Art can be one of the most progressive expressions of humanity. Many artists are always looking for innovative ways to explore human nature and go beyond the limits of what’s socially and morally taken as correct. There are literally hundreds of examples throughout history showing how art has been banned and censored for being too liberal or even for being considered as a huge offense to humanity. Why do we have to be extremely judgemental instead of understanding art as it is? It would be easy to assume people in the past were extremely prudish and took these artworks as extremely explicit when they aren’t so. But that’s not the case. Even though we don’t want to accept it, we can be as prudish or worse than those who have censored important art pieces.
If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the controversy that happened just a couple of months ago when a woman started an online petition to the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to remove Balthus's painting Therese Dreaming. According to the petition, the painting romanticizes “the sexualization of a child.” If you don’t know it, the painting portrays a young girl sitting on a chair with her legs wide open showing her underwear, so for her, the fact that the museum has it on display is a way of “supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children.” Now, although the petition reached thousands of signatures in a short period of time, the Metropolitan Museum released a statement claiming that they are interested in “collecting, conserving, and presenting significant works of art across all times and cultures.” But what was Balthus intention to convey such a message in his painting?
We can’t deny nor accept anything, since we don’t have all the evidence to do so, but what’s true is that art can be so open to interpretation that sometimes it can clash with our moral perspectives in life, making us uncomfortable with certain artworks. But beyond that, it also speaks about how these visions can change from time to time, or how some artists have been so ahead of their time that their art doesn’t pass their contemporary rules. Having said that, here are six paintings that had been the protagonists of passionate controversies due to the "sexual" content they present.
Madame X - John Singer (1884)
You might look at this painting from the late nineteenth century and just think that the woman portrayed is so beautiful or that her dress looks quite modern. But this is actually one of the most controversial paintings in art history. Madame X is actually a woman belonging to the French aristocracy called Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau. But why was this considered such an offensive artwork in Paris? I mean, they had already seen Courbet’s L’origine du monde and many erotic paintings by the avant-garde artists. Well, all the fuss was due to her gorgeous dress and her suggestive pose. Originally, one of the straps of the dress was falling from her shoulder, and at the time it wasn’t well seen for women to show themselves so uncovered in public. Needless to say, the painting was considered so vulgar and inappropriate that it was taken out from the exhibition and Singer had to flee to Britain to escape from the uproar.
Olympia - Edouard Manet (1863)
This is another great example of controversial art, although in this case, we can say the reasons are way more obvious. Inspired by Goya’s La Maja Desnuda (which we’re going to talk about in a bit), Manet decided to change the rules of what was considered acceptable in nudity by portraying a prostitute posing before the spectator. Although the painting is basically self-censored, since it doesn’t show anything explicit (she’s covering her vagina and her nipples can’t really be seen) what shocked spectators at the time was her face and pose. She’s coldly looking at the spectator while lying on a messy bed, as implying that she’s just waiting for her next customer. That coldness in her stare was understood as her being dominant over men, and the many symbols in the painting proved that she was, in fact, a prostitute.
La Maja Desnuda - Francisco Goya (1797-1800)
So, let’s talk about the equally controversial origin of Manet’s painting. Almost a century before, the Prime Minister Manuel Godoy commissioned a painting to the artist to have it displayed in his mansion. Goya also painted a dressed counterpart called La Maja Vestida, and according to some specialists, it was displayed on top of the other one with a mechanism that would unveil the naked maja whenever Godoy wanted to show off his paintings. It’s also been speculated that the maja is none other than María Teresa de Silva Álvarez de Toledo, the famous Duchess of Alba. Anyway, it’s believed that in an attempt to remove Godoy from power, the Spanish Inquisition raided his house and took the paintings as evidence of his licentious behavior. Naturally, Goya was also interrogated, but since he claimed his work had been a commission he got away with it. Godoy used his influences and was freed, but the painting was kept from the public until the twentieth century.
Leda and the Swan - Correggio (1531-2)
Let’s go a bit back in time a couple of centuries before. In the first half of the sixteenth century, the Italian painter Correggio started a series of paintings called Love Affairs of Jupiter, in which he depicted the most iconic love scenes of the deity in Greek and Roman mythology. In this painting, Leda is in the middle of a blissful encounter with Jupiter disguised as a swan while other naked figures witness the scene. Now, there was a sort of implicit agreement in which nudity was allowed as long as it depicted mythological scenes. However, according to the story, this was seen as such an explicit and vulgar painting that even years later the Duke of Orleans’ son, Louis, stabbed it with a knife, destroying Leda’s face. It was later restored, and it is now exhibited at the Prado Museum in Spain.
La Cigale - Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1872)
Let’s say that Lefebvre was considered a highly talented painter who won not only a vast amount of awards but was also an important member of the French Academie des Beaux-Arts, which was an honor at the time. Well, this wasn’t enough to appease the anger of his contemporaries when he exhibited his painting La Cigale. As you can guess, it wasn’t her nakedness what shocked the audience but her youth, her countenance, and the provocative way she’s staring at the spectator. Lucky for Lefebvre, he was well positioned in the artistic circles, and the situation didn’t go too far.
The Last Judgement - Michelangelo (1565)
Finally, we have one of the masters of art with one of his iconic scenes from his Sistine Chapel Fresco. We’re talking about his Last Judgement scene where he decided to portray several naked figures waiting their turn to be either received in heaven or sent to hell. Now, despite the fact that the painting is a masterpiece, the most prominent characters of the Vatican didn’t think the same and deemed Michelangelo’s painting as unholy and immoral. It wasn’t only the Church that thought the painting was offensive, but there is written criticism like the one of the poet Pietro Aretino, who angrily stated that not even the worst brothels had such immoral images like that, and asked Michelangelo why did he put something so offensive in the house of God. One of the artist's apprentices later added clothes to the many naked souls.
Art will always be one of our chosen tools to express ourselves beyond any boundaries, but at the same time it seems there isn't really a way to escape from our moral norms and perspectives, and there will always be at least someone who doesn’t agree entirely with us. However, I do think that in order to have a better understanding of our society and history, we must take a look at what art has created as an alternative to social patterns and see how we’ve evolved, or not. These paintings are now considered masterpieces, but who knows? Perhaps in the future, we’ll become way more prudish, and as it happened with Balthus’ piece, people will want to have these masterpieces removed from their museum walls.
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