Art and Design Art in Europe English Shelley’s Art Musings

Scandals too risqué to be seen?

“Scandal – an action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage.”

Art it completely objective. It is to each and every viewer, something different. So aside from the cultural and political aspects of life, what is it that causes the audiences and critics to deem something scandalous? There are plenty of examples of art which has caused people to be up in arms, so that motivates these emotions in people. And why, when we accept that the visual world is objective, does it sometimes cause uproar of great proportion?

When I think of a scandal, I think of something with action and consequence, there is usually evidence backing up said event, and there is a clear reason for the uproar. If you have read my earlier article on artists being above the human condition, this is what I deem as a scandal, there is evidence of what happened and the actions are deemed morally and legally incorrect.  So, why is it that one person’s interpretation of something can cause the same impact?

Today’s society has very much moved on and the world has become a smaller and more understanding place (on the most part). However, in this article, I am going to look at some of the art works which caused scandal in the past, and some which are shaking todays audiences and critics.

Melun Diptych – Right Panel Jean Fouquet (1452)

Jean Fouquet, The Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels (detail from the Melun Diptych), c. 1450-1460. Early Renaissance. Oil on canvas, 94 x 85 cm. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen , Antwerp.

At first glance, this looks like a fairly standard representation of Madonna and child.  Then you look a little closer. The depiction of Mary, with her down cast eyes, is in regal dress, the breast that is bare, a pert and spherical orb, her skin, beautifully alabaster.  This is no run of the mill Mary.  The child sat on her lap, is not looking as though it is about to feed, changing the context of this painting from mother and hungry child, to one of sexuality.  In fact, is has been discussed that woman that the painting is based on is Agnès Sorel, the chief mistress of King Charles VII of France. Considering Christianity at this time was heavily followed, it was scandalous that the Virgin Mary be sexualised in this way. Already inappropriate with the choice of model considering her status to the King, the fact that Sorel was deemed the most beautiful woman around only added fuel to this fire. Sorel had died before this picture was painted, yet her image was so strong that she was used for this commission.

This first scandal, covers all three main points for me which I think invokes an art scandal. Religion, sex and politics – These are the things which throughout history and even today push the emotional buttons of the audiences.

Bronzino – An Allegory with Venus and Cupid (1546)

Il Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo), An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, 1540-1550. Mannerism. Oil on wood, 146.5 x 116.8 cm. The National Gallery, London.

It’s a heavily claustrophobic piece of art.  There is so much going on in the foreground and the backdrop that it is a little difficult to interpret at first glance. But there are a few clear messages within this art work, which at the time upset the critics and viewers. Initially, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a painting about incest, with the central couple, Venus and Cupid, sharing an erotic and passionate kiss. However, the underlying message of this painting is actually a warning about the symptom of syphilis. From the screaming face of Jealousy on the left hand side, with its swollen knuckles, missing finger nails, alopecia and missing teeth being uncovered by Father Time on the right hand side of the painting as an indicator of things to come, to the cherubim lancing its foot on a thorn on the right hand side. This is an outcome of the loss of sensation felt when contracting syphilis. This painting has remained a controversial one through the ages, as for the subject and the figures as well as the allegory it stands for.  This pushed audiences of the time to accept the cause and effect of having multiple lovers and the devastating impact that syphilis can have.

Édouard Manet – Olympia (1856)

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1856. Oil on canvas, 130 x 190 cm.Musée d’Orsay ,Paris

By the 1800’s artistic nudes had become acceptable and integrated in to the art world, thanks to the works of artists like Michelangelo, that was until Manet’s Olympia was displayed.  This work was deemed vulgar as the style that she was painted in was deemed too realised and her stare, too confrontational. Sadly, the audiences couldn’t look past the confidence of the female as the models slim stature and figure pointed to her being very young and more than likely a prostitute, which only added to her unquestioning stare. As this painting was deemed too realistic and didn’t follow the idealised interpretations of nudes before, this moved the beauty of the piece to something which was seen as distasteful and intimidating.  When this was displayed in the Paris annual salon in 1865, two policemen had to be called to protect the canvas from the disgruntled mob.

Gustave Courbet – The Origins of the World (1866)

Gustave Courbet, Origin of the World, 1866. Realism. Oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm.
  Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Not to be out done in the controversial stakes, Courbet presented audiences with a graphic view of the vulva.  If Manet’s was thought to be too realistic only the year before, this sent critics in to frenzy from the confrontational painting. Courbet loved to shock his viewers. This work was a direct protest against the academic art teaching, where the naked body was covered and camouflaged. Hating this format, Courbet said that he could only paint what he saw. This painting rose to almost mythical status due to the controversy that it was shrouded in and was rumoured to only have been viewed from behind a curtain, not making in out for public viewing until 1995. Sadly, this is still subjected to censorship today in some areas, instead of viewing if for the beauty and basis of what the artist was trying to convey.

Tracey Emin – My Bed (1999)

Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1999.

This is the last piece that I am going to talk about, although there are hundreds that I would have loved to share with you.  Emin’s bed was shortlisted for the Turner prize, but was met with an outburst from the media. In the painting, the bed sheet were crumpled and stained with bodily fluids, surrounding the bed were items such as vodka bottles, condoms, menstrual blood could be seen in underwear scattered around, but juxtaposed with everyday items such as slippers. The artist was showing a stage in her life which represented a suicidal depression brought about from relationship difficulties and she had stayed in bed for days. Critics slammed the piece and Private Eye ran an article about the bed named The Turd. Audiences and critics alike were upset by the apparent slovenly behaviour of the artist and it’s all too obvious display.

Regardless of the uproar that these pieces caused, to me, I can’t say I see any of them as scandalous. Maybe because I look to what the artist was trying to portray, or I am more open to the freedom of expression, which is not something that is always there when the artist puts a piece of themselves on display.

Whether it is sex, religion or politics, art will always invoke some emotional turmoil for some viewers.  Often the scandal can working in the artists benefit, urging viewers to look at the art in a different way trying to push back from the initial reported reactions.

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