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Major Exhibition Devoted to "The Torments of Passion: The Dark Side of Sexual Desire"
Kate Moss by Marc Quinn - A man takes a look at Marc Quinn's "Sphinx" sculpture during the media inauguration of the exhibit "Tears of Eros" at Madrid's Thyssen-Bornemisza museum October 19, 2009. REUTERS/Susana Vera.

MADRID.- The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and Fundación Caja Madrid are presenting Tears of Eros, a major exhibition devoted to "The Torments of Passion: The Dark Side of Sexual Desire." The title of the exhibition is taken from the book by the French writer Georges Bataille, "Les larmes d’Eros," and is based on a number of his ideas on eroticism, such as the prohibition/transgression dialectic and the identification of the erotic with religious sacrifice.

The exhibition has a global, pansexual character, covering the widest range of orientations and types of desire: the male and female gaze and the heterosexual and homosexual one, voyeurism and exhibitionism, bondage and sadomasochism, and the different varieties of fetishism. All these differing aspects are to be found within the compendium of the myths of Eros, both those deriving from the Greco-Roman Olympus and those originating in the Bible. The present exhibition illustrates the survival of these myths up to the present day and their transformation in the modern era, a process that has given them new, perverse meanings.

The exhibition, which features 119 works including paintings, sculptures, photographs and videos, is organized thematically with each gallery devoted to one of the great myths of Eros. The central section runs from Romanticism to Symbolism and from there to Surrealism and contemporary art, while also including flashbacks to the Renaissance and Baroque. Within each section there is an emphasis on the dialogue between the art of earlier centuries and contemporary creation.

Through different periods and artistic media the visitor will see a number of symbolic motifs constantly reappearing, including tears, the wave and sea foam, hair, the serpent, cords for tying the flesh, etc, all of which define the image of the immortal but always changing figure of Eros.


1. The Birth of Venus

According to Hesiod, Aphrodite (Venus in the Roman world) was born as an adult woman from the semen of Uranus that had fallen onto the sea. This newly-born Venus, still innocent but armed with all her powers of seduction, appears here in works by the two great French, 19thcentury academic painters, Amaury-Duval and Bouguereau, and in a sculpture by Rodin. As a counterpoint there are two contemporary works inspired by Botticelli’s Venus: a photograph by Rineke Dijkstra (the innocent version) and a painting by John Currin (in which this innocence is only skin-deep).

2. Eve and the Serpent
In traditional images of this episode, the "Fall" is a symmetrical scene with Adam and Eve on either side and the tree in the middle with the serpent twined around it. In the modern age, however, artists omitted Adam to focus on the complicity between the woman and the serpent, who interact and dance in an intimate manner. Particularly notable in this section are works by Franz von Stuck, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and the famous Snake Charmer by Henri Rousseau. They establish a dialogue with contemporary photographs of Nastassia Kinsi by Richard Avedon, and one of Rachel Weisz by James White, among others.

3. Sphinxes and Mermaids
The sphinx and the mermaid are two mythological monsters (terrestrial and aquatic) who embody the dangers of seduction. In this gallery 19th-century sphinxes by Gustave Moreau and Elihu Vedder coexist with present-day ones by Mapplethorpe, Louise Bourgeois and Marc Quinn. In addition, "Nymphs and Mermaids" by Corot, Courbet, Burne-Jones and Franz von Stuck are shown alongside a photograph by Tom Hunter.

4. The Temptations of Saint Anthony
The traditional theme of the hermit assaulted by a series of disturbing visions of diabolic origin introduces the voyeur into the scene, whose contradictory attitude is at once participative and distant, active and inactive. This section includes works by Furini, Cézanne, Franz von Stuck, Picasso and Antonio Saura.

5. The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian
A Captain in the Praetorian Guard and favorite of Diocletian, Sebastian was condemned by the Emperor to be shot at by his own archers. The image of the young soldier tied to a tree, naked, pierced with arrows and with an expression mid-way between agony and ecstasy, was used since the Renaissance as a pretext for sensual enjoyment and ultimately became a gay icon par excellence. This section has notable works by Bronzino, Guido Reni, Ribera and Gustave Moreau, as well as an outstanding sculpture by Bernini.

6. Andromeda Enchained
Andromeda is the female counterpart to Saint Sebastian in the present exhibition’s association of bondage and erotic enslavement. Chained to a rock and threatened by a sea monster, she is rescued by Perseus. This episode allowed artists such as Rubens and Millais to exploit the titillating contrast between naked flesh and the hero’s black armour. The Surrealists Dalí, Domínguez, Penrose and Bellmer implicitly evoked this myth in their sadistic manipulation of the female body.

7. The Kiss
The kiss is the image of amorous consummation, in which the lovers struggle to overcome their own individual identities in order to fuse into one being. This aim, however, can involve an open or latent violence and a cannibal passion for devouring the other or for acts of vampirism. These ideas are found here in works by Munch, Rodin, Franz von Stuck, Max Ernst, Magritte, Andy Warhol and Marlene Dumas. A separate room has three videos by Bill Viola related to the human couple and the fusion of their boundaries.

The first part of the exhibition, which takes place in the Museo Thyssen Bornemisza, reveals the mortal dangers of erotic passion. The second part, in the Sala de Alhajas of Caja Madrid, focuses on eroticized death. The act of dying resembles erotic ecstasy, while death appears under a dual guise: either softened and adorned as the sister of Sleep, or shown in its macabre aspect.

8. Apollo and Hyacinthus
The young Hyacinthus died in an accident while throwing the discus with his lover Apollo. The god’s mourning for Hyacinthus (a homoerotic version of Venus’s lament for Adonis) was depicted in a grandiose and theatrical but distant manner in Tiepolo’s great masterpiece in the Thyssen Collection. Subsequent depictions of the story by French Neoclassical painters such as Broc, Blondel and Dubufe reveal the development of a more intimate, close-up approach to homosexual love.

9. Endymion’s Dream
When the goddess of the Moon fell in love with the beautiful shepherd Endymion, she persuaded Zeus to bestow eternal youth upon him and make him fall asleep forever so that she could look at him every night. With Endymion the male body is presented as vulnerable and has surrendered to become a passive erotic object. The group of works on display includes traditional interpretations such as those by Rubens, Guercino, Girodet and Canova, continuing into the modern era with the recent video by Sam Taylor-Wood that depicts David Beckham asleep.

10. Cleopatra or Voluptuous Agony
In 19th-century depictions of Cleopatra’s suicide, poisoned by the snake, the poses of the bodies suggest both the act of dying and also orgasm. Another beautiful suicide victim, Ophelia, is depicted in works by Gregory Crewdson and Tom Hunter. From Man Ray to Dalí and Delvaux, the Surrealists’ nudes celebrated the parallel between death and orgasm (le petit mort) and between oblivion and ecstasy.

11. The Penitent Magdalen
Mary Magdalen, the repentant sinner par excellence, retired to the desert. Nude or covered only by her flowing hair, she weeps and meditates before a book, cross and skull. The mortification of the flesh and sensual indulgence are ideas expressed in works by Luca Giordano, Canova, Lefebvre, Puvis de Chavannes, Kiki Smith and Marina Abramovic.

12. Head Hunters
In the biblical stories of Judith and Holofernes, Salome and Saint John the Baptist, and David and Goliath, the decapitated head exhibited as a trophy acquires a profoundly erotic intensity. Decapitation as a metaphor for castration by a “femme fatale” (or by an ephebe of similar type) is illustrated through works by Francesco del Cairo, Valentin de Boulogne, Jacob van Oost, Guercino, Tiepolo, Benjamin Constant, Lévy-Dhurmer, Franz von Stuck and Cindy Sherman.

The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza | Tears of Eros | Georges Bataille | Myths | Romanticism |

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