“The world is becoming more open-minded and we hope this is another stepping stone!”
said photographer and exhibition director Espen Krughaug on the eve of the ‘first’ London Exhibition of Erotic Art (April 2018) [see photo above]
Of course we know this is not the first exhibition of erotic art to take place in London in recent years (let’s not forget the Skin Two Expo’s, ‘Erotica’ at Olympia, and exhibitions of erotic fine art at the now defunct Coventry Gallery, in London’s East End.
And far from becoming open-minded we seem to be in the midst of a new-censorship as a direct result of the #Me Too campaign. The #MeToo “movement” and its derivatives, is a campaign against sexual harassment and assault. #MeToo spread virally in October 2017 as a hashtag used on social media to help demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace. It followed soon after the public revelations of sexual misconduct allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein. The phrase was popularized by Alyssa Milano when she encouraged women to tweet about it and “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”. As a result of claims various actors have been dropped, TV programmes have been shelved, and various major Art exhibitions have come under scrutiny, leading to the published question, “Can Men Any Longer Paint Nudes?”
Quartz reporter Aamna Mohdin has written, “The #MeToo movement, in which women have come forward in overwhelming numbers to speak out against sexual harassment and assault, has not left the art world unscathed. Last November, Canadian art collector François Odermatt was accused of rape by one woman and sexual harassment by others. In February, Los Angeles-based art dealer Aaron Bondaroff resigned amid claims of sexual misconduct.”
This ‘reckoning’ hasn’t been limited to curators. Big name American artist Chuck Close was also accused of sexual misconduct. “In response to these allegations, National Gallery of Art in Washington cancelled the artist’s forthcoming exhibition.”
In recent months New Yorkers launched a petition demanding that the Metropolitan Museum of Art remove a 1938 painting of a young woman with her underwear exposed due to the “current climate around sexual assault”. In Utah an art teacher was fired amid complaints that images of classical paintings containing nudity were passed out in a classroom and seen by sixth-graders.
In the UK A pre-Raphaelite “soft porn” painting removed from a Manchester gallery to start a debate about sexuality on canvas was speedily rehung after a public outcry in which the venue was accused of po-faced censorship.
In Paris a manifesto was signed by 100 signatories. The letter was co-written by five French women: Sarah Chiche (writer/psychoanalyst), Catherine Millet (author/art critic), Catherine Robbe-Grillet (actress/writer), Peggy Sastre (author/journalist) and Abnousse Shalmani (writer/journalist). It was signed by some 100 others. It warned of the return to a “Victorian morality” hidden under a #MeToo “fever to send the pigs to the slaughterhouse”. It speaks out against the sudden current of blame and censorship “which does not benefit the emancipation of women”, but is at the service “of the interests of the enemies of sexual freedom, such as religious extremists.” Catherine Deneuve, one of one hundred signatories, opposed this phenomenon stating, “I do not think it is the most appropriate way to change things. Then what will come? ‘Denounce your whore’?…”
Signatories also opposed the then recent censorship of a nude by Egon Schiele on the London Underground, the request to remove a Balthus painting from a New York Metropolitan exhibition and demonstrations against a Paris retrospective dedicated to the work of Roman Polanski.
ARTISTS of O # 9
At the height of this wave of censorship and recriminations a news item declaring, “Feminist Artist Is Censored by a Feminist Gallery,” has returned my attention to another “artist of O”, New York based painter/draftswoman Natalie Frank.
Blogger Carl Swanson explains, “Frank’s dominatrix pictures showed at Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago, paired with portraits she’d done of ballerinas. She’d been without New York representation for a while when her friend Sara Kay, the founder of the non-profit Professional Organization for Women in the Arts, decided to open a space in Noho and scheduled an exhibition of the O pictures for this spring. But then, shortly before Christmas, Kay called Frank to cancel the show; it was, she felt, inappropriate given the social climate, since the broader culture, as well as the art world, was in the midst of what’s become known as the Reckoning. “It was a difficult decision, but I had a very real concern that the content of Story of O could act as a trigger for victims of abuse and violence,” Kay wrote me in an email, adding that she has recently become “a trusted colleague who women call when they’re experiencing gender bias or harassment in the workplace.”
Frank was stung. For one thing, she’d recently written an essay for ARTnews about her experiences with predatory men in the art world. But more to the point, “As a feminist, it’s your job to take risks,” she says. “As a supporter of women artists, it’s important to take those risks.”
She set out on a frantic search to find a new home for her pictures, contacting her network of fellow artists and curators. But for practical reasons (exhibitions are planned months in advance), as well as #MeToo exigencies (so why exactly would we want to do such a potentially controversial show?), the task would prove difficult.”
This problem has now been resolved. The Half Gallery on the Upper East Side, opens her show on May 16. Perhaps we can look forward to hearing more about Frank and her ‘O’ drawings. They are challenging pictures in the way that paintings by the likes of R.B. Kitaj or Paula Rego never approach their subject in a simplistic way. Frank’s ‘O’ drawings and paintings, like my own, are her own take on the book, and also on the nature of drawing and painting itself, the practice of picture making. They are nothing if not ‘painterly’, investigative, and perhaps brutally honest. One journalist writes, “”Frank’s illustrations of Story of O are more than just a bawdy interpretation of BDSM,,, They’re cleverly provocative and a touch jarring, just like Desclos’s book. Her gouache and pastel drawings depicting scenes of bondage and sexual power play are aggressive in subject matter but demure in expression; the larger paintings are more vivid in colour but the figures are further abstracted, giving them a fever dream quality.”
Frank first picked up a copy of Story of O at a bookshop when she was 15 and blushed constantly as she read it, while also, she admits, getting a kind of exhibitionist thrill from doing so in public. It was for her, a portable totem of boundary-breaking for a well-raised daughter of a Dallas pediatrician whose mother had accompanied her to life-drawing classes (she was too young to sketch naked people by herself!) “It was the first book I read that really explored a woman’s inner life and her erotic imagination. That was very compelling to me as a young person.”
In her art works Frank divides Story of O into 15 different and brilliantly coloured drawings. “I only have one sex scene and one whipping scene,” she told the New York Magazine. To Frank, while the book may keep track of O’s butt-plug size, “it’s not about sex. It’s about power and sexuality and identity and the imagination … She is the main actor in all of the lines.”
The model for ‘O’ in Frank’s pictures is a friend of a friend who reminded Frank of a “sidewalk Catherine Deneuve.” Carl Swanson maintains, “She looks like someone you might know, half-satiated and out of it, the only solid form in a woozy phantasmagoria. The model asked that she not be pictured fully nude, which, one could argue, makes the images kinkier.”
Frank informed The New York Magazine that she considers the book, “a testament to the power of a woman to manipulate the tropes of pornography to suit her ends,” and that nowadays she re-reads Story of O every year. “The book begins with O’s consent, and ends with her consent. Every interaction is consensual. I see it as a very sex positive, feminist icon of literature. And many do, including Susan Sontag, who uses it to talk about the difference between art and pornography in “The Pornographic Imagination.” So in my drawings, I wanted O to come across as always self-possessed and I follow her in each scene I chose to depict—I wanted the images to feel like they were constructed from her point of view, not a voyeur’s.”
One time student at the Slade School of Art, University College London, Natalie Frank was born in 1980 in Austin, Texas.