows us to see them with fresh eyes, temporarily rolling back the shutters of our own cultural assumptions.

Go figure

It seems odd to talk about defamiliarisation when what you’re looking at is a Malian power figure – I rarely come across them in rural Lincolnshire – but by its very isolation, each item gains a sense of individual purpose and character that is easy to lose when confronted with twenty exhibits in a glass case marked ‘Western Africa’. By presenting all of these pieces under the rubric of the Unknown Craftsman, Perry steers the spectator towards questions too often forgotten in an academic museum display: who made this, and why? What were they thinking, and how did they do it, and what did it mean when they did? I looked at these objects wanting to know the things I would usually consider when looking at contemporary art, and it’s fascinating that it took the curatorial guidance of a contemporary artist to restore the urgency of the past.

If you want to see this properly, don't look at it here

Most of Perry’s own works in the collection have been discussed at length elsewhere, not least by the artist, so I won’t dwell on the details – my personal favourite might have been the Map of Truths and Beliefs, a deliriously crammed post-modern kaleidoscope of image, text and idea. But what caught my attention was something much smaller: the deservedly-lauded Rosetta Vase, similarly loaded with words and beliefs, is hard to see from all angles, but if you edge around to the back of the display case you can just make out the word ‘Authenticity’. The application of the paint is somewhat blurred, as if the artist messed up the initial spelling or design of the word and had to go over it twice. Is this an authentic mistake, left in to show the spontaneity and flawed humanity of the craftsmanship? Or is it another joke – a deliberate error by design, put there specifically to cock a snook at the hunt for authenticity itself? As far as I know, Perry isn’t saying.

Another post would be needed to do Jerusalem justice, but its purpose and method, repeatedly iterated in its programme and reviews, is to explore a deep connection between a sense of local, rooted Englishness, and an invigorating tradition of folk mythology that can’t or won’t stay buried. As with Perry, the effect was a temporary change of perspective; for a couple of days, the ground beneath my feet looked different. Friends have seen in the play and its concerns a small-mindedness, a curmudgeonly anti-modernity. But is the banner proclaiming ‘Fuck the New Estate’ above Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron’s caravan a toothless complaint about local authority housing, or an angry, anarchic riposte to the urbanisation of the countryside by people who are at odds with its values? The play makes you ask what those values are, and whether there is any meaning to words like ‘British’ and ‘belonging’ – or at least, any meaning that can be reclaimed from the likes of the BNP.

Simon Sebag Montefiore not pictured

I think there’s a progressive patriotism at the heart of the play which it’s hard to articulate, though it might be worth noting that its ‘English folk hero’ is a Romany traveller, and clearly self-identifies with more than one cultural tradition. Unless Rooster isn’t a hero at all – there’s a darkness and a tragedy to the character, which the best lead characters have. Unfortunately, it seems likely that the play will be a victim of the production’s success; the iconic, blistering nature of Mark Rylance’s performance has probably shot the part in the foot for any actor in the next, say, twenty years, but until we get to see a Rooster who isn’t a mere imitation, it will be harder to see how complex and plural the role might actually be. Perhaps it isn’t, and Jerusalem has simply captured its moment exceedingly well – but my suspicion is that, in its active ambition to forge a link between the present and the past, the play has secured its own timelessness. It’s an artefact like Rooster’s caravan – weather-beaten, ugly, and potentially unhealthy, but sturdy, and built to last.

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Sexual Nature at the Natural History Museum

It’s not every day that you can enter the hallowed portals of a national museum to find yourself confronted with a slow, syrupy porn-jazz soundtrack over video footage of two bonobos resolutely humping. But then, not every exhibition is Sexual Nature, which finished on October 2nd at London’s iconic Natural History Museum. While I don’t want to be premature, I think it might just be the best thing I’ll see all year.

'Welcome to the Pleasuredome'

Animals, it seems, are all at it. The revelations begin with two in a series of surprising ‘Facts of Life’; the news that bedbugs have a high rate of female mortality owing to a violent process known as ‘traumatic insemination’, and that sea hares (a species which apparently exists) mate in a massive circular submarine daisy-chain.

Following the sequence of spacious, uncluttered rooms, each decorated with classy black-and-white photographs of a different species in the heat of carnal embrace, it becomes clear it’s not just the invertebrates. Of course, when you happen to have an unparalleled taxidermy collection, mounting two foxes tail-to-tail, with a note about the vixen’s troublesome tendency to hold her partner in an hour-long, inextricable vaginal clamp, is clearly the most sensible use of your resources. Although I can’t help thinking the curators missed out on a chance to switch the music to Smokey Robinson’s ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’.

The only Fox to cling on longer than Liam

The exhibit is mostly textual, and not in the Tiger Woods sense – the explanatory material takes up more space than much of the actual visible collection, which consists mainly of tiny insects and the bones inside walrus cocks. But one highlight is a series of films made by arthouse actress and probable maniac Isabella Rossellini, entitled ‘Green Porno’, in which the Blue Velvet star dresses up as a salmon, a spider and a praying mantis, while describing the mating rituals of each, in the first person, in surrealistic detail.

It’s probably apparent that this is one of the funniest hours I have ever spent in any museum or gallery, and I’m sure in some ways that’s deliberate. With its ‘not for the faint-hearted’ warnings and matter-of-fact presentation, the NHM is having a sidelong prod at the ridiculous nexus of repression and embarrassment that has coalesced around human sexual desire; presenting sexuality as inescapably comic, and then asking why we find it so.

Responses to this question determine the addition of 'optional extras' to your ticket price

The final room features an interactive feature (not that interactive) where visitors vote on a series of questions relating to human sexual behaviour – what some would call morality – and attraction. This wouldn’t have been a great exhibition to bring a date to, containing as it does the coded message ‘I wanna fuck you like an animal’; but it was a fascinating attempt to elicit recognition of the uncanny closeness of the animal world to our own. And if you didn’t see the ‘fornicating slipper limpet’ – you missed out.

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