Controversial Masterpieces: Censorship Of Classical Art From The Renaissance Through The 19th Century
Whether the church’s chiseling the genitalia off of ancient statues or painting over blasphemous elements in a mural, art has been a contested territory, and there has been a long history of suppressing art that challenged the social mores of its day or expressed ideas deemed as obscene or heretical. Perhaps because art existed before the written word, before most other physical mediums of expression, it could be argued that art was the first form of communication outside of verbal speech to be censored. In the world of art, censorship often takes on three forms, either a work of art is expurgated (altered to exclude content that may offend), removed from public view, or destroyed altogether. The latter is rare since most cultures around the world hold art in high esteem and don’t wish to see its destruction regardless of its perceived objectionable qualities. Expurgation or obscurement has been more common.
Up until the time of the Italian Renaissance, religious art, by which I mean art depicting figures, scenes, or themes from religious texts, were the most common. This was due in no small part to the fact that the Catholic Church, with its immense wealth and interest in attracting new converts, utilized the arts to convey their Christian ideals and morals, all the while artists sought the patronage of the church. But during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, intellectuals interests began to shift, as did societal attitudes about life and death and the role of the church, and people began to question what had once been taken for granted. Many scholars and artists began looking to at the art, literature, and philosophies of the pagan cultures of the past for inspiration. It was a time of learning, scientific advancement, and artistic progress. It was also a time of censorship, hidden symbolism, and defacement.
Around three centuries after Masaccio‘s creation of the fresco, The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, it was ordered by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de’ Medici, that the fresco should be altered with the addition of fig leafs to cover genitalia, which was a common trend during the time. Cosimo also had a history of persecuting Jews under his restrictive reign. During the 1980s, a good five and a half centuries after Masaccio painted the fresco, it was restored and the censorial fig leafs removed.
Between 1496 and 1498, Italian friar and Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola took his own issue with the nudity in art to such a fanatical extent that he organized mass burnings, known as bonfires of the vanities, in which thousands of sculptures, paintings, illuminated books, and cosmetic products of the time were burned throughout Florence. Some of the artists, including Sandro Botticelli, either caught up in the furor or trying to prevent the destruction of their own works, joined in and threw their paintings into the fires. Savonarola also enforced dress codes in the city and chastised anyone he saw as being immodest or immoral.
Begun in 1535 and completed in 1541, Michelangelo‘s The Last Judgement, painted on the alter wall of the Sistine Chapel, also underwent alteration during what has come to be known as the “fig-leaf campaign“, which saw the alteration of many famous and important religious and allegorical works that featured nudity. Cardinal Gian Petro Carafa, later Pope Paul IV, fought to have Michelangelo’s works censored by the church, and he called upon Monsignor Sernini to help him organize the attempt to censor the epic fresco. Biagio da Cesena, the Master of Ceremonies for the Pope, condemned Michelangelo‘s work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling for its nudity, observing, “it was most disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns.” Cardinal Carafa would go on to become a central figure of the Roman Inquisition and a fanatical persecutor of alleged heretics. Carafa later famously claimed that he would supply the wood for the funeral pyre of his own father if he found out that he was a heretic.
Artist Daniele da Volterra, who already had a somewhat contentious relationship with Michelangelo, was hired by the church in 1565 to paint loincloths and fig-leafs over the nude figures’ exposed genitals and buttocks, as well as to chisel away any other imagery that the church found objectionable. Due to this association, Daniele da Volterra became known as “Il Braghettone” which roughly translated to “the breeches-maker“.
The Last Judgement was again at the center of a firestorm of controversy when Pope Clement VIII was also outraged by the display of the many nude figures. Clement VIII even sought to have the fresco destroyed. Interestingly, it was Pope Clement VII, one of Michelangelo‘s greatest patrons and benefactors, who had commissioned the fresco. Clement VII, despite his more tolerant view of Michelangelo‘s work, had condemned Pietro Aretino‘s Sonetti Lussuriosi for its illustrated depictions of nudity and sex by artist Marcantonio Raimondi. Raimondi was imprisoned and all copies of the volume with its illustrations were destroyed.
Caravaggio‘s Madonna of the Serpent, also known as Madonna and Child with Saint Anne, was removed from the Vatican Basilica due to the nude figure of Jesus, and strangely enough, due to the appearance of the Virgin Mary’s bare feet. The painting depicted Jesus and his mother, as she instructed him how to step on a snake to kill it, symbolically representing the conquering of original sin in the form of a snake. Depicting Jesus nude, or even partially exposed, was out of the question at the time. Pope Innocent X and Innocent XI forbade nudity in religious art, especially artworks housed in churches, where sensual or quasi-erotic imagery could distract church goers, and likely even clergy, from the glory of God.
The 19th Century saw art evolve to new levels of detailed realism, symbolic and metaphoric value, and heightened expression. The Pre-Raphaelites, the Romanticists, the Symbolists, and the Post-Impressionists all helped to revolutionize the medium of painting by re-introducing concepts that had grown out of style centuries before and which had become timely again, as well as by introducing subject matter and techniques that challenged what the established art world considered acceptable, emphasizing political, religious, and sexual themes. Early Pre-Raphaelite paintings centered around religiously-themed subjects, but because these paintings were my with such a volatile reception and vitriolic criticism, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood began to intentionally shift their subject matter from the overtly religious to the mythological, medieval, and literary inspirations which later helped them to gain such renown.
John Everett Millais‘ painting Christ in the House of His Parents, created between 1849 and 1850, is primarily responsible for the emergence of the Pre-Raphaelite style. With its detail and minutiae, religious allegory, symbolic motifs, and bright lighting and colors, it fit firmly into the established style at that point in the development of the group’s collective ideals. Despite being a masterpiece and successfully illustrating the principles of the movement, it was a deeply unsettling work of art for many who viewed it, but the reason behind this was not merely the execution of its style. The whole perceived attitude of irreverence, which in actuality was Millais’ striving for realism and his return to medieval era scenery of daily life, caused a furor in the press. Many art critics and scholars lambasted Christ in the House of His Parents, as well as other P.R.B. paintings such as Ecce Ancilla Domini! by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as being “revolting” or “loathsome“.
One very prominent critique of Millais’ work of art came from none other than English author Charles Dickens, whose appraisal was harsh and derogatory even. In a review published in Household Words in June of 1850, Dickens verbally tore the painting apart, saying, “You behold the interior of a carpenter’s shop. In the foreground of that carpenter’s shop is a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown; who appears to have received a poke in the hand, from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England. Two almost naked carpenters, master and journeyman, worthy companions of this agreeable female, are working at their trade; a boy, with some small flavour of humanity in him, is entering with a vessel of water; and nobody seems to be paying attention to a snuffy old woman who seems to have mistaken that shop for a tobacconist’s next door, and to be hopelessly waiting at the counter to be served with half an ounce of her favourite mixture. Wherever it is possible to express ugliness of feature, limb, or attitude, you have it expressed. Such men as the carpenters might be undressed in any hospital where dirty drunkards, in a high state of varicose veins, are received.”
The destructive criticism delivered by the celebrated author, and his harsh appraisal of both Millais’ painting and the whole Pre-Raphaelite movement, revealed more of his own aesthetic preferences and his lack of understanding of the elaborate symbolism being utilized within the painting. Unfortunately, this was a commonly shared perspective, and few contemporary writers acknowledged the painting’s value as a work of religious symbolism. The painting, after all, depicted Jesus as a child, having received a splinter in his hand whilst in the carpentry shop of his father, Joseph, and being attended to by his mother, Mary (the Monster of Dickens’ evaluation), as a young John the Baptist brings water, likely to cleanse the physical wound, not unlike the cleansing of the spiritual wound and giving baptism. The use of a ladder (Jacob’s Ladder) in the background, ascending to an unseen Heaven outside of the image, and the triangle square-set, an emblem of the Holy Trinity, hung on the wall, are all symbols of the ascension of Christ. The old woman, who seemed out of place to Dickens, is in fact handing a tool to Mary to remove the splinter from Jesus’ hand. The injury he has received is a foreshadowing of the stigmata, as is the drop of blood which has fallen onto his foot. The image of him kissing his kneeling mother is an homage to a recurring visual motif, as Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, was often shown kneeling before Jesus and kissing his feet during the crucifixion, which was a very prevalent image during the medieval era in religious artists’ scenes. Even the flock of sheep in the background prefigure the Christian calling of the shepherd and his flock. Just the same, the painting was so controversial and offensive to many that Queen Victoria had it removed from its place in exhibition so that she could view it in private and form her own opinion.
Gustave Courbet was a talented artist, who used his proclivity for realism to outrage and shake up the established art world, commenting on religion, social issues, militancy and war, and sexuality. Two of Courbet’s paintings, in particular, were considered insulting by the church. L’Eterrement à Ornans (1849-1850), depicted the funeral of Courbet’s uncle, which saw him using the very attendees of the funeral as the models for the painting, something that was unheard of at the time. The painting also drew criticism for its scale, which at ten by twenty-two feet was considered outrageous, that exceeded the size of paintings of such a manner. Most large paintings of that scale were reserved for images of royalty, religious subjects, or historical scenes. How dare Courbet devote such an enormous painting to his uncle!
Courbet would be elevated by realists and by socialists, communists, and anarchists, who appreciated the degree to which he realistically portrayed the working class and the rejection of the elite aesthetic values held by the bourgeoisie. He was celebrated by the mainstream as well, who saw his technical skills as most impressive, regardless of what they knew or thought of his political views. Many of his more mainstream admirers appreciated his idyllic scenes, his landscapes, and his portraiture. But Courbet was not eager to please, nor content to be celebrated, for he felt that art carried with it a message and a power capable of changing perspectives. The 1860s saw Courbet push his work deep into the realm of the erotic, creating increasingly more realistic and sensual depictions of the female nude, complete with anatomically correct features. Most artists of the previous three to four hundred years had drawn or painted the nude female form in an idealized way, omitting pubic hair, or any body hair at all, and not depicting the mons pubis or labium. Courbet challenged these conservative conventions and forced viewers and other artists to confront the naked woman in all her beauty. This was something perhaps that certain members of society were less prepared for than others.
Les Bas Blanc subtly pushed for a greater amount of anatomical realism that could be shown in nude figure painting. The appearance of the folds of skin that form the labia are cautiously depicted between the woman’s legs, just enough to draw the viewer’s attention, but hopefully not to the degree that it would cause an outright attack on the artist. He had, after all, greater, more realistic, and more provocative works on the horizon.
Courbet’s Femme nue Couchée, which bears more than a little resemblance to Maja Desnuda by Francisco Goya, again was a subtle move towards greater realism. This time, Courbet had included hair on the woman’s armpits, and by her state of partial dress with knee-high socks, one disheveled, and the appearance of earrings and a shirt that had been unceremoniously removed from her torso, left to hang from her arm, had depicted his model as a prostitute. While this was not uncommon in many paintings, it still caused an uproar from conservative critics who considered the openness about sexuality and prostitution to be scandalous, though many of these very same critics, self-proclaimed as arbiters of 19th Century morality, visited the brothels themselves in secrecy. What was uncommon, most nude female figures depicted on couches, which was a popular trend for centuries, were shown as passive and indifferent, as more of an object or piece of decorum to be admired. Courbet presents the woman here in a sensual pose, as though she has just exhausted herself after experiencing orgasm, and this gives her a stronger sense of presence than most other images of women on couches. This is not a woman offering herself up to the male viewer for their pleasure. This is a woman who has harnessed her own sense of enjoyment making her perhaps all the more alluring for viewers.
In 1863, Courbet again angered the church, this time with a painting entitled Le Retour de la Conference, which depicted a group of drunken clergymen stumbling along on their return journey home from a clerical conference. This painting had Catholics absolutely irate. It was rejected by the Salon de Paris, which decried the painting as “an outrage on religious morality“, and was even rejected by the Salon des Refusés, which was an exhibition to show the many works of paintings rejected by the Salon de Paris in that year. The painting was later privately purchased in 1909 by what was believed to be an offended Catholic who then allegedly had it destroyed.
Courbet produced three erotic paintings in 1866: La Femme au Perroquet, L’Origin du Monde, and Le Somneil. These three works have collectively guaranteed Courbet’s notoriety, and for better or worse, have overshadowed many of his other paintings of different subject matter.
Perhaps the most innocuous of the three paintings done in 1866, although still heavily criticized for its eroticism, is La Femme au Perroquet. The painting was done in the smooth academic style that was accepted at the time, but the tousled hair, sloughed off clothes, and sheets in a state of disarray gave the painting a level of sexual suggestion and realism that was not the norm at the time. Because of this, and certainly because of Courbet’s politics and his increasingly erotic works, La Femme au Perroquet was still controversial. It was, however, the first nude painting that he had done to be accepted into the Salon de Paris.
With L’Origin du Monde, Courbet had proceeded to cross the boundary between the socially acceptable levels of risqué and over into the taboo, and he did so by merely creating an image that dedicated itself to the female genitalia. The painting, like a number of others that Courbet was commissioned to do for Khalil Bey around the same time, is a potent example of Courbet’s mastery over erotic subject matter in the realist style. Bey had it kept behind a green veil in his dressing room, shielded from the eyes of any guests he might have in his home, but visible for his own viewing pleasure whenever he wanted to see it. After Bey’s finances collapsed, the painting was sold at auction with the rest of his art collection, and then the painting passed from private owner to private owner until it was finally exhibited publicly in New York, during 1988, where it caused quite the stir. Most people had never seen the painting despite its infamy spread by word of mouth. Because of its graphic sexual imagery, the painting has been censored numerous times, as it has appeared on book covers, in news articles, and even on social networking websites like Facebook (at least two incidents which occurred in 2011).
Modern critics have debated whether the image is expressing the assertion of female sexuality, forcing viewers to face female genitalia, which was once a taboo, by confrontational and unapologetic means, and celebrating the sensuality of women, or it is exploitive, created merely for titillation, controversy, and for the enjoyment of male viewers. Some feminists have criticized it as sexually objectifying and others have called it a liberating work of art. Regardless of Courbet’s intentions, the painting has been celebrated for its transgressive qualities and for its uncompromising realism. There is a great deal of debate, also, as to who the model is in the painting. Many suspect, despite the appearance of the dark pubic hair, that the model was Joanna Hiffernan. Hiffernan was featured in a number of Courbet’s paintings, including the sensuous, sapphic painting, Le Sommeil.
In Le Sommeil, Courbet addressed another taboo, but this time it was homosexuality, or more specifically, female homosexuality. This erotic painting, once again commissioned by Khalil Bey, took on sapphic themes, and depicted two female lovers in bed together after having been sexually intimate. Their sexual activity made apparent not only by their intertwined bodies as they sleep, but also evidenced by the torn necklace of pearls, one end of which has found its way into an opulent goblet, and also by the carelessly discarded hairpin and earrings at the foot of the bed, subtly suggesting cunnilingus; someone remained lying in bed with their head at one end while the other was positioned much further down the bed.
Le Sommeil was exhibited briefly in 1872 by an art dealer, but a police report was filed, and the painting wasn’t shown publicly until the same time as L’Origin du Monde in 1988.
Besides being loved by contemporary critics for his revolutionizing approach to art, Édouard Manet was an important painter in that he bridged the gap between two very different styles, and he pursued a path that no other artist had taken in quite the same way. Somewhere between Realism and Impressionism, Manet created images that varied in their subject matter, from the bizarre and perturbing, to the classical and elegant. The critical response to his work was equally varied and divided. There were those who saw Manet as a modern master, innovative and talented, and others saw him as an attention-seeking provocateur, not so talented as he was believed to be and crude in both style and subject matter. The old school of thought was also divided, but in general, it held the notions that preserving realistic imagery was an essential component of great painting and that art should be about beauty above all else. The Academicists and the Classicists, and to a lesser degree the Romanticists, felt that these two notions were at the foundation of all pure works of art.
Manet changed things radically in 1863 when his painting, The Bath, later re-titled Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe was shown as part of the Salon des Refusés, where it left viewers puzzled, outraged, and in awe. Many questioned the technical merits of the painting with its unusual lighting, distorted perspective, peculiar choice of colors, and bold brush strokes. Many more questioned the morality of the painting, pointing out that the women being depicted, one nude during a picnic with two well-dressed gentlemen, and one bathing in a pond, were clearly prostitutes. Nudity itself had ceased to be a taboo in art by the time Manet had created his painting, but there were certain expectations that artists conformed to in their scenery, and this clearly subverted those expectations. Normally, a nude painting was an historical or mythological subject matter, and it was idealized nudity, but this was something else entirely. Manet had shown a woman in the nude, sitting atop her dress, and in the company of two dressed men. Why do this other than to provoke viewers? The setting resembled Bois de Boulogne, a park on the outskirts of Paris where prostitution ran rampant and still does to this day, and so many critics debated over whether it was a celebration or condemnation of the illicit sexual behavior that was becoming more and more common.
Manet’s painting contained numerous allusions to other classic works, including Raphael‘s The Judgement of Paris and Titian‘s Concert Champêtre, but his technique was entirely unique unto himself. The foreground so unevenly lit, the background done with improper perspective and noticeably bold, indeed almost careless, brush strokes – all disconcerting to the trained artist and art critic. Was Manet just sloppily executing his work or was this done intentionally as a challenge to the rigid art establishment? Claude Monet, who was primarily known for his paintings of gardens and landscapes, was one of the few established artists who defended Manet, and he paid further tribute to Manet when he painted his own Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe over two years later. Monet also paid tribute to Courbet, who is depicted in the painting, along with Monet’s future wife, Camille Doncieux, and fellow Impressionist painter, Frédéric Bazille.
So, Manet’s work, like that of Courbet’s before him, proved to be not only integral to the evolutionary progress of art, inspiring other artists in different styles and movements, but it also had an individuality to it that was instantly recognizable as the artist’s own. The work which really helped introduce modern aesthetics and simultaneously caused greater scandal for Manet was his 1863 painting, Olympia. Inspired in part by Titian‘s Venus of Urbino, in part by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres‘ La Grand Odalisque, and in part by Francisco Goya‘s Maja Desnuda, Olympia was a reflection of the time honored tradition of artistic depictions of beautiful women lying on a couch. What Manet did with his painting, however, was unorthodox. The contrast of “Olympia” and her bed sheets with the dark green and maroon background, the contrast with the black maid and the cat, the details such as the bracelet, the the flower in the hair, the ruffled sheets and blanket, drew viewers’ attention. It also symbolically gave the suggestion, which was certainly intentional, that the nude beauty on the bed is a prostitute. The painting, while very provocative, is a cautious conjunction of the literal, the symbolic, and the ironic. The cat, a visual motif harkening back to Titian‘s Venus with the loyal companion of the dog at her feet, with its wide eyes and aroused tail, is a sort of visual euphemism for that which “Olympia” has concealed with her hand: la chatte, or the pussy. She is a woman of the evening, alluring, somewhat distant and unattainable, beckoning the viewer to come hither in desire, and yet denying them what they crave.
Olympia, despite being painted in 1863, was not shown until the Salon de Paris in 1865, where it not only provoked but incensed viewers. Many critics attacked the painting, accusing Manet of being self-indulgent, undisciplined, and a shameless provocateur for the sake of scandal only. Again, Monet defended Manet and applauded his work, but Manet was devastated by the critical assaults that his work had received. “The insults rain down on me like hail,” he once said in a letter to his friend, art critic, and poet, Charles Baudelaire.
The 19th Century drew to a close with Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, and Art Nouveau in ascendent. Painted in the final year of the 19th Century, Austrian artist Gustav Klimt‘s Nuda Veritas, which translates to The Naked Truth, marked the end of the century with a poignant statement on the need for artists to express themselves on their own terms and without compromise. Klimt’s work would become increasingly frank in its sexual imagery during the first decade of the 20th Century and his protégé, Egon Schiele, would go even further to demonstrate that nudity and sensuality needn’t be aesthetically glossed over or beautified to have a raw emotional impact.
The use of bright colors, intricate detail, the incorporation of multiple mediums, bold brushstrokes, and unprecedented emotional potency utilized by Klimt, and others, Edvard Munch, Odilon Redon, and Egon Schiele among them, throughout Europe working in the Jugendstil and Symbolist styles, would give birth to Expressionism and modern art of the 20th Century.