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Erotic art offers glimpse of China’s lost sexual philosophy

AFP-JIJI

Ancient paintings of fornicating Chinese couples and phalluses made of stone are among items that Dutch art collector Ferdinand Bertholet hopes will help China reconnect with its sexually charged past.

Explicit works spanning from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) are among more than 100 pieces on display in Hong Kong, drawing surprise and giggles from some viewers unaware of China’s ancient relationship with sex.

In one painting, two women share a very intimate moment with a phallus. Other items at the “Gardens of Pleasure” exhibition, organized by Sotheby’s, include penis-shaped objects made from stone, ceramic and bronze.

Bertholet, whose collection of Chinese erotic art is the world’s largest, with around 500 pieces, said such explicitness should not be considered crude or pornographic, instead representing harmony with the Taoist philosophy that thrived in China before the communists took power and later created the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

“Chinese art is so different in its expression than other erotic expressions because it has a philosophical background,” said the 61-year-old, adding that Taoism sees sex as a path to happiness and longevity.

Many of his paintings are set in gardens, representing the Taoist aspect of being at one with nature, according to the collector.

“(Sex) was a main issue for the Chinese . . . but it’s after the Cultural Revolution that it is completely lost,” Bertholet said, calling the issue still “incredibly sensitive.”

Vast numbers of relics, buildings and examples of heritage were destroyed at the hands of the communist authorities during the Cultural Revolution, China’s decade of political and cultural upheaval from 1966 to 1976. Temples and churches belonging to all religions — including those for the ancient Chinese philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism — were targeted amid a general suppression of religion.

Sexual expression was not tolerated, with men and women wearing gender-neutral clothing during the period.

Today, sexual taboos are loosening in the once deeply conservative country as an adventurous generation of young, mainly urban Chinese adopt attitudes far removed from the days of radical communist rule that their parents lived under.

“Maybe this exhibition will help so that especially the Chinese people will recognize the philosophy of their own past,” Bertholet said.

However, the portrayal of sex is still very sensitive in mainland China, and it would be difficult to hold a similar exhibition there due to strict pornography laws, said Sotheby’s Asia chief executive officer, Kevin Ching.

“Authorities might focus on the erotic part rather than the art part,” he said.

But Ching believes this will change as affluence grows, saying, “As China becomes more prosperous and as it opens up to the rest of the world, Chinese people now have a bigger chance to be in touch with all things that were lost.”

Hong Kong may offer a sound beachhead. The boom in the territory’s international art market has been driven partly by the fast-growing wealth of mainland buyers. More than 3,000 international artists from 245 of the world’s leading galleries were displayed in the first installment of Art Basel in Hong Kong last year.

Bertholet became fascinated by Chinese erotic art when he saw a collection of paintings as an art student in Holland. “I was flabbergasted because of its beauty, because of the harmony,” Bertholet said.

He purchased his first piece in Hong Kong in the 1970s, sparking a quest that led him to major cities in Europe and in the United States, amassing a collection that has been exhibited in major international galleries, including the Barbican in London and the Cernuschi Museum in Paris, among others.

Other pieces showcased at the Sotheby’s exhibition, which runs through May 3, include a set of seven small porcelain figures depicting couples happily having sex.

The highlight of the exhibition, where works were not for sale, is a set of eight erotic paintings commissioned by the Kangxi Emperor during the Qing Dynasty.

“This is probably the first time we’ve held an exhibition of Chinese erotic art of this quality and variety in Hong Kong,” Ching said.