Is it censorship or cultural sensitivity?
Queen Brunhilde still wears her crown as a horse drags her through the streets by her hair in Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio’s early 1400s manuscript “Concerning the Fates of Illustrious Men and Women.” She looks young there, though the Frankish queen, who led a kingdom and its military, was 80 when her enemies executed her in 613 A.D. She tells her own story in Boccaccio’s book, sharing the ways that she was wronged. But the narrator — Boccaccio — continually interjects to remind her that her devious femininity and power hunger actually ruined her until, eventually, she’s contrite.
Often, Boccaccio’s manuscripts are commended as some of the earliest deep looks at strong historical women. The women are powerful, but the exhibition “Outcasts,” at The Getty Museum in Los Angeles, points out the prejudices inherent in his approach. The queen “fell victim to the misogyny of later medieval authors who cast her as the archetypal ‘nasty woman,’” reads the exhibition label about Boccaccio’s manuscript, paralleling Brunhilde’s treatment with insults hurled at Hillary Clinton.
“The Death of Brunhilde, Queen of France” by Giovanni Boccaccio from about 1413-1415. Digital image via The J. Paul Getty Museum.
The exhibition addresses a whole range of prejudices in medieval manuscripts: racial, religious, gendered. Kristen Collins and Bryan C. Keene, the show’s curators, conceived of the project in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential win. “It came out of a burst of energy that began the day after the election,” Collins recalls.
The show opened at The Getty on Jan. 30, 2018, right when the effects of the #MeToo movement hit the U.S. art world hardest. The National Gallery had canceled a retrospective of iconic portrait artist Chuck Close due to sexual harassment allegations against him. Then there was a widely circulated petition that called for The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to remove, or at least re-contextualize, a seemingly pedophilic painting by mid-20th-century Polish artist Balthus. Would the #MeToo movement tidal wave, already washing over living artists, come for historic artists too, even after the art community downplayed their problematic, predatory behavior for years?
Emma Sulkowicz’s asterisk performance at The Met in 2018. Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang, used with permission.
The very same day “Outcasts” opened, artist Emma Sulkowicz staged a protest performance in New York City. Sulkowicz — who in 2015 carried a mattress around campus to protest Columbia University’s handling of her own alleged rape — wore a negligée and asterisk-shaped pasties over her nipples. First she posed next to work by Chuck Close in the 86th Street Q station and at The Met. Then she went to MoMA and stood in front of Picasso’s breakthrough 1907 Cubist masterpiece, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” spreading her arms and legs so her body resembled a star — a human asterisk — then dashing away before security guards reached her.
She chose the asterisk motif because of a New York Times article published two days prior, in which museum officials discussed using asterisks on wall labels to acknowledge sexual offenses. “I was just so appalled by what the museum directors were saying in the article,” Sulkowicz told Artnet News in February. “One guy said something like, ‘if we go down this road, all of our museum walls would be bare.’”
“At some point you have to ask yourself, is the art going to stand alone as something that needs to be seen?” Yale Gallery director Jock Reynolds told the Times. “Pablo Picasso was one of the worst offenders of the 20th century in terms of his history with women. Are we going to take his work out of the galleries?”
While Palo Alto High School removed all of alumni James Franco’s paintings from its walls after his #MeToo fall, no respected curator or critic is calling for Picasso’s removal from major museums. But given that his much young mistress/muse Marie-Thérèse Walter once said, “[h]e violates women first, and then we work,” acknowledging the great man’s shortcomings might help, not hinder, general understanding of his output.
On its website, the Museum of Modern Art calls “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” a “monumental” painting depicting “five naked women with figures composed of flat, splintered planes.” The blurb acknowledges Avignon as a street known for its brothels but omits the fact that five prostitutes posed for Picasso or that Picasso began frequenting brothels at age 13.
In his preparatory sketches for “Demoiselles,” he drew an adolescent girl nearing puberty, naked with legs splayed. Multiple scholars assume that Raymonde, the young girl Picasso and his partner Fernande Olivier adopted from a convent in 1907, modeled for this sketch. “Young girls excited Picasso,” wrote biographer John Richardson. Olivier returned the girl to the convent that same year.
The transgressions continued. In the 1950s, an aging Picasso completed a series of drawings inspired by pin-ups, occasionally depicting a bespectacled, beret-wearing older man leering at female models. He started making these around the time writer — and the first wife of artist Lucian Freud — Caroline Blackwood visited him at his Paris studio. He asked her to come up to the roof to see his doves then lunged at her. “All I felt was fear,” she recalled years later. “I kept saying, ‘Go down the stairs, go down.’ He said, ‘No, no, we are together above the roofs of Paris.’ It was so absurd, and to me, Picasso was just as old as the hills, an old letch, genius or no.”
“And to think how many people he had up there,” she added. Perhaps the lurid details belong in biographies, but the general gist — that the misogyny on paper and canvas had real-world implications — certainly gives insight into the artist’s interests.
“Thérèse Dreaming” by Balthus. Image via WikiArt.
In November 2017, New York entrepreneur Mia Merrill visited The Met and saw the 1938 painting “Thérèse Dreaming” by Balthus, who was also an artist Picasso admired. Immediately after, Merrill circulated an online petition asking that The Met, at the very least, revise its wall label to acknowledge the painting’s objectification of an underage girl. Thérèse sits with legs spread and eyes closed, “dreaming.” In its audio guide, The Met, which refused to make any concessions, describes the “adolescent” model as “aloof, unconcerned, even completely unaware of her revealing pose.”
Asked during his lifetime why he posed his young female models so provocatively, Balthus responded: “It is how they sit.” Ashley Remer, founder of the online-only Girl Museum, strongly disagrees. “Most girls Thérèse’s age (12 or 13) wouldn’t sit like that without being asked or compelled,” she wrote in a recent blog post. Her museum gives the young women and children depicted in artworks as much attention as the artist, challenging the traditional artist-subject imbalance.
“We tend to think of artists sexually predating on young girls/models as just how it was,” Remer says via email, “which does not make it any more acceptable then than now.” She cannot “think of an instance where viewers” do not deserve information about an artist’s potentially predatory behavior, especially if models were the prey. “It doesn’t have to be the focus,” Remer says, “but it will force the museum and the viewer to be honest with themselves.” She adds, “Wanting to ‘just enjoy the art’ has led to a huge misconception about what art is and how it influences us.”
Attic red-figure kylix fragments, Antikensammlung Berlin, 1976. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
A history of violence
Historians’ attempts to explain away sexual violence in art have, on occasion, been quite funny. In his 1993 book “Greek Erotica on Attic Red-Figure Vases,” scholar Martin Kilmer looked at depictions of rape on ancient vases. One cup by the Pedieus painter — a prolific artist who worked in the 500s BCE and whose identity is otherwise unknown — depicted men seemingly forcing women to perform fellatio. Kilmer does not assume this is rape. He writes, “we could as easily understand the gesture as meant primarily to provide the counterforce necessary to get the penis in to her mouth and to help establishing the rhythm.” On another Pedieus painter vessel, a man wields a sandal like a paddle while penetrating a woman from behind. Kilmer gives artist and imagery a pass: “the sandal is not a formidable weapon” as its closest contemporary parallel “is probably the bedroom slipper.”
Historian Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow awarded an unknown artist no such leniency more than 20 years later when she examined a depiction of the rape of the seer Cassandra in Casa del Menandro, a house discovered during the excavation of Pompeii. Her “nude upper torso is very eye-catching,” writes Koloski-Ostrow, who suspects the artist meant for this scene of assault to titillate viewers. “Her vulnerability and imminent violation [are] openly displayed” as Ajax “gazes longingly at her body,” continues Koloski-Ostrow, who manages to expose the artwork’s bias without downplaying its impressiveness.
”The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch” by Paul Gauguin, 1892. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“In no way are we discounting that these are beautiful objects,” says Brian Keene of the objects he and Collins included in “Outcasts” at The Getty. “But even within those, you still see these difficult truths about an uncomfortable past.” Collins and Keene announced their show in a blog post published in August 2017. In that post, they ask the general public for feedback: How could they best address issues of diversity and inclusion in a show that looked critically at medieval manuscripts?
“That was a major motivation for the blog, that we would open a dialogue and invite in the input of people who have different experiences than our own,” says Collins. They received over 3,000 responses. Educators asked them to share exhibition didactics online, which they did. One concerned commenter cautioned against overgeneralization — not everyone in the Middle Ages was racist or sexist even if manuscripts in The Getty’s collection — works all made for the richest 1% of the time — suggest the opposite. Others saw the project as liberal propaganda, like one who said it wreaked of “the sort of PC-speak that usually accompanies the closing of the mind.” The comments were “humbling, rewarding and terrifying,” says Keene, who hopes the dialogue will continue. The curators scheduled multiple blog posts to come out after the show closes. “These can never just be one-off instances,” says Keene. Changing the conversation requires ongoing effort.
Theresa Sotto, associate director of academic programs at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, trains gallery educators to engage difficult conversations. She emphasizes the importance of looking. She uses the late 19th and early 20th century paintings of Paul Gauguin as an example of how the ways we look at art can change in accordance with views at each time. If, for instance, a contemporary visitor compares the white, French Gauguin’s erotic treatment of his young, female Tahitian subjects with current discussions about sexual harassment, an educator might ask, “What in the painting makes you say that?” Adds Sotto, “As long as it’s grounded within what we see, it’s relevant.” That said, if the racially and sexually exploitative undertones of Gauguin’s work don’t come up, an educator should probably take it up herself. “I just don’t think it’s possible to have those paintings in your space and not talk about those issues,” says Sotto, “if you really want to be true to the history of it.”
Ashley Remer of the Girl Museum puts it more strongly: “For us, Gauguin is not firstly a ‘great painter,’ he was an exploitative pedophile.” Remer is planning an exhibition for the fall about the depictions of girls in Impressionist paintings. The show will “flip the script on many revered artists,” she says. “It will be the type of show that we would like to see in a physical museum.”