Shelley’s Art Musing – “Cover up that bosom, which I can’t endure to look on”. (Tartuffe, Molière)

The Egon Schiele. The anniversary show is due to start in February 2018 with exhibits in Vienna, London, Hamburg and Cologne. It will display the main aspects of his work and his shunning of traditional art practices of his time, break taboos and exploring spirituality through his expressionist form.

If you are unaware of Schiele’s work, he was an Austrian artist working in the early part of the 1900’s.  His work is recognised for its raw intensity and sexuality.  He produced many self portraits, some of which were nudes.  The subjects of his work drawn with twisted body shapes and a unique line which made his work an early contender for the expressionist art movement.

With this in mind and 100 years after the death of Schiele, we are still seeing censorship of his work, and I am led to the question, why?

The advertising campaign for this exhibit first opened this question up for me, with Schiele’s artwork being heavily censored.

I could just see this as a very clever marketing ploy and move on, but I don’t believe that it is.  Schiele’s work is provocative and unashamed in its presentation, so why is it when it is displayed outside of the confines of a museum or art gallery is it subject to such censorship?

Sexuality within art is a fine line to tread.  If it is deemed “conformist” in that the subject is demur in nature and in an “acceptable” pose the art work on display is almost unseen and not out of place, we are quite used to seeing sculptures like Michelangelo’s David, or Botticelli’s Birth of Aphrodite on postcards or greeting cards, so why not Schiele?  It is after all just the human form, and we are all human, so why is there a need for such censorship?

The art world very often butts heads with the marks of decency or good taste in its hunt for freedom of expression and exploration of taboo subjects.  This means that art will always come up against the confines of what censorship boards will allow, but can censorship go too far?

Artists throughout history have been subjected to this same confine which sees their work either covered, as Schiele work has been, mutilated to be more audience friendly, or renamed to give a different take for what is on the canvas.

For example, if we look at the work of Picasso, specifically The Young Ladies of Avignon.

Pablo Picasso , The Young Ladies of Avignon, 1907. Cubism. Oil on canvas, 243.9 x 233.7 cm. Museum of Modern Art , New York.

This piece was originally called The brothel of Avignon, but was renamed by Andre Salmon in an attempt to lessen the scandalous impact that this painting would cause.

Picasso, never liked this name, and always referred to the painting as the “brothel painting”.  But “would a rose by any other name smell as sweet…”

The name and content of the picture would always be controversial and while this painting is now considered the seminal piece in cubism and modern art, its original reception was not as highly regarded.

This does lead to the question of trending censorship, while it is accepted that nudity and sexuality will always push the boundaries of the censorship boards, will there come a time when it is considered to be immoral to show drinking or smoking within art work.  Could we see small black boxes over the works of Degas, Picasso, Balthus, Magritte and Hamilton be censored because they depict habits which are now being frowned upon within society?

Of course, this is taking censorship to the absolute extreme, but this type of act isn’t unheard of.  Merriam-Webster defines censorship as “the practice of officially examining books, movies, etc., and removing things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society, etc.” We have seen extreme censorship in the past, most notably the Nazi book burning of may 1933.  This act saw books which were subversive to the Nazi regime burnt.  Seeing any texts which were  Jewishpacifistreligiousclassical liberalanarchistsocialist, and communist, among others burned in the street. The first books burned were those of Karl Marx and Karl Kautsky.

I say that this is the extreme, and it really is, and some artists, have tried mock the censorship panels through their work.

If we look at the painting The Treachery of image by Rene Magritte we see a painting of a pipe with the words “this is not a pipe” written underneath it.

Rene Magritte , The Treachery of Images, 1929. Oil on canvas, 63.5 x 93.98 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

At first glance, this is confusing to say the least.  We can see it is a pipe, so why would the artist profess otherwise?

Magritte was quoted to have said: “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!”. Taking a direct stance against the critics and the censorship boards by pointing out once again that art is merely subjective and each person will have their own opinion of what they see and deem acceptable.

Richard Hamilton was also heavily subjected to censorship of his images, with his work cropped to make it appear more acceptable.

The piece Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?  was produced in 1956 for the exhibition This is Tomorrow in London.  The piece is a collage which shows a male body builder and a burlesque model around the house in no clothing, but one holding a sign and the other wearing a lampshade.

Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, 1956. Collage, 260 x 248 mm. Kunsthalle Tubingen

The image was used as the poster campaign for the exhibit, but it was cut down so only the male body builder was shown, deeming the topless women too risqué to use within the campaign.

From what we have looked at, we can see why art and censorship will always be in conflict.  The moral high ground of societies best interests, usually winning which means that public displays of controversial artworks will always be confined to the safety of a designated space, so as not to offend those who could be, and to protect the innocent eyes of children.

If you want to see Schiele’s work in all its glory, you will need to attend one of the exhibits mentioned above, and you can get more information about the exhibits here:-

Vienna – https://www.wien.info/en/sightseeing/vienna-2018/vienna-2018-exhibitions

London – https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/klimt-schiele

For now I will leave you with the image of The Radical Nude, and a quote by Schiele, which reminds us that art is one of the oldest forms of communication – “Art cannot be modern. Art is primordially eternal.”

Egon Schiele, The Radical Nude

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