“Ars Homo Erotica”

National Museum, Warsaw

Titled “Ars Homo Erotica,” this exhibition was conceived on a grand scale. Not only was it a survey of art with (male and female) homoerotic content—often explicit, sometimes veiled—from antiquity to the present, it also used the venerable hosting museum as a platform to advocate for equality for the LGBT community in Poland. (The show overlapped with EuroPride 2010, hosted in the Polish capital in July.) The show’s guest curator, Paweł Leszkowicz, chose to create a “seductive” show, which resulted in the omnipresence of art with naked bodies. A Winckelmannian universe (an ancient marble Antinous, an eighteenth-century bronze copy of the Apollo Belvedere, etc.) was mixed with a large selection of nineteenth-century academic drawings and paintings of nudes and a plethora of contemporary paintings, photographs, sculptures, and videos, many featuring explicit sexual content. Two hundred works were arranged in the following sections: “The Time of Struggle,” “Homoerotic Classicism,” “Male Nude,” “Male Couples,” “Ganymedes,” “Saint Sebastian,” “Lesbian Imaginarium,” “Transgender,” and “Archives.” An excellent catalogue accompanied the show; written by Leszkowicz as a critical analysis of themes mentioned above, it provided a useful theoretical extension to the artworks on display.

Ars Homo Erotica” turned out to be two shows in one. The aim of the first was a curatorial outing of works in the museum’s collection with homoerotic subjects—works, many of them deposited in storage rooms, whose sexual content, when exhibited, has been left to our imagination, if not deliberately obscured by museum labels. The second show consisted of contemporary works with homoerotic subjects, which were scattered around the galleries according to the aforementioned categories. Most of these pieces (some commissioned for the occasion) were produced by artists from Poland, but there were also works from other countries in the region, such as Slovakia, Russia, and Lithuania, as well as photographs by two Americans, Catherine Opie and Nan Goldin.

The contemporary works that stood out were those that were delightfully direct without attempting to shock. Kissing Policemen (An Epoch of Clemency), 2005, a color photograph by the Russian group Blue Noses showing two policemen kissing in a Siberian forest,

demonstrated the subversive power of images that are not sexually explicit. In fact, in 2007 the Russian government prevented the photograph from being sent to a show in Paris. Similarly, when Karolina Breguła’s 2003 series of photographs “Niech nas zobacza˛” (Let Us Be Seen) first appeared on billboards in Poland seven years ago, public reaction to these straightforward portrayals of same-sex couples holding hands demonstrated how unsettled the majority of Poles remain at even the slightest suggestion that gays and lesbians are present among them. These photographs caused no further controversy in this exhibition; in fact, they counterbalanced those works that tried hard to be provocative, sometimes at the expense of their artistic integrity.

Not least by giving voice to a large group of relatively unknown contemporary artists, some of whom are actively engaged in advocacy on behalf of LGBT communities in Eastern and central Europe, “Ars Homo Erotica” succeeded in its other aim, too. This exhibition was also a subversive event, exposing intolerance, speaking directly about complex aspects of sexuality, raising public awareness about the presence of LGBT people in Poland, and mobilizing them to act as a community.

Marek Bartelik