Art or porn? The National Gallery turns on its red light

    The National Gallery is hosting of Ed Kienholz's re-creation of the Hoerengracht — Amsterdam's sex district. Scandalous or liberating?

    To prepare myself properly for the new exhibition at the National Gallery, I looked up the origins of the term “red-light district”. It turns out, there are two possible sources. One is ancient China, where red paper lanterns were hung outside brothels to identify them. The other is 19th-century America, where Milwaukee railway workers popping indoors for a quick romp would leave their warning lamps by the door in case they were urgently needed.

    The Chinese origins seem more likely to me. There is obviously something about the colour red that presses an alarm button deep within us, warning instantly of scarlet women. David Attenborough probably knows the answer. Perhaps it is associated with the mating displays of the female baboon? Whatever the original circumstances, it remains true that down dark and narrow alleys across the world, the colour red has long been roped into signalling the sale of sex.

    Nowhere is this more notorious than in Amsterdam, whose emblematic red-light district, which is such a giggly must-see on the city’s tourist trail, is now the focus of a thoroughly surprising exhibition at the National Gallery.The show is surprising for a gang of reasons. First, because seediness is not a quality you generally encounter at the National.

    Second, because red-light districts are not typical topics hereabouts. Principally, however, the event surprises because it features at its centre a spooky, walk-through re-creation of the Amsterdam hooker belt by that compelling American installation-maker Ed Kienholz.

    Kienholz, who appeared on the scene at the start of the 1960s, and who died in 1994, has always been a difficult artist to cat egorise. His dates ought really to have made him a pop artist. His subject matter, too — bars, cars, clubs, brothels. But Kienholz was always different. His heyday may have been the 1960s, but the 1950s, you feel, had their claws in him.

    On the surface, his art celebrates that get-me-a-beer enthusiasm for the commercial world that American art brought to international aesthetics. Underneath, though, it was always darker, glummer, more soulful than the rest. While the Warhols and the Lichtensteins were relaying the new optimism, Kienholz was wallowing like a warthog in the same old bog of despair that true students of the human condition have been wallowing in since biblical times.

    None of this qualifies him, however, to show at the National Gallery. One thing Kienholz definitely never was is an old master. The National has dabbled lightly in the past with contemporary and modern art, and the artist-in-residence scheme it operates guarantees the occasional flit-through of new blood. But this is more than that. This taking-over of the gallery’s central exhibition space by a full-size re-creation of Amsterdam’s red-light district adds up to the ripping-up of the old contract between Tate Modern and here, about which era belongs to whom. This is the beginning of a turf war. In fact, the revolt commences rather quietly with a tiny sample of Dutch 17th-century interiors that also show scenes of prostitution.

    There’s a lovely de Hooch, set in a house by a canal, in which a young girl in a gaudy red dress is being propositioned by a tipsy city burger. And a sensuous night scene, by Godfried Schalcken, showing a smiling wench leading a shadowy chappie to her bed while he slips her some gold coins. As always with Dutch 17th-century painting, you feel you are being issued with sneaky warnings about the perils of the flesh by artists who know full well what they are talking about, because they, too, have bitten into the forbidden apple. It’s like one of those drugs talks that are given at schools by former addicts.