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In art we lust: At second blush, classic works rise to full erotic potential

When Canova created his "Naiad," at almost exactly that time, the sensualism of his nymph must have been at least as striking as any ideals she represented. Canova sent another copy of his "Naiad" to George IV of England -- an infamous playboy and a collector of pornography -- and asked for it to be installed on a rotating base. That would have allowed a patron to take in a foot-first view up her legs, across her naked haunch and right up to her come-on glance.

It isn't only female flesh that has been seen as getting viewers going. Michelangelo's "David" was fig-leafed when it first went on display, and one prelate described the artist's "Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel, distinctly un-fig-leafed, as a bathhouse scene and tried to have it destroyed. A naked Saint Sebastian by another Renaissance painter had to be removed from a church, the story goes, because women had confessed to having sinful thoughts of it.

In 1798 in Paris, when a parade was supposed to include the classical statuary Napoleon had looted from Italy -- including the "Laocoon" and "Apollo Belvedere," icons of high art -- one writer wanted those nude male bodies excluded: "It is ridiculous to subject our innocent youth to such naked images."

You don't censor sights that leave people cold.

Scholarly Viagra

Our new habit of not censoring the most pungent art may be throwing cold water on it. One of the most infamous pictures of all time is the "Origin of the World," a close-up on a naked woman's crotch painted in 1866 by the great French realist Gustave Courbet. It was originally meant for a Turkish roue in Paris, and when he gave a peek to his most privileged visitors, they must have felt a thrill at seeing the work of a great artist married to ("mated with" might be more accurate) forbidden flesh. But ever since the picture passed into public hands, the "Origin" has felt almost tame. In a recent Courbet survey in New York, "it was just another landscape -- with hair," says David Rosand, a senior art historian at Columbia University.

Nude flesh has been made safe by art, and in the process lost its potency. Experts have set about restoring it.

The British scholar Charles Hope is famous for talking about Titian's racier pictures as mere "pinups." Several other art historians have raised objections -- but only to Hope's "mere." They've insisted that the stunning erotic power of such masterpieces enables all the complex things they do. We don't have to choose between seeing these works as erotic objects, even in a full-blown Web-porn mode, and seeing them as tremendously important, sophisticated art.

Rosand, long considered Hope's chief rival, says he wants to take Titian's nudes "out of the closet," where pinups belong. Instead, he aims to show how "the appeal of the flesh is something that draws the viewer in," exposing art's profundities.

The tragedy in some of Titian's greatest nudes -- heroines being ravished by gods or manhandled by fate; male saints or Christ himself being martyred -- is made all the more poignant, says Rosand, because of the pleasures of the flesh that are interrupted or canceled out by the tragic outcome.

Even Titian's raciest art isn't pornographic, Rosand says, because it avoids the merely explicit: "It's all foreplay."

Going all the way

With Duchamp, we're talking rumpled sheets and cigarettes.

The Philadelphia show goes into every detail of the making of "Etant Donnés," which took place in absolute secrecy between 1946 and 1966. ("Etant Donnés" is French for "Given That," which is short for the full title "Given That: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas" -- we'll get to the water and the lighting in a second.)

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