Between 1750 and 1850, there was a sud­den inter­est in the illic­it nature of porno­graph­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tion through­out Europe. One rea­son for this was the dis­cov­ery and unearthing of Pom­peii and Her­cu­la­neum in 1748, two ancient cities buried under ash and mud in the wake of Vesu­vius’ erup­tion in 79 A.D. With­in the cities’ struc­tures arche­ol­o­gists found fres­cos of cop­u­lat­ing cou­ples, mar­ble stat­ues of pen­e­trat­ing pans, and ter­ra­cot­ta wingéd pri­api, adorn­ing these ancient homes. Because 17th and 18th-cen­tu­ry eyes found these arti­facts to be inde­cent, they were locked away in a secret muse­um in Naples, and their view­ing was restrict­ed to only a few arche­ol­o­gists, his­to­ri­ans, and elite gen­tle­men. It is believed that, in ancient times, these lewd images and objects brought good luck to those who dis­played them in their homes, act­ing as safe­guards for human and agri­cul­tur­al fer­til­i­ty. But ulti­mate­ly these erot­ic images and objects demon­strate how the cit­i­zens of Pom­peii and Her­cu­la­neum pos­sessed a healthy and live­ly sense of humour. To those dis­cov­er­ing this erot­ic trea­sure cen­turies lat­er, such an open dis­play of sex­u­al activ­i­ty was shock­ing, as it was thought to lead to immoral social behav­iour. How­ev­er, for these first cen­tu­ry inhab­i­tants such erot­i­ca was cel­e­brat­ed as nat­ur­al and plea­sur­able. It is believed that the dis­cov­ery of these long lost arti­facts at Pom­peii and Her­cu­la­neum was sem­i­nal in enflam­ing over two cen­turies of dis­course around, and accel­er­at­ed pro­duc­tion of, pornography.

Heather Passmore’s Enlight­en­mentis a suite of pho­tolith­o­graph­ic prints, in which 18th-cen­tu­ry porno­graph­ic imagery is print­ed on antique hand-notat­ed sheet music. What to make of the dom­i­nance of pri­api and put­ti? A pri­a­pus is either at the cen­tre of a ring of danc­ing put­to, being strad­dled by a woman read­ing a book while it ejac­u­lates with joy, or is sim­ply fly­ing up a woman’s dress toward her gen­i­tals, hav­ing sprout­ed bird or but­ter­fly wings. Pri­api are phal­lus­es, but they are orig­i­nal­ly root­ed in the fig­ure of Pri­a­pus, an ancient Greek fer­til­i­ty god, pro­tec­tor not only of the male gen­i­tals, but also all mat­ters agri­cul­tur­al, includ­ing gar­dens, crops, and live­stock. Over time it was used to name exag­ger­at­ed­ly enlarged erect penis­es, usu­al­ly detached from the male body prop­er. Put­ti appear promi­nent­ly in Renais­sance, Baroque, and Roco­co art as chub­by winged tod­dlers, and serve as sym­bols of love and pas­sion but orig­i­nal­ly seem to have served as Gre­co-Roman rep­re­sen­ta­tions of a guardian spir­it. While they were on the wane in the high art of the Enlight­en­ment, they con­tin­ued to serve their erot­ic func­tion in 18th cen­tu­ry pornog­ra­phy, a holdover of the friv­o­li­ty and las­civ­i­ous­ness of the Roco­co style. The putto’s asso­ci­a­tion with cheru­bim and cupids make for con­fus­ing sym­bol­ism, at once sec­u­lar and divine. Unlike most pornog­ra­phy today, which tends to debase the body toward the instru­men­tal aim of orgasm, these lov­ing­ly drawn images appear not only to tit­il­late, but also to ground sex­u­al­i­ty in the agency of female plea­sure and fer­til­i­ty. Put­ti usu­al­ly fig­ure as babies, no old­er than a year or so, and while the­atri­cal­ly dec­o­ra­tive, they are almost always rep­re­sent­ed as being help­ful. The two instances where a woman is being pen­e­trat­ed by a man show her tend­ing to her infant, either breast­feed­ing or rock­ing the crib. In this day and age, the pres­ence of an infant in the vicin­i­ty of for­ni­ca­tion would be con­sid­ered beyond the pale. The oth­er images in Passmore’s suite show women danc­ing about with these detached phal­lus­es, men plea­sur­ing women through acts of cun­nilingis and mas­tur­ba­tion. Women are in con­trol of their sex­u­al­i­ty, whol­ly. They are agents of plea­sure, and not just pas­sive receivers. There is a curi­ous image of the nine mus­es play­ing with dil­dos, one even play­ing a harp made with two erect phal­lus­es; when a man ispresent, it is to plea­sure her with­out inter­fer­ence of his own mem­ber. In anoth­er print, cupid as a young boy points a bow and dil­do, as well as his own engorged penis, at a young woman in bed­clothes with a decid­ed­ly swollen bel­ly. These prints prove preg­nant in their poet­ic and erot­ic impli­ca­tions, and prick us with an anachro­nis­tic rib­aldry, com­pared to most con­tem­po­rary por­tray­als of sex.

As men­tioned, these 18th-cen­tu­ry erot­ic images are print­ed on hand-notat­ed sheet music, most­ly of Joseph Haydn’s Ser­e­nade, string quar­tet, opus 3, no. 5. The dan­gling notes arranged on hor­i­zon­tal staves, speak to a dura­tional poten­cy. With­out the instru­ments play­ing in real time how­ev­er, the music remains only vir­tu­al­ly sonorous. This allows for the rhyth­mic sex­u­al­ized bod­ies to take over, fill­ing the pages with a pure­ly visu­al thrust. For those famil­iar with Haydn’s string quar­tet, like all ser­e­nade music, it could be char­ac­ter­ized as light and calm, even bliss­ful. Although ser­e­nades are hon­orif­ic, most are asso­ci­at­ed with woo­ing a prospec­tive mate. Per­haps aris­to­crat­ic secret lovers glanced at one anoth­er from across the room at a salon or pri­vate con­cert, while lis­ten­ing to Haydn’s ser­e­nade. While there is no real asso­ci­a­tion with love in the music itself, the word ser­e­nade’ repeat­ed on the sheet music on which the erot­ic imagery is print­ed, res­onates as libid­i­nal. The pres­ence of orna­ment and opu­lent set­tings in the images them­selves speak to the aris­to­crat­ic patron­age that Haydn would have been sur­round­ed by while seek­ing all man­ner of patron­age as a young man. It also speaks to Haydn the adul­ter­er, speak­ing to his pur­suit of an active sex-life despite the moral stan­dards of his time.

While we are lim­it­ed to our enjoy­ment of these prints in the gallery, it is impor­tant to men­tion one more branch of the project, relat­ed to social trans­gres­sion. Pass­more had expand­ed her project into the pub­lic realm through sten­cil­ing a cupid rid­ing a phal­lus and a phal­lus with but­ter­fly wings on a ground of milk-paint, graf­fi­to-style. These ges­tures bring us back to the spir­it of pub­lic dis­plays of erot­ic plea­sure in Pom­peii and Her­cu­la­neum. Unfor­tu­nate­ly for we erot­ic-art appre­ci­a­tors with a healthy sense of humour, the Passmore’s ges­ture was prompt­ly removed to return the bare con­crete walls and beams to pubic propriety.