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Sotheby's announces first dedicated exhibition of ancient Chinese erotic art in Hong Kong
A scroll with 20 lesbian figures (detail). Ink and colour on silk, 17 x 136 cm. Photo: Sotheby's.

HONG KONG.- Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery is delighted to present part of the Ferdinand M. Bertholet Collection, the world’s largest collection of erotic art, from 16 April to 3 May. The exhibition entitled Gardens of Pleasure: Sex in Ancient China, will feature more than 100 pieces of astounding works of art from the Ferdinand M. Bertholet Collection, with objects dating from the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) to the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911 AD). These trinkets include works in silk, ivory, bronze, and are whispers and slivers of tantalising tales from days gone by. Within these works, made up of alluring albums and provocative porcelains, an older, more mischievous China unfolds. As a collection, such pieces offer an unparalleled view into an exceptional story of sex in the ancient Middle Kingdom.

Ferdinand M. Bertholet, the collector, said, “I am very excited about the forthcoming exhibition at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery, which marks my first opportunity to share my collection with the audiences in Asia. I remember when I first began collecting around 35 years ago, I entered an antique shop on the famous Hollywood Road in Hong Kong. In a chest of drawers, I came across entirely by chance a pile of seven large sheets from an album and was amazed to discover they were Chinese erotic paintings of unprecedented beauty. Never before had I feasted my eyes on real objects of such quality. I was overjoyed with this discovery and, somewhere deep within me, a passion was born. Through this exhibition, it feels like bringing back home the remnants of an almost lost heritage, and offering a tribute to the masters of Chinese erotic art.”

Nicolas Chow, Deputy Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia and International Head of Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, said, “It is with great excitement that we present Ferdinand Bertholet’s collection of Chinese erotic art, which is the finest and largest in existence. It is the first time that an exhibition on the subject of sex in ancient China takes place in this part of the world and the collection is already well-known in the West, having been presented in illustrious museums such as the Cernuschi in Paris and the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin. The objects in the collection span many centuries and various media including album paintings, porcelain figures, bronze mirrors and phalluses. We trust that this exhibition will be an exciting eye-opener for the Asian audience and we encourage everyone to come and experience the gardens of pleasure.”

The Ferdinand M. Bertholet Collection
More than 30 years ago Ferdinand Bertholet discovered his first Chinese erotic album on display in an antique shop on Hollywood Road, Hong Kong. He was deeply impressed by the beauty of the illustrations: their decorative power, exquisite deployment of colour, and harmonious balance rapidly had a direct impact on his own paintings.

Over the years Bertholet managed to acquire a large variety of fine paintings, scrolls and objects, among which the absolute highlight of all times in this field; the famous set of eight Kangxi paintings from the former C.T. Loo collection. C.T. Loo's admiration for Chinese erotic art inspired Bertholet to produce the following publications: Dreams of Spring (1997), Gardens of Pleasure (2003), and Concubines and Courtesans (2010).

In the meantime the collection gained international renownal, and the most important parts of it were exhibited at the Rietberg Museum in Zürich (2002), the Cernuschi Museum in Paris (2006), The Barbican Art Gallery in London (2007), The Museum of Asian Arts in Berlin (2011), The British Museum (2014), the Berkeley Art Museum (2014), amongst many other world class institutions.

Love Games in a Flowering Garden. From Gardens of Pleasure Series. Late 17th Century. Set of eight. Ink and colour on silk, 39.5 x 55.5 cm

The work’s foreground is populated by a couple in pre-coital bliss, bodies intertwined: the Ming headdress points to the man’s social status, while his female companion’s hairdo—here worn up—signals her status as a married woman. And yet, many features residing in the background of the piece begs its audiences to question the legitimacy of the pairing. Magnolias and peonies deceptively bloom side by side within the painting, which is a fallacy considering how they flower separately throughout the seasons. A blue tai hu rock elegantly balances the piece, and in a moment of provocative insinuation, one might even discern our hero and heroine’s copulating outlines within the unassuming rock itself.

Meiren at Her Bath. Early 19th Century. Ink and colour on silk, hanging scroll, 155 x 87 cm
In this bathing scene, a beautiful lady, meiren, sits next to her bathtub on a bench made of mottled bamboo. Her nudity is underlined by a see-through dress, but in ancient China it is above all her exceedingly small feet which cause utmost excitement. Behind her, an orchid emergers decoratively from a varnished pot. A large sconce with a reflector illuminates the scene.

One Wooden Chair for “Foot-binding” and Two Pairs of Silk “Golden Lotus” Shoes
19th Century

Towards the end of the Yuan period, foot binding had become a privilege available only to the aristocrats. To have one’s feet bound was to possess immeasurable poise and beauty, as well as social status. When girls from upper-class families reached the age of five, they would become eligible for this tradition. This process of performing the rituals involved a special foot-binder’s stool, a rare item which will also be showcased in the present exhibition. The chair is displayed with shoes of the then considered highly elegant designs of the lotus bud foot, that were seen as capable of walking with “the elegant sway of a lily” on her delicate stem.

A scroll with 20 lesbian figures (detail). Ink and colour on silk, 17 x 136 cm
One intimate and delicate piece portrays two ladies coupling with the use of a phallus. Their bound feet suggest their high social statuses, most likely two courtesans within an emperor’s harem. Behind the women is a closed landscape panel, pointing to the privacy of their coupling. Considering the fact that our protagonists have kept their immaculately small shoes on, one can only assume that this work was painted as a means to arouse a male audience, or that the ladies too are tantalised by these adornments.

*Please note that due to the explicit nature of some images, this exhibition is suitable only for adults aged 18 and above and may offend.

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