Therese dreaming, The Queen’s vagina… Five works of art that caused a scandal because of sexism

Since the era MeToomany paintings, sculptures and other artistic representations have passed, years after their creation, on the grill of public opinion.

“This gallery presents women’s bodies, either as a ‘decorative passive form’ or as a ‘femme fatale’. Let’s challenge this Victorian fantasy!”, could we read in January 2018 at the entrance to the Manchester Art Gallery in London. This inscription replaced the table Hylas and the nymphs, Pre-Raphaelite work by British painter John William Waterhouse. Sometimes criticized by some, sometimes welcomed by others, this initiative intended to question visitors on the burning subject of the representation of women in art, making post-its available so that they could write down their feelings. .

In fact, in a society crossed by questions of gender, class and sexuality, by the #Metoo movement and by culture woke, the museum was in fact trying to become part of a major phenomenon: that of the reinterpretation of our masterpieces in contemporary times and in the light of our ideologies. This, like the feminist podcast and Instagram account Venus was waxing her pussy, launched by a former art historian, questioning the view of male artists on women. To talk about the Pre-Raphaelite movement, she explained in particular in one of her publications, based on the work lamia of the same John William Waterhouse this: “They are mainly inspired by ancient and medieval subjects […] all with a good dose of misogyny in common.”

The Bar at the Folies Bergeres by Edouard Manet

The Bar at the Folies Bergeres by Edouard Manet, 1881-1882. Getty Images

Thus, after many controversies, the Manchester Art Gallery was not the only one to protect itself from possible attacks on its acquisitions, by seizing the debate itself – at the risk of provoking a controversy in the opposite direction. On April 13, the Courtauld Gallery in London reviewed the labeling of a painting by the French impressionist painter Édouard Manet, The Bar at the Folies Bergeres. Made in 1882, this portrait, considered sexist by the institution, represents a waitress, harassed in a Parisian café-concert, staring at both the spectator and a man, whose reflection is projected in a large mirror behind her.

On the new sign of the painting is specified that “the enigmatic expression of this woman is disturbing, especially since she seems to be talking to a male client”. And to add that it is, in truth, only one element among the tantalizing assortment offered in the foreground: wine, champagne, peppermint liqueur and British Bass beer. A description intended to warn visitors of the “male gaze” of the work, a feminist concept that appeared to denounce the male gaze making women an object of desire, even if it means abusing it.

Therese dreaming by Balthus

Therese dreaming by Balthus at Museum Ludwig, Germany. Getty Images

If Édouard Manet has his share of controversies, the painter Balthus can also claim to have provoked the ire of many feminist movements. Worse, the artist has been accused of voyeurism and perversion, and even of pedophile thoughts. Accusations with regard to his works, placing the visitor’s eye under the skirts of very young girls.

This is the case of his famous painting Therese dreaming, painted in 1938. This one shows a child in a red petticoat, sunbathing in a lascivious posture. In November 2017, a petition went around the world to remove the work from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET): “I simply ask the MET to be more vigilant about the paintings that it hangs on its walls and to understand what that these paintings insinuate”, explained Mia Merrill, at the initiative of this uprising. Worn during the Harvey Weinstein case, the American producer convicted of raping actresses, the activist will have received nearly 9,000 signatures, without however managing to have the canvas removed.

more and more ugly by Song Ta

It is a work that scandalized public opinion several years after its creation. Made in 2012, Uglier and Uglier (More and more ugly in English) by Chinese Song Ta, is a video of nearly seven hours, scrolling through nearly 5,000 images of female students captured without their knowledge on a university campus. The latter are classified and numbered according to their physique. Screened for the first time in 2013 without much reaction, it was made available to visitors in June 2021 at the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal (OCAT) in Shanghai, this time provoking a wind of indignation. In an interview for Vice in 2013, the artist said about this work: “In the end, it was scary… They were normal people, they didn’t lack an arm or an ear or an eye, but they were so ugly it made people feel uncomfortable.»

Many visitors, shocked, denounced the sexist, even insulting nature of this project, demanding its immediate withdrawal from the establishment. “After receiving reviews, we have re-evaluated the content of this artwork as well as the artist’s explanation. We found it to be disrespectful to women, and the way it was filmed had image rights issues.“, had explained the OCAT.

The queen’s vagina by Anish Kapoor

The Indian artist Anish Kapoor is also used to scandals. In 2015, he created a surprise with his work Dirty Corneralso nicknamed The queen’s vagina, installed in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles. But the one that we remember for its particularly disturbing character is due to a series of paintings presented in June 2019 at the Lisson Gallery in London. The painter and visual artist had set out to represent the menstrual cycle of women, in a rather evocative way… even repugnant. Canvases painted with streaks of blood, walls strewn with splashes, dripping orifices… In the caption of his series, a question was asked: is a man legitimate to paint problems relating to women, to pain? , violence and impurity?

Palm Springs Art Museum, Marylin Monroe

The statue of Marilyn Monroe. Abaca

Eternal object of desire, Marilyn Monroe was also entitled to a statue in her likeness. To pay homage to him, a sculpture almost eight meters high, inspired by a cult scene from the film Seven years of reflection, was installed last June near the Palm Springs Art Museum in the United States. Without much surprise, the actress is projected there as a femme fatale: languorous pose, high heels and light white dress flying away, revealing her panties. Considered sexist and sexualizing for the actress and for women, the work was subjected to the wrath of local associations, who demanded its withdrawal. After numerous demonstrations in the summer of 2021, as many petitions and even a complaint against the county of Riverside in the United States, no feminist association has succeeded in having the statue of the actress removed, to the chagrin of the director of Palm Springs Art Museum, which has a full view of her ass every morning.