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Don’t be fooled by the first exhibit in the Barbican Art Gallery’s epic, ambitious and revealing survey of art and sex. Made in 1857, at the height of Victorian prudery, it is the fig-leaf made for a full-size copy of Michelangelo’s “David”. We smile at this ludicrous reminder of our ancestors’ discomfort with genitals in sculpture. But the cover-up does not last long.

Entering the show, we immediately discover just how determined artists were to cast the fig-leaf aside. Rodin’s greedy “Minotaur” closes on a nymph who shies away unsuccessfully from his grasp. Nearby, a deceptive Roman carving called “Sleeping Hermaphrodite” turns out to be wide awake. Waving one elegant leg suggestively in the air, this ambiguous figure seems eager to attract our attention.

The show’s tireless curators – Marina Wallace, Martin Kemp and Joanne Bernstein – have assembled a mesmerising display, taking full advantage of museums’ new willingness to expose material formerly kept hidden. The notorious Cabinetto Segreto, housed at the Archaeological Museum in Naples, used to be wary of displaying its explicit images of Roman copulation. But some of its most uninhibited possessions have now travelled to London, where they are joined by some equally shameless treasures from the Secretum in the British Museum.

The antiquarian George Witt collected many of the Secretum’s erotic marvels during his mid-19th century travels round Italy. Revelling in their obscenity, he regarded them as “Symbols of the Early Worship of Mankind”. Yet the British Museum only accepted his saucy gift on condition that they were tucked away in a separate vault. And no wonder: some of these pieces, such as the 16th-century medal showing a satyr’s head covered with erect penises, still seem outrageous today.

The further we explore this admirably brazen exhibition, the more we realise that artists have always been fascinated by naughty bits. Take the playful scenes of sexual gratification painted on Attic drinking cups. Made around 500 BC, they spare us nothing in their urge to be utterly frank about bodily pleasures. The cups’ owners and their guests delighted in gazing at copulation while they imbibed the wine. And centuries later some Japanese print-makers went further, concocting ingenious pieces of paper that collectors could push and pull, controlling the antics of the couples depicted there with disarming accuracy.

Occasionally, we come across examples of censorship: one amorous image of Mars and Venus has been rubbed with disapproving vigour, so that the ardent male lover is removed from the bedroom altogether. On the whole, though, the Barbican’s survey spares us nothing in its celebration of seductive pleasures. Rembrandt mocks religious hypocrisy by showing an enthusiastic monk copulating in a cornfield; Leonardo reminds us that anything is possible in his svelte, provocative painting of a naked Leda entwined with her adoring swan. So much so that, by the time we have pored over Indian miniatures filled with unbelievably athletic women, and wondered at an orgiastic Turkish painting of a dozen interlinked figures, all this eager activity may be in danger of leaving us exhausted.

But the final section of the show revives our curiosity all over again. Schiele’s incisive images of embracing girls lead on to Picasso’s lifelong obsession with physical passion at its most devouring. Francis Bacon paints naked men in the grass while an apocalyptic storm menaces them on every side. Like every gay artist of
his generation, Bacon associated sex with menace, legal prosecution and even death.

By the 1970s, however, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was prepared to expose all his leather-clad fantasies for the camera. And two decades later Jeff Koons performed a similar service for heterosexuals. In a series called Made in Heaven, he was photographed having sex with La Cicciolina, the Italian-Hungarian porn star. Shamelessly kitsch, these rampant images were deemed shocking when they first appeared. But the Barbican exhibition invites us to think about the boundaries between art and pornography, and proves that Koons and his pouting partner belong to an ancient tradition of erotic image-making, one that will surely flourish for as long as humanity survives.

‘Seduced’ continues at the Barbican, London EC1 until January 27. Tel 0845 120 7550

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