Konstantin Altunin’s wife claimed a few days ago that her husband was currently homeless in the street of Paris. The artist fled to the City of Lights after his work depicting the Russian President Vladimir Putin in a female neglige brushing the hair of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wearing women’s underwear was seized by the police from the Museum of Power in Saint Petersburg last week. This event is a reminder of the existence of censorship.
Artworks deemed obscene, blasphemous or illegal like in the case at hand, are legion in art history. As a result of thinking about this event, I have listed 5 artworks that came to mind and that are among the most famous cases of censorship.
1. The Last Judgment – Michelangelo
Supported by the Pope, Michelangelo was not subject to censorship during his lifetime despite the vivid debate that the Sistin Chapel fresco was at the heart of. Censorship came after his death however when the Council of Trent condemned nudity in religious art. It then became time to get rid off the ‘objectionable’ genitalia. Daniele da Volterra undertook this task, which explains why history remembers him as ‘Il Braghettone’ (the breeches maker).
2. L’Origine du Monde – Gustave Courbet
Since it was commissioned by Khalil Bay, an Ottoman diplomat, for his personal collection, L’Origine du Monde has regularly changed hands and survived the tribulations of time and wars hidden nevertheless for over 100 years. Jacques Lacan who acquired it in 1955 asked his stepbrother, Andre Masson, to build a double bottom frame and to paint another painting thereon.
The public display at the Musee d’Orsay was finally made possible in 1995. To this day however, the painting is still considered provocative and triggers censorship. Your Facebook account may be disabled for instanced should you try and have it as a profile picture, as it was the intention of a French Facebook user in 2011.
3. La Maja Desnuda – Francisco Goya
La Maja Desnuda (The Nude Maja) was first part of the collection of Prime Minister Manuel de Godoy, Duke of Alcudia making the hypothesis that his young mistress, Pepita Tudo is the model the favoured one. In 1813, the Spanish Inquisition confiscated not only the Nude Maja but also its pendant, the Clothed Maja, judging them obscene, Consequently, the painting were never publicly exhibited during Goya’s lifetime. They were only returned to the Academy of Fine Arts in 1936, after his death. They are now exhibited next to each other at the Prado Museum.
4. Shunga Art
This category did not come to mind per se but was brought back to my attention as it is currently under the spotlights. The British Museum opens in October 2013 an exhibition entitled “Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art” presenting artworks produced from 1600 to 1900 and banned in Japan for much of the 20th century. These erotic paintings were locked away for decades as explained in details in the report of the International Business Times.
5. Piss Christ – Andres Serrano
Piss Christ is a 1987 photograph by the artist Andres Serrano representing a small crucifix immersed in what is said to be the artist’s urine. When it was first exhibited in 1989, the piece caused a scandal and Serrano consequently received death threats and hate mail. If we define censorship as the lack of public exhibition, the work was censored in 2011. It was exhibited at the time at the Collection Lambert in Avignon where a group of Christian detractors damaged it beyond repair.
The novelty in our ultra-connected world is that the artworks reach a global audience as an unforeseen result of being censored. We may have not heard about Travesty the work that triggered such a scandal in Russia if it were not for the actions undertaken against it. Does it predict the end of locking art up?
- Plan to censor risqué Putin painting backfires (thetimes.co.uk)
- Artist Paints Putin and Medvedev in Women’s Underwear, Gets Censored, Flees Russia (animalnewyork.com)