Gustave Courbet’s L’Orgine du monde still seems to provoke viewers more than 150 years after it was painted. For the greater part of its history, Courbet’s painting was hidden in private art collections, now it hangs in the Musée d’Orsay for everyone to see. Is that the problem? In 2014 performance artist Deborah de Robertis sat in front of Courbet’s painting in the Musée d’Orsay exposing her vagina and was arrested. What is the taboo? Nudity, female sexuality or the male gaze?
There is a controversy over a painting by the artist Balthus. Two young women asked the Metropolitan Museum of Art to remove Thérèse Dreaming (1938). Not one of his pictures of a naked adolescent girl, but a painting of the fully dressed Thérèse Blanchard. Yes, you can see her underwear, but is that enough to arouse the viewer? The question here is: was Balthus a pedophile and are pedophiles allowed to visualize their sexual orientation?
Or does this painting represent the kind of sexualized power abuse we try so hard to get rid of? Was that the reason someone decided to throw out his Balthus painting?
A favored theme for Third Reich artists was a portrait of the Führer. These became so numerous that Hitler finally decreed that only one would be displayed officially at each annual Greater German Art Exhibition. The official portrait of Adolf Hitler for 1937 was painted by Heinrich Knirr (1862 – 1944). After studying at the Academy of fine arts in Vienna, Heinrich Knirr opened a private art school in Munich. It gained a good reputation throughout Europe. During the Nazi régime he painted the portraits of Adolf Hitler, Rudolf Hess and others, and Albert Speer often referred to him as ‘the court painter’. Isn’t it ironic that a former member of the progressive Munich Secession and Vienna Secession paints a portrait of Hitler in the style of Anthony van Dyck and Joshua Reynolds and then calls it ‘Hitler, the Creator of the Third Reich and Renewer of German Art’?
Did we lose faith in the values of the Enlightenment? What is left of the belief that to be informed is manifestly better than to be ignorant or prejudiced? Denis Diderot, the main editor of the Encyclopédia (1751-1772), wrote ‘our aim is to bring together all knowledge, to present its overall structure to our contemporaries and to hand it on to those who will come after us, so that our children, by becoming more knowledgeable, will become more virtuous and happier’. So how did that turn out? It does feel like there is an overwhelming sense of pessimism at the moment and a worrisome trend toward increasing polarization with a willingness to wreck the precious institutions of liberal democracy. So who is going to fight tribalism, nationalist fervour, religious ecstasy, medical quackery and conspiracy theorizing, and make a case for reason, science and humanism?