Women, throughout history, have always been the main source of inspiration for poets and artists in those great works that the world has studied and praised for centuries. But art is far from the sweetness and romanticism that we frequently try to attribute to it: many of the pleasant bodies painted on canvas belonged to the lovers of the artists themselves, this is true, but many of these, as history teaches us, were prostitutes, women too young to be admired and depicted, as their immature bodies scream, women often forced and often abused. In the middle of the storm caused by the #metoo phenomenon, a movement that brought the importance of the fight to sexual assault or harassment to the “social” spotlight, to art galleries and museums, a stance is required.
Is it right to appreciate artists who probably abused their muses? Is it right for a museum to exhibit art with clear allusions to sexual abuse or child abuse? Or should certain works be removed? Is it correct to tell, especially to younger audiences, the true story behind a work or would it be better to admire its beauty without entering its heart of immorality?
Many of the most famous works that the inexperienced observer appreciates, in fact, belong to the collection of paintings that should be censored. Great artists like Picasso or Manet, for example, are well known for portraying prostitutes. Can we be sure that these women were portrayed willingly or were they abused instead? We cannot be sure. What is certain is that today we can get a very clear idea of how Pablo Picasso, for example, treated women. His granddaughter writes about him: “he submitted (women) to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.”
The correlation between immoral artists and fine arts continues with the greatly discussed Gauguin. Often depicted as an amoral trashy man, his peculiarities count the abandon of his wife and children, the syphilis, the animism, and last but not least, his barely adult spouses. Despite the paintings he created during his stay in Tahiti are not particularly surrounded by an aura of sexuality, the naked bodies cry to paedophilia: The young black girls are, in fact, just teens.
It is well known that artists, often, tent to reinterpret reality in their paintings according to their point of view. But Gaugin, always had the foresight to state that what he depicted corresponded to reality, fuelling the myth of the monster.
So how can we appreciate the art, however excellent, of someone who is nothing but a paedophile and a colonialist? Well, it can be done trying to understand the socio-political and cultural context in which the work was created. Whether it is a Greek artwork that depicts a rape or that it is a twentieth century artist with perverse tendencies, it does not matter: if, at the time, there was no law against a certain act, however amoral, this is to be considered legal. And if we consider that the first laws fighting violence began to spread or to be seriously respected starting from the 70s of 1900, it is easy to understand how certain behaviours were popular. The line between what was immoral and illegal once was very blurred. Although a rape or a murder could create horror, they were widespread acts.
In ancient Babylon, for example, if a virgin woman was raped, the man accused of violence would be killed. But if the same woman was married, she would also be killed, as it was her fault. While in Assyria, the father of a rape victim was, for honour, authorized to rape the wife of the rapist himself, to punish him. Logical, no?
To continue, in the beautiful Rome, vibrant nucleus for the ancient art, if a child was not desired one could, without consequences, throw it away, literally.
And even where laws were created, they were not respected. In the innovative and modern England of the in 1285, rape was finally considered a crime to be punished with capital punishment. But, the jurors were very often reluctant to condemn men for a similar crime because, in their still far from modernity mind, women were tempters who demanded or even deserved the assault.
These are just some of the examples that we could bring to point out the importance of historical contextualization. For this reason I think about the desire of removing certain works of art almost as a “witch hunt”. Considering the immorality and malpractice of which man has always prided himself throughout history, and the number of artworks that glorifies violence, most of the art, both Western and Eastern, should be removed from museums.
Today, with no doubt, if an artist were accused of sexual harassment, I would condemn him both under a moral and a legal point of view. But as regards art in history, even if depraved, it has to be appreciated in her truest essence. I like art that does not hide vices, virtues, perversions and horrors behind the canvas. Erasing history and the art that belongs to it means deny our lineage, erase the errors that have allowed us to learn and to strive to be better men in a society that only now begins to approach modernity.
Then, would you be able to hide from the world the tormented paintings of Caravaggio because he was a murderer?
Picasso, Les demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)
Édouard Manet, Olympia (1863)
Paul Gauguin, Spirit of the Dead Watching (1892)