10 OCTOBER 1998, Page 54

Museum with a difference

A welcome blast of fresh libido has come to Pigalle, as Nicholas Powell discovered JParis aded is not the word. Unless being shouldered off the pavement by coach loads of Dutch tourists does something for you, Pigalle is one of the unsmdest places on earth. Deserted for years by its prosti- tutes, bar one or two transvestites half way through their operations, hanging around up back alleys, it is just a succession of cos- mopolitan sex shops, greasy chip stalls and rip-off strip shows with 'Come inside, Mister, it's free!' touts who tug at your sleeve.

It is difficult to imagine where the poet Max Jacob, who after his conversion to Catholicism went regularly to confession up in the Sacre Coeur, only to wander down the hill and do it all over again, would find to do it nowadays. The Surreal- ists' favourite café on the Place Blanche is a banal Belgian chain restaurant. Once a music-hall, then an all-in wrestling joint, the Elysee Montmartre is reduced to stag- ing rock concerts. The floorshow at the Moulin Rouge, where the greatest can-can dancer of all, La Goulue, once famously hailed Edward, Prince of Wales with a cry of: `Alors, Galles, c'est toi qui paies le champagne, ou c'est ta mere?' can barely raise the tiniest of ooh la las! Indeed the only establishments worthy of Pigalle's rep- utation for saucy frivolity are Cabaret Michou, the female impersonation review still fizzing after nearly 30 years and Chez Moune, the lesbian 'cabaret feminin' with the pretty bob-haired, monocled girl on its logo, promising strip-tease and 'ambiance' until dawn.

At last, bringing a welcome blast of fresh libido into the area, comes the Musee de l'erotisme, at 72 Boulevard de Clichy, just opposite the supermarket Monoprix: the 'X' of course, is silent. Half museum, half contemporary art gallery, complete with a gift shop (a worryingly well-endowed gar- den gnome for £120, anal jewellery called 'rosebuds' sculpted by Julian Snelling for £70, plus acres of postcards), it features, in well spotlighted rooms, smart display cases and, on seven whole floors, over 2,000 erot- ic objects, ranging from Hindu lingams to salacious Russian matrioshka nesting dolls and contemporary works of art. Since it was opened late last year by antique dealer Alain Plumey, sculptor Alain Rose and French teacher Jo Kimlifa, three collectors of erotic art who no longer knew where to put it all, the museum has been pulling up to 8,000 visitors a month.

Because the curators appear more inter- ested in erotica than geography or history, the displays constitute something of an ethnographical jumble: passing from one culture to another, and back again, can get giddying. Yet confronted with such an array, the appetite, marvellously, neither sickens nor dies. And one's first impression is how seriously and vigorously the enjoy- able activities which ensure the survival of the human race have been depicted by every major culture. With the exception of our own, of course; even the word 'bawdy' used to mean 'dirty' in Middle English.

Everyone since schooldays knows what went on on Ancient Greek vases: the muse- um has a wall full of reproductions of these, all wildly libidinous in their very for- mal, black and red ochre way, one even featuring a satyr and a worried-looking donkey. Everyone, too, has heard of Indian temple sculptures, of which there are a few unfortunately poor examples in this muse- um. Not surprisingly, the Kama Sutra (1st to 6th century AD), gets very full coverage, in the form, among others, of finely execut- ed Nepalese watercolours detailing all those complicated positions; as impressive a display of patience on the part of the artist, one imagines, as on that of the cou- ples who grappled their way into them. More unexpected are crude painted wood- en sculptures from Nepal including vulvas, held to be sacred, and couples in every pos- ture, with even horses joining in. Horses get involved, too, on Japanese carved ivory tusks: a metaphor, presumably. Men in old Japanese erotic prints, meanwhile, are all built like horses: an exaggeration, one sup- poses.

More manageable by a modern Western sensibility is a range of tiny and beautifully executed Japanese ivory netsuke represent- ing him and her pleasurably defying gravi- ty. So, too, is a superb range of South American pottery: lively pre-Colombian statuettes (500 BC-500 AD), for example, depicting twosomes and threesomes with stylised bodies and superbly elaborate hair- dos, all of them at it. Even after the Span- ish conquest and their missionary threats of hell-fire, the sauce continued: to this day in Mexico they make terracotta flutes, with a varying number of holes, in the shape of erect penises. Some early 20th-century Mexican vases, meanwhile, are topped with copulating couples, finely modelled in clay, while certain Peruvian jars feature emaciat- ed figures, a warning, apparently, against the risks of sexual excess and, in particular, of onanism.

The opposite sexes of certain African tribes, such as the Yoruba, used to arouse each other during collective dances behind the comparative safety of carved wooden masks which covered their chests: the women all had beautifully generous breasts, while the men were endowed with a wooden penis they jerked into erection, Viagra-like, by means of a concealed string. Chaps in the heat of New Guinea make do with no clothes at all, but sport penile shafts called koteka: the museum has a photograph of one being worn, plus several on display, including an example a good metre long, with feathers on the end. And let us never think that Islam was puritan: the Turks delighted last century in copula- tory scenes, painted delightfully in gouache on the model of earlier Moghul miniatures.

And the West? Well, late last century and early this, the French were experts at very naughty and playful postcards. Forget fat ladies by the seaside. Copulating maids, monks and nuns were the favourite figures in gai Paris. Themes included stocking tops, farting, chamberpots (a riot when com- bined with complicated underwear), inap- propriate relations a la Clinton but sans frock, all the way to full penetration and group sex, snapped at close quarters with a real sense of artistry.

The contemporary art for sale ranges from the highly stylised oil paintings of women by Roland Bourigeaud to pencil drawings by cartoonist Barbe and disturb- ing mixes of old erotic Oriental prints and coloured photographs by 30-year-old Tai- wan-born Tzu Chen Chen. Paris-based Argentinian Jack Vanarsky produces mar- vellously witty sculptures. One, a pastiche of Bemini's swooning St Theresa in ecsta- sy, comprises a silk screen print of the sculpture in which both the angel's arrow and the saint's foot are made of articulated wooden slices, which gently undulate. Gay purists, meanwhile, may object that the museum pays scant attention to non-pro- creative sex. There is, however, a sensitively executed contemporary pastel representing the Marquis de Sade briskly sodomising a friend. It reminds one of Prince Vibescu's breathless post-ejaculatory exclamation, in Apollinaire's Les Onze Mille Verges, after a similar encounter: 'If you're not pregnant after that, then you're not a man!'

Le Musee de l'erotisme, 72 boulevard de Clichy, 75018 Paris; tel : 0033-14258 2873.