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20th February 2019

Sexpression: The Relationship Between Sex and Art

Saoirse Akhtar Farren reviews a Sexpression talk, part of Sex Week, discussing the relationship between art and sex, considering the male gaze and historical context
Sexpression: The Relationship Between Sex and Art
Photo: Michael Liu @ Flickr

‘Jupiter and lo’ by Antonio da Correggio depicts Venus thrust upon the transformed body of Zeus, the Greek God of Jupiter. The narrative running through the oil painting captures the chaotic and volatile character of the shapeshifting Zeus during a moment of sexual lust for Venus. As a misty, grey arm engulfs Venus’ face, the painting depicts Zeus as a thunder cloud, exchanging a kiss; or is it?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

‘The Relationship Between Sex and Art’ talk, held at the Manchester Student Union promised to raise such questions when trying to determine the emotions expressed in art with sexual overtones. The talk explored how renaissance art can speak to society today, despite the contextual conflicts of values in 15th-16th century thinking with regard to the topic of sex. Running parallel to this, another goal of enabling students to make informed decisions on their reproductive health was also desired.

Delivering the discussion was 15th to 16th century Art Historian Sara Riccardi, who was approached by MA Gender, Sexuality and Culture student and manager of ‘Sex Week 2019’, Isabella Rooke-Ley, at at the Whitworth Gallery after giving a separate talk on sex and art. Riccardi explained that some audience members criticized aspects of her talk for using renaissance paintings by men, and focusing on their sexual arousement. The theme of challenging the ‘male gaze’ thus progressed to become the prime point of discussion in the debate surrounding the relationship between art and sex.

Riccardi described art as being eternal, and that her artistic lens is largely emotive and aims to interpret the painting in isolation, which extends its capacity to be understood in modernity. From the outset, the discussion was dominated by feminist dialogue, criticising the blatant androcentrism of the paintings. But what unfolded among the largely female audience was a conversation regarding the positive aspects of the paint strokes, rather than those that suggested patriarchal sentiments.

Within the discussions, it was empowering to hear other students talk openly about their own experiences in sex to unpack the meaning behind the body language of the paintings presented to us. The ice was undoubtedly broken when audience members opened up about consent, to what real people look like in orgasm.

Riccardi explained her awareness of the patriarchal motivations behind the renaissance paintings, however, she also highlighted how our preconceived negative associations with these images cloud our mind and prevent us from interpreting art in different ways.

One of the final images was Picasso’s ‘Minotaur Caressing a Sleeping Woman’. An audience member remarked that this could be yielding to the ‘beast’ of the male identity which I thought could reflect the movement against ‘toxic masculinity’, as depicted in Gillet’s recent ad campaign.

While there is a theme of female objectification in renaissance pieces and even in modern advertising, ‘masculinity’ also needs to be dismantled. Sex in art highlights that perspectives are infinite and we need to talk about them at length in order to come to equilibrium in gender and the ultimate goal of progression.

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