Zurich museum presents world tour of erotic art

A 1685 images of lovers by Japanese artist Sugimura Jihei on display at the museum. Museum Rietberg

What is believed to be the first-ever exhibition of high quality erotic art spanning different cultures and periods is at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich.

This content was published on February 5, 2003 - 09:46

"The Art of Love" explores some 30 different themes taken from ten major cultural regions, including Ancient Greece, Persia, India, China, Japan, Peru and Africa.

This exhibition - subtitled "the pleasures and pains of love in world art" - consists of over 230 works of art, many on loan from leading museums and private collections in Europe and the United States.

It is not restricted to representations of romantic love, but explores falling in love, courtship, the art of loving each other, the art of tenderness, and the forms and techniques of sex.

"The pleasures and pains of love" refers to the wealth of love stories told in every culture of the world.

The exhibition traces the drama of love unfolding: from the first shy glance to the passionate declaration, from courtship to union. While in real life the successful quest for love may lead to a state of happy and enduring intimacy, art loses interest at this point, and only regains it when such relationships fail.

Pain and joy

As the catalogue explains, pain is as much a part of love as joy: pain in the form of disappointment, desertion, jealousy and sometimes even death.

But in telling love stories through pictures and objects, the Rietberg is presenting its visitors with a dazzling art feast of the highest quality.

"From the outset we wanted to concentrate on high quality art," says Alexandra von Przychowski, one of the exhibition's nine curators.

The Rietberg was able to display objects from its own permanent collection, and to supplement them it approached such institutions as the John Paul Getty Museum in Malibu.

Erotic graphic art

Among the objects on loan from the British Museum - for the first time - is one of the world's masterpieces of erotic graphic art, "The Pillow Song" album of the 18th century Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro.

"Many of the museums expressed admiration for the exhibition theme and said they wished they'd thought of it," said von Przychowski.

"Love and the erotic is a wonderful subject," she told swissinfo. "These are representations ranging from the subtle to the sexually explicit, but at the same time they are great art objects."

Von Przychowski, who is an expert on Chinese art, said that while there were differences between the way the various cultures depicted eroticism in art, there were also similarities.

"In every culture there are rules about what is acceptable to represent or do, and what is not accepted by society.


"Pornography is a difficult word to define. Is it low quality or something you feel uneasy about? Maybe in another culture and at a different time people felt very comfortable with what others might term pornographic."

The curators never intended the exhibition to be pornographic, and in this they have succeeded.

It is certainly erotic, but it never remotely resembles anything which could be construed as being in bad taste.

However, the Rietberg Museum does advise visitors that the exhibition, which ends on April 27, is unsuitable for anyone under the age of 16.

swissinfo, Richard Dawson

Key facts

Zurich's Rietberg Museum has an exhibition of erotic art.
The works includes cultures such as Ancient Greece, Persia, India, China, Japan, Peru and Africa.
230 works are on display, many of them on loan.
Exhibition ends April 27, and is not recommended for under 16s

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