ONE OF THE things that I learned from this film is that the wily Michelangelo, in painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, included a view of the buttocks of God Almighty. Nor had I realized the frequency with which "chiselers" in the Vatican had removed phalluses from Classical statues (which they replaced with sculpted fig leaves), many of which are still preserved, labeled and lovingly indexed in caches with limited access. (Goodness, quips one of the experts, what a wondrous display these stone "willies" would make.)

The Vatican features prominently in this well-made, thought-provoking film (it is more than a little amusing at times) about the contents and the whereabouts of apparently massive collections of erotic and/or pornographic art and literature. The holdings in Rome are the largest because, over the centuries, the Church confiscated the artworks that it outlawed, both visual and literary. Of course, to determine the impurity of such artifacts, as another scholar notes, they presumably had to examine them first. (Speaking of literature, it was fun to see the handwritten draft of 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade, which he wrote on a single continuous roll of toilet paper while imprisoned in the Bastille.) 

Some of the art that appears in the film is widely known, such as the close-up portrayal of female genitalia by Gustave Courbet (L'Origine du Monde), Picasso's erotic doodles, and the scandalous doll-like contrivances of Hans Bellmer. Other examples are housed in little-known storage chambers in the National Library of France, the British Museum, National Graphics Collection in Munich, as well as in "discrete collections" amassed by private collectors. 

In addition, as is persuasively argued, some of the most evident eroticism is on full public display in museums, and yet it goes largely unnoticed, as in the aforementioned buttocks of God or in the blatant portrayal of more than a little naughtiness in Centaur Embracing a Bacchante by Swedish sculptor Johann Tobias Sergel. 

But why is most erotic art concealed from the public? Or, more to the point, why are art historians and other scholars denied access to it in the course of their research? Throughout the film, these and peripheral questions are asked in brief segments from interviews with European private collectors, museum curators, and other erotic art experts, notably Edward Lucie-Smith, who has written extensively on the subject. Their responses are of course interesting, but this is an overview and—not surprisingly—none of these issues are fully addressed by the time the film ends.
 
Be forewarned (or maybe you shouldn’t be!) that there are explicit depictions of sex throughout the film, but none of it even begins to approach the level of pornography that each of us encounters daily on the internet, regardless of whether we want to or not. No doubt, today is an opportune time to address the role of erotic imagery in public spaces, and this film might provide us a way to begin.—RB Ballast Reviews
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All reviews are copyright © by Roy R. Behrens
Secret Museums. 
A film by Peter Woditsch. DVD, color, 77 mins, 2008. Available from Icarus Films, 32 Court Street, 21st Floor, Brooklyn NY 11201. Website: www.IcarusFilms.com. 
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