Record turnout at Chinese erotic art exhibition

Dutch collector Ferdinand Bertholet looks on during the preview of the exhibition "Gardens of Pleasure: Sex in Ancient China" in Hong Kong on April 15, 2014. Explicit works of Chinese erotic art went on display, as Mr Bertholet aims to bring back the
Dutch collector Ferdinand Bertholet looks on during the preview of the exhibition "Gardens of Pleasure: Sex in Ancient China" in Hong Kong on April 15, 2014. Explicit works of Chinese erotic art went on display, as Mr Bertholet aims to bring back the lost art of eroticism. -- PHOTO: AFP
A visitor walks in front of erotic objects during a preview of "Gardens of Pleasure: Sex in Ancient China", at Sotheby's Hong Kong Gallery on April 15, 2014. More than 100 pieces of artwork from the collection of Mr Ferdinand Bertholet are on display
A visitor walks in front of erotic objects during a preview of "Gardens of Pleasure: Sex in Ancient China", at Sotheby's Hong Kong Gallery on April 15, 2014. More than 100 pieces of artwork from the collection of Mr Ferdinand Bertholet are on display. PHOTO: REUTERS
Since opening on April 16, the exhibition has attracted over 4,000 visitors, says Sotheby’s Asia, which organised the exhibition. It is the first ancient Chinese erotic art exhibition in Greater China. -- PHOTO: SOTHEBY'S HONG KONG
Since opening on April 16, the exhibition has attracted over 4,000 visitors, says Sotheby’s Asia, which organised the exhibition. It is the first ancient Chinese erotic art exhibition in Greater China. -- PHOTO: SOTHEBY'S HONG KONG
Gardens of Pleasure: Sex in Ancient China has over 100 pieces of artwork from the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) to Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 AD). The collection had previously been exhibited in Europe and the United States. -- PHOTO: SOTHEBY'S H
Gardens of Pleasure: Sex in Ancient China has over 100 pieces of artwork from the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) to Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 AD). The collection had previously been exhibited in Europe and the United States. -- PHOTO: SOTHEBY'S HONG KONG

TWO lovers embrace amorously in a garden. To their right, a wrought rock sculpture suggests the shape of their entwined bodies.

Behind them, magnolias and peonies flower side by side - an anomaly given that both bloom during different seasons.

The none-too-subtle message in the late 17th century Chinese painting: sexual desire is an emotion for all seasons. And the fascination with the subject is clearly perennial: an exhibition in Hong Kong of antique Chinese erotic art - the first of its kind in the region - is drawing record numbers of visitors.

Since opening on April 16, Gardens of Pleasure: Sex in Ancient China has attracted over 4,000 visitors, says Mr Nicolas Chow, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, which organised the exhibition.

“We have had overwhelming feedback; the attendance is a record,” he says. “Previous exhibitions - of a 50 million pound Rembrandt, of Monets, of ancient Chinese art - we get, well, a few hundred visitors.”

Visitors this time range from the usual faces at the auction house’s events - connoisseurs of Chinese art and museum curators - to those who rarely venture to the Sotheby’s gallery in the office tower of an upmarket mall, such as curious retirees, giggly young women and mainland Chinese tourists.

Obviously, sex - whatever its vintage - sells.

The exhibition contains over 100 pieces of artwork from the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) to Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 AD), and are from the private collection of Dutch collector Ferdinand M. Bertholet. Worth “a few million US dollars”, they are not for sale. The collection had previously been exhibited in Europe and the United States.

Among the pieces are what Mr Chow calls high-quality paintings with fine brushwork that qualifies them as “art in their own right”, the sexually-charged subject matter aside.

This includes a series of eight erotic paintings which Mr Chow says are believed to have been comissioned by the royal court during the Qing Dynasty for Kangxi Emperor’s pleasure.

Others range from the tantalising - a delicately inked silk image of a woman in a sheer dress whose most provocative feature are her tiny bound feet - to the explicit - paintings and porcelain sculptures of copulating couples, sometimes in trios or more, in various positions.

The pieces also depict - perhaps surprisingly to lay persons of the subject - an open sexual culture. Gay and lesbian lovers feature prominently, in the vein of Qianlong Emperor’s purported obsession with his imperial guardsman. Lesbian love, meanwhile, blossomed between concubines, nuns and prostitutes.

Another series paint the dynamics of “Masters and Servants”. Others show group sex.

“It does surprise people how open and free-spirited their ancestors were,” says Mr Chow.

Sexual mores in China changed in more recent times, in particular under Mao Zedong’s Communist rule, according to Mr Bertholet in an interview with wire agency Agence France-Presse.

Sotheby’s has said that it would be difficult to have a similar exhibition in the mainland due to its strict pornography laws.

For visitors such as retired teacher, Madam K.C. Mak, 62, the openness of the exhibition - which ends on May 3 - is a breath of fresh air.

She notes that classic Chinese literature - both prose and poems - ranging from Dream of the Red Chamber to The Plum in the Golden Vase and The Carnal Prayer Mat have frankly depicted sexual love. She also bemoans today’s “uptight” culture where such books are often sold in abridged versions. “Although Hong Kongers say we are very cosmopolitan, we are still conservative at heart,” she said.

As for where the auction house draws the line between art and pornography, Mr Chow says that it is a question of “taste and standards”.

“Given the quality of the work, it is absolutely worth showing. We show it without shame.”

xueying@sph.com.sg