Forget Our Bodies, Forbid Ourselves: Nudity in Art and Museums

As Art Cologne, the oldest art fair opens in Germany, I thought of my impressions of my visit to Cologne's Museum Ludwig, a museum that houses an impressive sample of a collection of modern and contemporary art and has one of the largest collection of art by Picasso after Barcelona and Paris. At the time I visited there were no special exhibitions other than the re-purposing of Heimo Zobernig’s installation of the Austrian Pavilion

at the 56th Biennale in Venice in 2015 commissioned by Yilmaz Dziewior who is the director of Museum Ludwig. I recommend all to go to Museum Ludwig if you are ever in the area and see the permanent collection too. The museum has an easy to follow layout, the guards are very nice and guiding, and the building with its views of the Rhine River reminded me of Renzo Piano’s new Whitney Museum of American Art with views of the Hudson River. It was a Sunday and the museum was not crowded, the restaurant which had great food and music was full though.

Museum Ludwig, Cologne

Coming to the section of Picasso I noticed and observed a couple of visitors looking at a painting and this took me back in time to May 2015 when Picasso’s Women of Algiers, Version O from a series of 15, considered to be the masterpiece of the series, fetched a record-breaking price of more than $179 million at auction at Christie’s. The painting was inspired by Eugène Delacroix’ Women of Algiers in their Apartment and Picasso’s version depicted nude women.

Given the astronomical price it fetched this was important news of course. But what happened next was shocking: New York TV Station FOX5 blurred the image of Women of Algiers while reporting the news of the sale and this was exposed by Jerry Saltz, senior art critic and columnist for New York Magazine on his instagram account.

Photo: Jerry Saltz instagram account

In a country that is a champion of free speech, acting much like a TV station from China that blurred the genitals of Michelangelo’s David-Apollo was unconscionable of course.

And then, in less than two weeks a former classmate of mine from grad school who at the time was the Manager of Visitor Services and Education of a fine art museum posted a question to a Museum Discussion group about an exhibition her institution was about to open with the Subject line reading: “Nudity in Exhibitions?" In her post she said that the “exhibition features a series of 15 lithographs of two nude women, in both realist and abstract forms. From an educational standpoint they serve to show Picasso's evolution in the artistic process but how to [sic] we showcase this with school and camp groups? Can we even show them at all?” (emphasis mine) She went on to ask, “Also, aside from making my staff aware that some guests may be offended by the content and how we prepare for that, is there anything else we need to do?” (emphasis mine)

While I fumed reading all this, she received 11 replies. A few said to verbally warn directors of children’s groups. Most were rooting for art museums, of their being places where people were prepared to see art with nudity, and that nudity is beautiful. One went ahead and asked what I had in mind: “Are you in Iran?” It also in a way turned into a contrast of the US and Europe as one mentioned how she “was recently in Amsterdam and at the contemporary art museum they had a pitch black room and once your eyes adjusted, you saw two naked people on the floor kissing and being intimate. A beautiful piece and the process of the visitor experience is amazing.” And another said the following: “in Paris .. saw L'Origine du monde. As I was trying to read the sign (my French is pretty bad) a school group came up behind me. I would guess they were about 6 or 7 years old, and their guide was pointing and explaining the painting to them. Not even a giggle from them, but I was very embarrassed being trapped very close to that painting for a long time surrounded by little kids nodding complacently at the tour guide's description of the female anatomy.” And a colleague from Germany summing it all up said, “from a standpoint outside your country, this is really a strange discussion”.

Now, what had prompted me to go back in time to remember all this –the visitors at Museum Ludwig—were a father and his son who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old, talking about the painting of the Picasso’s Melon Eaters while looking at it. You would love this painting: A male and female figure are seated naked and eating melons.

Pablo Picasso's Mangeurs de pastèque (Melon Eaters), 1967.

Museum Ludwig, Cologne

And I can’t take the image of the two of them off of my mind: the father and son visiting an art museum on a Sunday, within sight of the Cologne Cathedral, a World Heritage Site as Mass was taking place, talking about the painting, learning together, discussing, throwing ideas back and forth, while at the same time bonding. And I know of a new study which revealed that “teens who took part in cultural activities like concerts or museums with their parents were more likely to aspire to continue their studies after the age of 16 than those who didn’t”. And yet another study found that “students who are exposed to cultural institutions, like museums and performing arts centers, not only have higher levels of engagement with the arts but display greater tolerance, historical empathy, as well as better educational memory and critical thinking skills”.

I don’t understand why some topics could even be off-limits in museums? Why would nudity in art be something we should be afraid about, or find offensive; why should we censor and ban, and create warnings for art when all you can do is go online and look, or, just look at yourself in the mirror? Why how our naked bodies look like, their representation in art, should ever be either censored or bear warnings, causing fear to keep them as taboo, eventually leading to their forbiddance? Just seeing that father and son at Museum Ludwig tells me that instead of acting on rote practice of faith elsewhere, open conversation about inspiration, creativity and art at museums—our secular temples—is necessary for the survival of humanities.

#MuseumLudwig #Picasso #Cologne #WomenofAlgiers #JerrySaltz #BlurringofArt #artcensorship #meloneaters