Sunday, 20 September 2009
Exhibition organizers at the Royal Academy are expressing bewilderment and mild outrage, at least in public, because the people who run advertising for the London Underground have decided to ban a poster featuring a nude Venus by the German 16th century artist Lucas Cranach the Elder. In private, they must be hugging themselves. At the time of writing three major newspapers have picked up the story – the Guardian, the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard, and it is out on the Press Association wire service. Doubtless other newspapers will follow. It’s the kind of publicity you couldn’t buy, for an exhibition that many people might think of as being a bit esoteric and scholarly – in a phrase, above their heads. The RA have even got an influential MP on their side. John Whittingdale, chair of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, is quoted as saying: "The decision is absolutely bonkers. This was painted around 500 years ago.”
It’s an accepted fact that major contemporary art exhibitions tend to run on scandal – usually sexual in one way or another. The immensely successful Sensation! show of then-new BritPop artists, held at the Royal Academy just over ten years ago, owed much of its initial impact to a portrait of the Moors murderess Myra Hindley, painted with the aid of stamps made in the shape of children’s hands. When the exhibition moved to the Brooklyn Museum in New York the scandalous star of the show was a painting of the Virgin by Chris Ofili, where one of her breasts was a lump of elephant dung. Rudy Guiliani, then mayor of New York, attempted to court the Catholic vote by withdrawing funding from the museum.
What we forget is that it was ever thus where contemporary art is concerned. In 1847 Jean-Baptiste Clésinger’s Woman Bitten by a Snake caused a sensation at the Paris Salon – allegedly because the sculptor was thought to have cast the model from life. The real reason was that she appeared to be in the throes of orgasm. In 1865, the scandal was repeated when Manet’s Olympia was shown. Though the nude figure was modeled on Titian’s Venus of Urbino, the picture was read as a comment on the contemporary culture of prostitution.
Paradoxically, what’s new about the present imbroglio is that it is, as Mr Whittingdale points out, a scandal about old, rather than new, art. Cranach’s nudes are a familiar feature of the world’s great museums. One of the best-known paintings in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool is his Nymph of the Fountain, which has not been lent to the RA because Liverpool needs to keep its best treasures at home, during its year-long celebration as European City of Culture. The Walker is a populist museum, and hordes of school children are dragged past the Nymph every month, as part of their artistic and, no doubt, sexual education.
The thing that makes a rather shameful episode even funnier is that Cranach was closely associated with the first throes of the Protestant Reformation. His was a friend of Luther, and painted a number of portraits of him. A major patron was John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony, chief champion in Germany of the Protestant cause. Militant Protestantism and censorship, especially sexual censorship, have often tended to go hand in hand.
To understand why he painted so many nudes we have to think ourselves back into the political, social and cultural framework of the early 16th century. Nudes were associated with the humanist enthusiasm for Greek and Roman antiquity. Cranach’s nudes, like the Venus now in contention, invariably refer to classical legends. The willingness to commission paintings of the nude, and to put them on public display, was also associated with the increasing tendency of secular rulers to loosen their bonds with the Church, even in cases where they did not reject them. The many nudes painted by Italian artists for François I’s new palace at Fontainebleau were subtly emblematic of that monarch’s wish to free the French ecclesiastical hierarchy from the domination of the papacy. In addition, paintings of the nude had a clear significance in terms of social class. Works of art in churches – altarpieces, statues and stained glass windows - addressed themselves to everyone. Exquisite paintings of the nude, with references to classical literature, addressed themselves to a wealthy, well-educated elite.
It is exactly here that things come full circle. What London Transport is telling us, by attempting to ban the Cranach poster, is that some things remain too special for popular consumption. One of the commonest excuses given for cultural, as opposed to political, censorship is that “people might be upset”. The censor seldom admits to being personally troubled by what he or she wants to ban. His or her actions are altruistic – an attempt to spare other people distress. In this case the message is “Let’s narrow and dumb down the cultural heritage, to the point where it becomes safely innocuous.” In fact, most censorship of this sort is an attempt to allay anxiety – an anxiety that is externalized by being projected into the minds of others. “He or she or they are not quite like us – they don’t have the same background. It’s kinder not to confront them with this or that or the other.” One can perhaps sum the situation up by describing it as the censorship of condescension.
One can draw two conclusions from this comic but nevertheless troubling affair. The first is that things have in some ways changed very little from Cranach’s day. Some images are only for posh people, with the money to pay the Royal Academy’s exhibition entrance fee.
The other, in stark contrast to the first, is that our cultural horizons are getting narrower and narrower. The only way most of us can interpret a Cranach in the tube – or so the relevant authority believes – is to see it in terms of a picture in a soft-core pornographic magazine. Meanwhile, one hopes that the RA are truly grateful for the bonus just handed to them by London Transport’s stupidity.
This site was last updated 20-09-2009