At a moment when censorship has become a fresh and powerful weapon for deployment against contemporary art, the Galerie St Etienne has mounted a topical exhibition which analyses the reasons for this creeping threat and examines other occasions when modern artists have met fierce disapproval at state level.
The exhibition, which opened at the end of last month and continues to 7 March, is titled “Scandal, Outrage and Censorship”. It has been conceived by gallery director, Jane Kallir, the distinguished scholar of Egon Schiele and Viennese art, who has divided her selection of nearly eighty works of art into three sections.
The exhibition commences with a group of watercolours and drawings by Klimt and Schiele; the latter was briefly imprisoned in 1912 for his erotic work, the trial judge publicly burning one of his sheets in a theatrical gesture of condemnation. The second section forms the core of the exhibition and comprises drawings, lithographs and woodcuts by sixteen German artists whose imagery and message attracted an increasingly hostile response as their country slipped into dictatorship in the years before World War II. These artists were humiliatingly paraded through German and Austrian cities between 1937 and 1941 in the notorious “Entartete Kunst” exhibition, a moving reconstruction of which was shown recently in Los Angeles and Chicago and which opens at the Altes Museum in Berlin on 1 March and runs until 31 May. But the impetus to the exhibition is provided by the three contemporary artists, the late Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano and David Wojnarowicz, whose works have been pressed by crude threats of censorship in the United States and elsewhere in the last few years. Those threats have, in turn, provided the necessary encouragement for the artists to test the boundaries of official taste in an increasingly bitter conflict. Mapplethorpe is represented by five silver Gelatin prints and Serrano by his controversial “Piss Christ”.
The exhibition concludes with a group of six paintings and drawings by Sue Coe, who collaborated in the organisation of the contemporary section, and whose latest work tackles current events such as the testimony of Anita Hill and the trial of William Kennedy Smith, and by two important works by Hans Haacke, the distinguished agent provocateur of international art. “Helmsboro County” is a recent editioned silkscreen diptych which floats a portrait of Senator Jesse Helms, Capitol Hill’s leading legislator on censorship, over a Marlboro cigarette packet and partners it with a list of the politician’s corporate sponsors. “Storm”, a shopping cart stuffed with American flags, is the artist’s personal response to the Desert Storm operation.