Preview
Exhibitions

Danish exhibition explores the art of porn

Show at Aros includes works by pioneering feminists Carolee Schneemann and Betty Tompkins as well as a controversial Surrealist work by Wilhelm Freddie

Wilhelm Freddie’s Sex-Paralysappeal (1936) Photo: Moderna Museet, Stockholm

In 1990 Dennis Barrie, the Cincinnati Arts Center’s director was indicted under local obscenity laws for showing photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, in what became a key moment in the US’s “Culture Wars”. The incident had echoes of an earlier, less well-known trial in Denmark, in 1937 when the Surrealist Wilhelm Freddie was prosecuted for making pornographic paintings. Freddie was to become a cause célèbre and was cited in the debates that led, in 1969, to a government act that legalised visual pornography in Denmark.

Freddie’s sculpture, Sex-Paralysappeal (1936), opens Art and Porn at Aros Aarhus Kunstmuseum, an exhibition of 40 contemporary artists whose works critique, and sometimes celebrate, explicit sexual imagery. Work by 70s US feminists such as Betty Tompkins and Carolee Schneemann will be shown alongside pieces by younger Scandinavians, such as Anna Uddenberg, whose work questions gender stereotypes. Works by Jeff Burton, Tom of Finland and William E Jones explore queer identities, while Linder Sterling, Jesper Fabricius and Mike Bouchet focus on the circulation of porn. Bouchet’s Untitled Video (2011), a mosaic of 10,000 films downloaded from the internet, is one of a number of large installations, including Amalia Ulman’s Dignity (2017) and a new work by Elmgreen & Dragset.

Betty Tompkins's Fuck Painting #31 (2009) Courtesy of Betty Tompkins and PPOW

“In Denmark, the 1969 act was a momentous occasion; it symbolises the moment when a conservative nation became a more liberal, open society,” says Rasmus Stenbakken, one of the show’s curators, although he warns that the political tide is turning.  

Back in 1990, Barrie was cleared. Nevertheless, exhibitions that include sexual imagery can still prove controversial. For example, in 2009 police in London obliged the Tate to take down Richard Prince’s 1983 Spiritual America.

“Art history is full of difficult, awkward, hostile pictures,” notes Rune Gade, a Danish art historian, who has written Art and Porn’s introductory essay. “Images can offend, but the spaces provided by the realm of art are suited—and have a duty—to create safe settings for reflection and discussion.”

The exhibition is partly funded by the Danish Arts Foundation.

Art and Porn, Aros Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Aarhus, 29 May- 8 September; Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, 5 October-12 January 2020