Saturday, 12 July 2014

All too much

You would think this painting is pretty unremarkable compared to the way women are now routinely depicted in the news media, art galleries, films and advertising. A bit of bare flesh, a bit of cleavage, not much clothing.

But it was all too much for the sheltered folk at the Mall Galleries in London, who took one look at it and decided it was "disgusting" and "pornographic". They removed it from the Society of Women Artists' Annual Exhibition and replaced it with something they thought was more suitable.

They explained that they had had a number of complaints and children who happened to be walking through the gallery on the way to other events might be disturbed by it.

Disturbed by what exactly? The modest patch of pubic hair? The partially-uncovered breasts? The unbuttoned culottes? The self-confident swagger? Is it in any way threatening or violent or deformed or sinister? Why would any child pay any particular attention to it, let alone be disturbed by it?

The artist, Leena McCall, was furious at the removal of the portrait. She said she was baffled as to how a painting with no intimate flesh apart from "the pelvic triangle" could be seen as pornographic.

Art galleries everywhere have copious nude portraits and sculptures of both sexes that attract no complaints whatever. Why the strange over-reaction to this slightly unusual painting?

The journalist Rowan Pelling suggests it's because the subject is not the normal passive, unassuming female but looks assertive and appraising - provocative even.

And she wonders "if the cross-legged Puritans responsible for defenestrating the portrait have ever seen Gustave Courbet's L'Origine du Monde at the Musée d'Orsay, with its splendid sprawl of black-haired vulva." A painting which leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination.

All a bit of a whipped-up storm in a teacup, surely?

Pic: Ms Ruby May, Standing by Leena McCall


  1. How extraordinary! I read right to the end on the assumption the painting had been shown in the 1920s! Something about the general look of the model. It would indeed have shocked many people born and raised in the Victorian age. But NOW??? I'm at a loss!
    I'm sorry you've had probs posting to my blog by the way ( it was you who emailed, right - couldn't be 100 percent sure as my phone didn't recognise the email) I am not around so can't check the help section - I've been using the iphone app but it's either really useless or else I'm really dim! Anyway hope you have found a solution by now on Blogger Help.

  2. It does seem surprising - but I don't think it's an anti-feminist thing, I suspect it's the partial (rather than entire) nudity. I think that a clothed man with his tackle hanging out would have provoked the same reaction, possibly a stronger one. It's well known that suggestion can be more effective than an explicit display, just because so much is left to the imagination.

  3. Jenny: I know, the absurd reaction seems like some Victorian throwback. Just what is their problem?

    Yes, it was my email. I haven't tried Blogger Help yet, must give it a go tomorrow.

    Z: It's true that a tantalising suggestion can be more potent than something more explicit. That might well be why they got so hot under the collar!

  4. I wax going to say the same thing as Z. People seem to be more offended by suggested nudity than actual.

    The other factor is that the painting is more realistic than other styles of art.

  5. I assume these are the same puritans that also find breast-feeding pornographic but believe in sex-workers?

    Got it.


  6. I don't think a child would be disturbed by it...but definitely curious.

    I was curious.

  7. My reaction was the same as Jenny's --- the picture has the feeling of the 1920's. Interesting.

  8. Bijoux: Yes, anything "suggestive" and some people's imaginations seem to go completely wild.

    Hmmm, I don't think painting is necessarily more realistic. But certain styles of painting like this one can have a strong effect on the viewer.

    www: Very true, a lot of that righteous indignation is entirely hypocritical.

  9. Susan: Yes, it's certainly curious. Obviously a rather contrived pose that makes you look twice.

    Jean: It definitely looks like a painting from a much earlier time. Rowan Pelling remarks that it "smacks of Isherwood's Berlin with its cabaret noir sensibility" (cabaret noir - decadent, risqué)

  10. I met Leena once at an exhibition in London. I found her to be a lovely and charming lady, who would never paint pornographic art, erotic yes, that is entirely different.

  11. Anthony: That's my assumption too. By no stretch of the imagination could this painting be seen as pornographic. Do they actually know what the word means?

  12. our reactions to nudity or even various behaviours are all about context. it is an expected thing to see a guy drop his pants at the beach (revealing swimming costume) but it would be enormously offensive pretty much anywhere else.
    i looked up the definition of porn and it refers to an artwork which has the purpose of sexual arousal. Dont you think the painting is intending exactly that? that's not to say i am offended or it should have been moved but it most surely is intended to arouse

  13. Kylie: Well, according to the artist it isn't intended to be sexually arousing. Of course some people will find it arousing nonetheless, but the same applies to just about any depiction of a woman in any media. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and so is sex.

    As you say, even if it was intended to arouse, that's no reason to ban an interesting work of art. If every potentially arousing picture of a woman were banned, there'd be little left. Even pictures of Mrs Thatcher would have to be wiped.

  14. Really? I read your post expecting you to say this happened in, I don't know, the thirties or some long past time.

  15. Liz: Exactly. As Rowan Pelling says, the art world nowadays is so laid back, so cool, you'd have to work really hard at producing something "offensively sexual". Just about anything goes as long as it can be classified as art.

  16. I'm not going to weigh in on the museum's decision, but I have to say I get tired of how often women's bodies are on display compared to men's.

  17. Agent: I think the problem is not so much that women's bodies are on display but the negative and hyper-critical way they're commented on. How many men are told they have cellulite or fat thighs?

  18. I wonder if it is the oldest marketing trick! Raise some ruckus or ban a book like Rushdie's so that it sells! It would be interesting to find out if the painting is still available for sale.

  19. Ramana: According to the exhibition catalogue, it's for sale at £4,500. Somehow I doubt if she or the SWA were deliberately whipping up controversy. The SWA said they were reacting to a number of complaints, which presumably were genuinely made. But who knows. The art business, like every other business, is full of skulduggery!