A remarkable panorama on the portrayal of sin by artists over the last 11 centuries is being held at the Kunstmuseum Bern and the Zentrum Paul Klee. But the last-minute removal of 3 works on the theme of lust and the decision to restrict access to under 16 year-olds sends worried ripples through the art world. The public flocks, but is it for art or titillation?
Pictured above: Bruce Nauman, Vices and Virtues, 1983–1988/2008, Neon-Schrift (18-teilig), Courtesy of the artist and Stuart Collection, University of California, San Diego. Photo: Markus Mühlheim © 2010, ProLitteris, Zürich
Article first published by Swisster.ch, which has now ceased.
The exhibition ‘Lust and Vice, the 7 deadly sins from Dürer to Nauman’ until February 13 at the Kunstmuseum Bern and the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern has become a succès à scandale, precisely what it was seeking to avoid.
Coming hot on the trail of the much-disputed censorship of a retrospective in Paris of the American photographer Larry Clark, the last-minute removal of two pictures by the same artist from the exhibit has met with criticism, especially since one of the works is on the web anyway.
“There is definitely a before and after the Paris decision,” admits Juri Steiner, director of the Paul Klee Zentrum, where the section on lust is displayed.
He and his Kunstmuseum Bern counterpart, Matthias Frehner, made a last-minute joint decision to take out the two Larry Clark photographs, as well as an explicit watercolour of female genitalia by the German political expressionist George Grosz. They also established the age restriction rule.
In Paris, the popular Socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoë took the unprecedented decision to ban under 18 year-olds from seeing the Larry Clark photography retrospective Kiss the past hello at the Modern art museum.
For the past 50 years Clark has chronicled teenagers in situations of great vulnerability and sometimes distress as they discover lust and drugs. Google his name and you will understand.
“We decided to remove Clark’s photographs,” Steiner explains, “because we realized that they had the power to focalize attention at the cost of the 250 other works in the exhibition.”
Vice and Lust is the culmination of two and a half years of work by curatorsFabienne Eggelhöfer (ZPK), Claudine Metzger (KMB) and Samuel Vitali (KMB).
The vivacious and spirited Fabienne Eggelhöfer takes time off to explain how the two major Bern institutions worked together to cover a theme that would be any curator’s dream.
“We have already collaborated together,” Eggelhöfer says, “but this is the first time we have worked on a theme,” adding that the combination secured more significant loans.
“It has been interesting, if not always easy,” she develops, explaining that the three curators met together every week. Without any subject segmentation, they discussed their different perceptions of sin and come to an agreement on the choice of the art works.
Jealousy: Fernand Cormon, Jalousie au sérail, 1874, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Besançon
The seven deadly sins, Fabienne Eggelhöfer explains, were defined as early as the late antiquity under the Egyptians to preserve the monastic vow of an intact relationship with God. This meant proscribing the sinful thoughts or behaviours that could get in the way.
These included pride, greed, envy, anger, laziness, gluttony and lust.
“The seven sins became a reoccurring theme throughout art history,”Eggelhöfer says, although it was sometimes difficult for the curators to decide to which category a work should be assigned.
Furthermore, she points out, values change. Greed is now cultivated by contemporary marketing strategies. We are constantly being invited to gain points, clock up miles, win a car.
Lust is another case in point, she says, since the notion of lust being sinful was society’s attempt at limiting unwanted births and children without families. The advent of the pill in the 60s transformed the situation.
(Notice how it also ushered into art the male member in its erectile state. Various examples are on display.)
“When selecting the pieces to illustrate sin, we were careful to choose artists who had more than a single work to suit the themes,” Fabienne Eggelhöfer emphasizes, “and who showed an interest in the human condition.”
“I would be mistreating an oeuvre if I were to use it to illustrate my own ideas,” she says.
The three curators have succeeded in creating a harmonious ensemble that avoids a moralistic stance. “We don’t refer to homosexuality,” Eggelhöfer specifies, “because this is an exhibition on sin.”
When it came to distributing the works between the two museums, decisions came easily, she indicates.
The Kunstmuseum, with its smaller rooms was to receive the more spiritual pieces and cover the themes of pride, envy, greed and anger, whereas the Zentrum Paul Klee would expose the larger and more “carnal” works, while concentrating on lust, gluttony and sloth.
“But in some instances, we changed our minds at the last minute and transferred a selected piece from one category to another.”
Delightful fine-lined drawings by Klee are dispersed throughout, some of them decidedly naughty, others a lot of fun and they could belong anywhere.
Gluttony: Martin Parr, Luxury USA, Los Angeles, 2008, Galerie Nicola von Senger, Zürich
The section on lust is divided into two sections, the one with works of more overt sexuality is sectioned off with the warning:
“Lust and Vice is not suitable for adolescents under the age of 16. Some of the works on display in the Zentrum Paul Klee may be considered as pornographic and might shock them and perhaps even you. The cultural value of these works justifies their protection.”
Would such a warning not have sufficed?
Bernard Fibicher, director of the cantonal fine arts museum in Lausanne, does not understand a decision that he qualifies as “irresponsible”.
“The organisation of an exhibition implies an internal mechanism of censorship,” he says. “At each stage, you have to ask yourself what are the risks and if you can stand by your choices.”
In 2005, Fibicher organised the controversial exhibition on contemporary Chinese art at the same Bern Kunstmuseum in which the head of a human foetus grafted onto a seagull’s body was exhibited to general outcry.
“You have to think things through before, not afterwards,” he argues.
“I also find it disturbing that self-censorship in Switzerland should be the result of something that is happening elsewhere,” Fibicher points out.
In recentinterviews with the Financial Times and Le Monde, Larry Clark says of the censorship of his Paris show, “I think it’s just the stupidest thing in the world . . . it’s an attack on youth and on teenagers in general,” whom, he believes, receive the message that they should be swallowing garbage from the web instead of going to art museums.
Over 18 year-olds, he suggests, should be the ones barred from the exhibition.
Pride: Daniela Rossell, Untitled (Itati next to her pool), from the serie “Third World Blondes“
2001, Galleria Alberto Peola, Turin
“It is true,” Fabienne Eggelhöfer concedes, “that we would probably have done a different choice of works had we known.”
“But nevertheless, we had a great time putting it together,” she says, reminding us of the many prestigious works that can be admired until February 20, including by Marina Abramovic, Marc Chagall, Otto Dix, Albrecht Dürer, Fischli / Weiss, Gilbert & George, Paul Klee, Bruce Nauman, Martin Parr, Sigmar Polke, Peter Paul Rubens, Cindy Sherman, Yinka Shonibare, Andy Warhol and many more.
Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.