When an exhibition called “Casanova: The Seduction of Europe” opened at the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas just six months ago, it seemed like a can’t-miss blend of sex and snobbery. Gamblers, occultists, harlots, castrato singers, and masked revelers populated the galleries alongside beautifully crafted wall sconces, ball gowns, and porcelain tureens. There was even an X-rated “adults only” room where the most salacious images were sequestered. Reviews of the show highlighted the naughty bits, with The Wall Street Journal praising the “abundance of flushed bare flesh and roiling curves.” The Dallas Morning News proclaimed it “art as aphrodisiac.”
But when the traveling exhibition opened at its second venue, the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco, earlier this month, the legendary lothario was unleashed in a very different cultural climate — one newly attentive to questions of sexual misconduct and consent. Suddenly, Giacomo Casanova’s 100-plus documented amorous conquests (which included virgins, married women, nuns, actresses, and prostitutes — and that’s just the women) seem like a bug rather than a feature of his swashbuckling life story. Instead of a charming rogue — he’s been played onscreen by the likes of Heath Ledger, John Malkovich, Donald Sutherland, and Marcello Mastroianni — Casanova risks coming across as an 18th-century Harvey Weinstein.
When a cultural change comes on as swiftly and powerfully as #MeToo has, stories that once seemed merely risqué may take on darker meanings. Today, how does one interpret Casanova’s legacy without celebrating it — or censoring it?
This is a question the Museum of Fine Arts will confront when the show arrives in Boston in July with a new, neutered title: “Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure, and Power in the 18th Century.” Many in the arts are facing similar dilemmas as they try to make antiquated archetypes of love and desire not just palatable but relevant to contemporary audiences.
In a recent production at Florence’s Teatro del Maggio Musicale, Carmen killed Don José, rather than the other way around. In November, more than 11,000 people signed a petition asking the Metropolitan Museum of Art to remove a sexualized Balthus painting of a teenaged girl from its walls. The museum refused, calling the piece “an opportunity for conversation”; the National Coalition Against Censorship argued that the petition “fundamentally misconstrues the role of cultural institutions, which is to facilitate a diverse public’s engagement with a rich array of cultures and objects by framing and contextualizing them.”
But that argument wasn’t enough to save “I Love You, Daddy,” the recent Louis C.K. movie, from being shelved a week before its release date amid allegations of sexual misconduct against the writer-director. Weeks later, actors in the latest film from Woody Allen, whose daughter has accused him of molesting her, donated their salaries to charities combating sexual assault. The film still does not have a release date and may never see the light of day.
To find a precedent for this kind of cultural revisionism about sexual matters, one would have to look back to the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic put a chill on casual sex. Love scenes in television shows, movies, and romance novels began to incorporate conversations about condoms and HIV status. Characters who had once seemed sexually liberated suddenly looked sexually irresponsible. Even licensed ladykiller James Bond discovered monogamy in 1987’s “The Living Daylights.” (It remains to be seen whether the next Bond movie, due in 2019, will include affirmative consent.)
Every generation gets the Casanova figure it deserves, says James R. Chapman, professor of film studies at the University of Leicester and author of “Licence To Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films.” “The Bond of the books” — published between 1953 and 1964 — “was rather less promiscuous than the Bond of the films,” which “coincided with the moment when the sixties began to swing,” Chapman says. In contrast, “the more recent films have acknowledged the inherent sexism of the Bond character,” partly by surrounding Bond with strong women.
Legion of Honor curator Melissa Buron sees the Casanova show as a chance to piggyback on a once-in-a-lifetime cultural awakening. “I’d love to say that this was a brilliant marketing ploy on behalf of the museum,” she says. “But in 2014, when we began talking about this exhibition, we didn’t have a curatorial crystal ball that told us exactly what we’d all be talking about in 2018.”
While the public programming at the Museum of Fine Arts will also address gender, the institution will “expand it a bit more to identity politics in general,” deputy director Katie Getchell says. A series of events this summer on issues affecting Boston will be devoted to the theme of “Power, Wealth, and Status,” using museum objects as a springboard to discuss subjects like incarceration and urban housing that were as current in Casanova’s time as in our own. “I look at it as an opportunity to engage people in this exhibition who might otherwise not think it’s relevant to them,” Getchell says, “and to consider the interaction of power, sex, luxury, class, and celebrity — which are clearly present in our own world — in an earlier century.”
Instead of the Jean-Marc Nattier nude that was plastered around Fort Worth — albeit carefully Photoshopped to obscure a wayward nipple — the Legion of Honor is advertising the show with 1980s-style punk poster imagery. “We went with the idea of censor bars,” Newcomer explains. These modern-day fig leaves convey the show’s NSFW themes and content in a clear but playful way, without altering the actual artworks. The Museum of Fine Arts plans to use images reflecting the revised title.
From its conception, the exhibition was somewhat sanitized, leaving out the truly objectionable parts of Casanova’s biography — including rape, grave-robbing, and incest. Because there aren’t many artworks connected directly to Casanova, his life and travels provided the curators with a loose framework for a sexier-than-usual exhibition of rococo art, seducing audiences by giving a veneer of naughtiness to snuffboxes, harpsichords, and Venetian landscapes. Comely nudes rendered in a hundred shades of pink oil paint frolic with human or canine companions on overstuffed beds, but true 18th-century porn — typically produced in small scale, on paper — is scarce. The show comes with parental advisories, not trigger warnings.
Post-Weinstein, sex is tougher to sell. But Casanova offers other attractions. He “makes a good tour guide because he traveled over 40,000 miles in his lifetime,” Newcomer says. “That was unheard of in the 18th century.”
Casanova was ahead of his time in other ways, as well. Born in Venice to a pair of actors in 1725, he rose to the status of a gentleman in an era when social mobility was as difficult as international travel. Educated to be a priest, of all things, he had a brief career as a professional violinist. Later, he ran a silk manufactory, organized a national lottery, and worked as secret agent before ending his career as an unlikely librarian.
Venice was the Vegas of the eighteenth century: a place for gambling, fine dining, world-class entertainment, and illicit sex. Identities could be concealed beneath elaborate Carnival costumes; as long as you kept your mask on, what happened in Venice stayed in Venice. Unless, of course, you wrote it all down, as Casanova did in his multi-volume “History of My Life,” the source of his scandalous reputation.
Love and its corollary, lust, emerged as prominent themes in 18th-century art and literature, as European society struggled to balance social duty with sexual desire. Casanova was hardly the only so-called libertine to vacillate between chivalry and depravity; think of the Marquis de Sade and “Dangerous Liaisons.” In an era of arranged, transactional marriages and a corresponding boom in adultery, prostitution, and contraception, libertinism served a purpose; it sprang from the same spiritual and semantic roots as liberté, the driving force behind the American and French Revolutions. Casanova “embodies both the intellect and the underbelly of the Age of Enlightenment,” says Max Hollein, the Legion of Honor’s director.
Yet, even in his own time, Casanova’s behavior was shocking. Many of his exploits would land him in jail today, and, indeed, he was sentenced to five years in prison by the Inquisition. In typically melodramatic fashion, he escaped after three months, then dined out on the story for years.
Buron calls Casanova “your most annoying friend on Facebook,” constantly chronicling — and embellishing — his glamorous vacations, meals, entertainments, and love affairs. He had persistent FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and a knack for being “in the right place at the right time — every time,” as Buron says. Is an art museum in 2018 still the right place and time for Casanova? Audiences will have to decide.
Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, an art historian specializing in costume and textiles, is the author of “Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.”