Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Don't Look, Myrtle!

Manet: Luncheon on the Grass (detail)
One man's art is another man's abomination.  Some works inspire fear and loathing in the general public, only to be hailed later as masterpieces. Others remain on the hate list for ever.  There are various reasons for objecting to works of art, so let's look at a few examples:

It's scandalous, immoral and just not decent!
John Singer Sargent's Madame X is the poster girl for this category. Sargent painted Madame Virginie Gatreau standing in profile, leaning on a table. In the original version, the jewelled strap of her dress is falling off her right shoulder. The portrait caused outrage among public and critics alike. Sargent did paint the strap back on her shoulder, in a vain attempt to clean the "pornographic" image up a bit, but to no avail.

The shock/horror factor seems to have been caused as much by Mme X's d√©colletage and her extreme pallor, as by the strap falling off her shoulder. Virginie was in the habit of powdering her neck, arms and shoulders with powder to which a violet tinge had been added, suggesting a louche touch of unhealthy languor.  Vampires! Drugs! Sex! Sargent eventually had to relocate to London to escape the scandal. Madame X is now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, one of their priceless treasures.

Blasphemy! Sacrilege! Work of Satan! 
Albrecht Durer, (he of the famous pen-and-ink Praying Hands) was fond of a selfie: he made many self-portrait drawings, slipped self-portraits into some of his paintings and painted three lovely self-portrait oils. The third of these (1500) copped a lot of flak in the "Blasphemy!" category.

At that time, a profile or three-quarters view was the accepted norm for a secular portrait: the full frontal was reserved for divine figures. Durer's self-potrait bore a strong resemblance to the conventional representation of Christ: long hair, the direct gaze and the hand lifted as if in blessing.  (Holbein got away with painting Henry VIII in full-length frontal view in 1536, but only because the king insisted on that rather confrontational pose. No shrinking violet, King Henry!)

Yuck! Quick, Nurse, the kidney bowl!
In London in 1972, I saw performance artist Ben McGowan sit in a tub of pig's entrails. Unfortunately for me, I caught the exhibition on Day Three. Had I gone to the opening day, the smell might not have reach hazmat potency yet. They were not so particular about Occupational Health and Safety in 1972.  Luckily the exhibit was only on view for a week. I don't know how long it took to decontaminate the artist.
Tracey Emin: My Bed
Less ephemeral is Tracey Emin's "My Bed", which was exhibited at the Tate in 1999 as one of the shortlisted works for the Turner Prize. Had that been my unmade bed, I would have removed the stained knickers, the used condoms and the empty vodka bottle before I called The Man With A Van to take it to the Tate for all to see. This artwork generated a lot of uproar, because it combined the Yuck factor with the next category, which is …
They paid HOW MUCH for that thing??!!
The Saatchi Gallery bought My Bed for £150,000.  When it was auctioned by Christie's in 2014, it was bought by German businessman Christian Duerckheim for £2.54 million. It is currently in the Tate, on a ten-year loan from Herr Duerckheim.
Picasso: Weeping Woman
Two HOW MUCH?! art works in an Australian context, are Picasso's Weeping Woman, for which the NGV shelled out $1.6 million of taxpayer's money, and Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles, for which the National Gallery of Australia paid $1.3 million. Outrage, shock and horror at the time, but over the years, public opinion has veered to "what a bargain!"
Pollock: Blue Poles
A couple of prime examples of the HOW MUCH?! / Yuck / Blasphemy!-combo are Piss Christ by Andres Serrano, depicting a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's urine, and Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, a painting of a black madonna surrounded by lumps of elephant dung and images of genitalia cut from porn magazines.
Serrano: Piss Christ (detail)

Cardinal Pell threw a hissy fit when the NGV exhibited Piss Christ, and Mayor Rudi Giuliani freaked and brought a lawsuit when the Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibited the black madonna.
Ofili: The Holy Virgin Mary
Despite death threats and public demonstations, Serrano received $15,000 for the Christ from the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts. Ofili sold his Madonna to David Walsh for an undisclosed sum and it is currently on display at his Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania.
Manet: Luncheon on the Grass

Who is to say what is art and what is abomination? Manet's Dejeuner sur L'Herbe, Robert Mapplethorpe's beautiful homo-erotic photographs, Whistler's Nocturnes or Cosimo Cavallaro's My Sweet Lord (a life-size, anatomically correct Jesus, sculptured in chocolate) … love them or despise them?

My Blue Ribbon for Dubious Taste has to go to that soppy piece of Victorian schlock, John Millais' Bubbles. But that's just me.
Millais: Bubbles


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