Friday, 4 November 2011

What Doesn't Send You Blind, Does You Good...

The most filthy thing I have ever seen was in a museum. Now, I possibly lead a very sheltered life (imagine that…) but rarely in my day-to-day life do I get to be that close to other people’s very rude goings-on. I blushed, or at least I imagine I did, I was too busy worried if the young lady in question was comfortable. Allow me to explain…

This is really the tale of two exhibitions and a bit of a ponder about what is shocking. It all started when I went to the Victorian Nude exhibition at the Tate, a few years back. Glorious show, all lovely stuff, but for the first time I saw a roped-off area that you had to be over-18 to enter. I could pass for eighteen at the time (cough, cough) and so went and had a look, bracing myself for the corruption that would befall me.

Untitled (1898) Edward Linley Sambourne
 Oh, well, that wasn’t all that corrupting after all, and I liked it so much I now use that postcard as a bookmark. There was a strange section of images of children that were seen as acceptable at the time, but had been placed behind the barrier because of the connotations today. Most of the other pictures were photographs, mainly from various ‘photographic clubs’ (Mmmm, Gentlemen’s Relish…) and were nudie and a bit naughty. The difference between one side of the barrier and the other seemed to be that it was okay to show kids paintings of naked ladies, but photographs of the models were unacceptable. I accept that some of the works had less to do with art and more to do with the novelty of pubic hair, but on the whole it was all just naked people. I found it interesting that the Tate made the distinction but I applaud their guts for including some works which might have proved controversial.

The Walker family found themselves in Sweden at Easter, and having a little time to kill before checking in to our hotel, we wandered over to the National Museum. Outside were giant banners for an exhibition called ‘Lust and Last’ (or Lust and Vice) together with images of gamely plump 18th century ladies. Good-o, we cried as a family and off we trotted. We bought our tickets and went to the glass doors which led to the exhibition. In neat writing there was a little note: ‘Some of these images may be offensive’. Really? Come now! This is art and I can see a party of teenagers with clipboards, surely this is education? Come on, let’s get educated!


No over-18s area here, many children milling around with either school groups or families and possibly some of the most astonishing things I have ever seen in a museum. Lily’s favourite was the painting of the Nun…

Nun (1731) Martin von Meytens
 With this on the reverse…

Reverse of above
 ‘Nun’s bum!’ she shouted loudly and then cackled all the way round the room. She also thought the sleeping hermaphrodite statue was hilarious. T’uh, everyone’s a critic. As I have mentioned before, Mr Walker works in a museum, and spent the whole exhibition muttering ‘We could not have displayed that! The Daily Mail would have had us raided…’ I don’t know where to begin…clay phalluses with bite marks, a vicious looking chastity belt, a collection of public hair filed on a card index system (Mmm, organised). The Origins of the World by Courbet was present and looked positively tame. (I would show that here, but I don’t want to be condemned by the Daily Mail, so I encourage you to Google it. But not at work. Or in public.)

Then there was the giant film screen showing the lady in the forest enthusiastically pleasuring herself. Oh my.

The art was insanely beautiful and startling in equal amounts and I felt so offended by the whole experience I bought the catalogue. And some postcards.

Part of the exhibition was this staggeringly gorgeous image…
Nymph and Faun (1875) Julius Kronberg
Oh my heavens, this is a beautiful image, but apparently utterly filthy, as bad as Forest Lady and the Gentleman in the Brown Room (Don't ask - Heavens, you will all go blind! Stop that immediately, or at least wait until I’ve left the gallery). This, in its day was pornography, skilfully painted, but arguably only existing for titillation. The point the marvellous Swedish Museum was making was that one era’s porn is another era’s treasure, that one naked lady in a forest is no better or worse than another. It’s all taste and tolerance. I blushed at Forest Lady but would hang the Victorian painting on my wall.

Here is a very shocking painting from 1865.

Venus Verticordia (but you all knew that)
Venus was described as ‘a trifle too voluptuous…for a respectable old sinner like me…’ by George Rae, one of Rossetti’s patrons. Condemned by Ruskin and disapproved of by Holman Hunt, the painting was seen as coarse and vulgar, little short of pornography. Now over 150 years old she is the poster girl for the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery in Bournemouth, and you wouldn’t be embarrassed to give your Granny a tea-towel with the painting on.

I suppose what I’m saying is that I appreciated the attitude demonstrated in Sweden that something can be learnt by the comparison of art forms over the ages. It shows us that basically we are all the same, no different from our ancestors. It’s sometimes easy to think of people in the past as strange creatures but I prefer to think that as a group we have changed very little in essentials since we were in the caves. We all contain echoes of our past and some echoes are louder than others. None of them should startle us, because given 150 years we'll be sticking it on a tea towel.

In a forest, really, I ask you….


  1. Sambourne was featured by Jeremy Paxman - rather odd man. Love the Nun's Bum. I think its in the British Museum there is a locked cupboard. Pornography was very common in Victorian England - it didn't start with the internet!

  2. I worked at a museum that got a famous archaeologist of the past's porn in his bequest. Another local museum got his collection of whips...Yes, Sambourne is a very odd man - I came across him when I visited Leighton's House, but not literally. The shop carried a book on his photographs because he was a neighbour. It wasn't like he was hiding in the shrubbery....

  3. I had to laugh aloud at your tea towel reference. My friend visited Italy recently and saw that David's penis (yes Michaelangelo's David)was proudly displayed on tea towels, aprons, postcards etc. I so agree with your conclusions and as always am most amused with your posts.

  4. Glad you enjoyed it, Vickie. Yes, it's not often you get a tea towel with a penis on it, so when it happens it must be extra specially important art. Or from a 'special' webshop...

  5. Fantastic - I love the nun's bum especially! Just wanted to say I've been reading your blog for a while now. It is always fascinating and entertaining. Thank you. BTW, I think you're a bit of a "stunner" yourself...

  6. Ta muchly, my dear chap. Glad you enjoy the blog ;)


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx