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Male lust/female vice? Swedish museum touts sex through the ages

Peter Vinthagen Simpson · 15 Apr 2011, 10:15

Published: 15 Apr 2011 10:15 GMT+02:00

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To much fanfare, Sweden’s National Museum on March 23rd opened a new exhibition entitled “Lust & Last” (Lust & Vice). The exhibition is marketed as a 500 year journey through the artistic representation of eroticism and is intended as a comment on how society’s mores have shifted.

“There is a lot of naked painting in this exhibition. During the work before the opening of the exhibition, we have fielded a lot of questions as to why naked painting is so prominent within western art,” Eva-Lena Bergström, head of exhibitions at the museum, explains in a promotional film.

The exhibition proposes an exploration of “How the limits of what is considered immoral have changed throughout history and how it looks today?”, promising visitors a “Naked Shock!”.

And a veritable feast of human flesh is indeed what is on offer in the National Museum’s grandiose exhibition halls.

The exhibition is dominated by a host of biblical, allegorical and mythological scenes - much of which would pass unobserved in a more traditional art exhibition, but in “Lust & Vice” are deliberately placed to create a contrast with modern work and mores and to encourage the onlooker to question traditional art history.

“How have we looked at the pictures, who is the subject, and who is the traditional object. The woman has often functioned as a model, and also the object for the male gaze... Artists working in the late 1900s have deliberately experimented with our norms and values,” Eva-Lena Bergström says.

But with the public domain liberally dominated by the naked human form, more often than not the female human form, critics have been swift to question whether the museum is motivated more by commercial factors and whether the exhibition is designed for artistic reflection at all.

“It is the most banal exhibition I have seen in ages. It mixes overtly erotic pieces with themes such as love and betrayal, without rhyme or reason. It has the effect of making everything heavily sexualised. In the end everything becomes vice, even the desire becomes vice,” art critic Katarina Wadstein Macleod tells The Local.

Criticism of the exhibition has pointedly not taken the form of any sort of "feminist moral panic”. It has instead reflected more a resigned frustration among gender theorists that the exhibition’s presentation simply serves to further reinforce the objectification of the female form and the hegemony of the traditional male gaze, rather than challenge its predominance.

“There are no clearly expressed ideas nor critical reflection on the images it presents. This applies not just from a gender theoretical perspective, although the absence of this is deeply problematic,” Stockholm University researchers Malin Hedlin Hayden and Jessica Sjöholm Skrubbe argue in a debate article in the Dagens Nyheter daily on March 31st.

Sjöholm Skrubbe and Hedlin Hayden's article sparked a broader debate in the media which, while giving further publicity to the exhibition, largely centred on the curatorial work in putting the exhibition together, a point on which Katarina Wadstein Macleod concurs.

“It is a question of selection (and presentation). The message of norm critical work becomes sullied by mixing extremely critical pieces in an environment of fantasy paintings. It becomes just a mixture, the critical edge disappears,“ she says.

While the exhibition is dominated by depictions of the female form, with a plethora of feminine behinds on show, the male organ makes its presence felt, none more so than in the work of 18th century artist Carl August Ehrensvärd and his pornographic series “On life’s arduous rampage”.

The series of sketches accompanied letters sent by Ehrensvärd to embellish the story of his wife’s adventures in Copenhagen and are displayed in the exhibition next to a work entitled “This girl has inner beauty” by Lotta Antonsson, which depicts a critical comment on the superficiality of physical beauty.

“What is an obviously norm critical piece loses its message when placed alongside some erotic sketches, for no apparent reason,” Wadstein Macleod says.

The opening of "Lust & Vice" coincided with the censorship of a nude painting by Swedish artist Anders Zorn posted by a Danish artist Uwe Max Jensen on Facebook. In the ensuing controversy, Jensen accused the firm of imposing US “cultural imperialism” on a global audience by striving to determine the distinction between pornography and art.

Jensen’s argument that Scandinavian moral codes were distinct and more liberal than their US equivalent was shared by numerous commentators in the Swedish media and cultural circles.

By challenging visitors to “Come and test their own limits” of what they consider immoral, the National Museum enters this discussion, apparently questioning whether perhaps Sweden really is as liberal as one might have thought.

Eva-Lena Bergström argues that some of the 18th century art on display would challenge even contemporary attitudes towards nudity and eroticism in the public domain.

Story continues below…

“Much of this art... was never intended to be painted for or shown to a public audience - it was painted by men for men,” she says.

The exhibition pits a body of work from the 17th-19th centuries together with some examples of work from contemporary artists, such as Lars Nilsson and his film of a young woman lying on her back in the forest masturbating.

Nilsson's work encourages the viewer to become the voyeur, and judging by bumper visitor figures milling through the National Museum's turnstiles, the Swedish public is prepared to accept the moral challenge and can weather the promised "Naked Shock" - something which comes as no surprise to Katarina Wadstein Macleod.

“Sex always sells. The question is what kind of sex they are selling?"

Check out The Local's "Lust & Vice" gallery here.

The "Lust & Vice" exhibition will continue until August 14th 2011 at the National Museum on Blasieholmen in central Stockholm

Related links:

Peter Vinthagen Simpson (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

11:28 April 15, 2011 by zircon
And where is the satyr behind the virgin ferns showing off his lust?
12:45 April 15, 2011 by Swedesmith
Any fingerpainting offered?
16:58 April 15, 2011 by eZee.se
"Sex exploited for financial gain"

Yep, that's never happened before - congrats on being the first.

Now, let me see whats on TV... oh look! The idea is catching on!
17:48 April 15, 2011 by Uggla
When will these people finally get over the shock of seeing nudity. So boring.
23:24 April 15, 2011 by dizzymoe33
I want to see more naked men as well not just the naked women all the time it is after all only fair. :o)
19:52 April 16, 2011 by dahaviland
Just went to see this today with my wife and we both really enjoyed it. There was nothing smutty or really pornographic. It was just fun and anything that that was sexual was just meant to be taken lightly and personally, I thought was just funny.
06:30 April 17, 2011 by MarkinBoston
"Criticism of the exhibition has pointedly not taken the form of any sort of "feminist moral panic", it has instead reflected more a resigned frustration among gender theorists that the exhibition's presentation simply serves to further reinforce the objectification of the female form and the hegemony of the traditional male gaze rather than challenge its predominance."

I'm from the United States - can someone translate this into English?
09:35 April 17, 2011 by stenhuggaren
Well, as you are from the US, no - we can't possibly expect you to understand.
09:48 April 17, 2011 by dahaviland
@ stenhuggaren

So if you are so smart, then what does it mean?

I am also from the US and "Criticism of the exhibition... " is not that difficult to comprehend... especially for those that saw the exhibit.
19:18 April 17, 2011 by mkvgtired
@MarkinBoston, since we can assume stenhuggaren would not explain it I'll give it a shot. stenhuggaren feel free to add anything, since you are clearly more intelligent than us. Typical arrogance with nothing to back it up. I am also from the US, so this explanation will probably not be sufficient for you stenhuggaren.

Mark, basically translated, it means that there are no feminists protesting in the streets but they are still frustrated by the message. They see the exhibition as reinforcing the old status quo of the dominant male, instead of challenging it.

If someone presents historical art it is hard not to reinforce the status quo of the time the art was made.

I have read so many convoluted passages/cases written like this (or 10X worse). It is nice to see the legal field getting away from this bad writing style. They seem to be the last field clinging on to this. Convoluted and obtuse writing does not get your point across as well as straightforward and to the point writing. Good to see it going away. The UK legal profession seems as if it is holding onto this style the longest, but even they are getting more concise and to the point.
22:23 April 17, 2011 by stenhuggaren
@dahaivaland & mkvgtired

you have both missed the irony in my post.

Mark in Boston himself said that he needed help to understand the content of this passage and cited the fact that he was American as a reason for this inability.

You have however shown that not to be the case and that a sentence containing words more than two syllables is not beyond our American cousins, even if mkvgtired has expressed a preference for that.
00:00 April 18, 2011 by cornpone
More femicommie, post Lutheran, secular Puritan blabber. Glad to be away from those ejits.
07:06 April 18, 2011 by mkvgtired
@stenhuggaren, I apologize if you were joking. We are just very used to bashing on here.

I forgot to mention, clearly the local is also clinging to this antiquated writing style as well :)
19:31 April 18, 2011 by cornpone
Something appealing about that nun.
11:53 April 19, 2011 by johnny1939
I think this exhibit is great and also fun. It will make a lot of people go to the museum and maybe they will see other things they might like.

It seems the US has a horror of the naked body but finds it acceptable to roam around the world invading and killing people. go and figure...

ps they lost their credit rating to below acceptable today...hehe
13:03 April 19, 2011 by jacquelinee
I am sure porn on any level is just " ART " and has no effect whatsoever on the viewer. Oh, wait a minute! I missed reading the Locals 1st article today "ÖREBRO RAPIST FOUND GUILTY"
15:23 April 19, 2011 by CokoSwede
So how do men in Sweden feel about women objectifying the male penis for profit and exploiting its objectification for pleasure, in the dildo?
19:18 April 19, 2011 by mkvgtired
@Johnny1939, Once again, the article is not about the US. It is about a local art show, are you that insecure? There is plenty of naked art in US museums. No one would expect a recluse such as yourself to know that though. Wouldn't want you to challenge your perceptions or the self constructed world you've built around yourself would fall apart.

And please educate yourself in, at least, the most remedial economic principles. A rating and an outlook are two different things. For instance imagine your third grade writing class. When the teacher tells you, "if you keep turning in these completely off topic rants about the US you are going to fail this class". That would be your outlook. When you continue to turn those in and you do fail, that would be your rating.
20:29 April 19, 2011 by jacquelinee

Men would probably think it was all about them (as per usual) and their egos would be bruised because they would think they were replaced by a larger "item" better equipped to do the job.

And, as for exploiting this for profit, pretty sure at the top of that corporate food chain you will find a man sitting in the "reaping in the profits" chair.
05:55 April 20, 2011 by CokoSwede

Don't speculate. Dildos are objectification. Period.

Nice hateful touch their about the bigger dildo against the male penis. Just proves my point that Sweden is full of systemic Misandry and male hatred.

Women run brothels and make pornography, you know. I can reverse your argument against you but as you are a unashamed hatemonger and man-hater there is no point.
07:31 April 22, 2011 by scorpion69
I wonder if the painting "the Sleep" showing 2 women naked in bed together by Gustav Coubert is being exhibited. If not it should be. Men and women are entitled to view erotica which does not equate with pornography.

Oh by the way I am an heterosexual Aussie male who has had female bisexuals as lovers.
13:28 April 29, 2011 by jamesblish
CokoSwede: So let's say the dildo IS an objectification. Then what? What does that mean, in your opinion, in relation to this particular exhibition? This is not a blame game, not a question of who is worse off than the other.
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