Whitechapel Gallery

Whitechapel Gallery accused of “self-censorship”

Lenders to a Hans Bellmer exhibition say works were withdrawn from display for fear of causing offence


Lenders to an exhibition devoted to the Surrealist artist Hans Bellmer, which closed at the Whitechapel Gallery in London on 23 November, have told The Art Newspaper they are “extremely unhappy” about the gallery’s decision to remove some works on the eve of the show’s opening.

The exhibition was first staged at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. After the show of over 200 works opened in London on 23 September, Agnès de la Beaumelle, chief conservator of graphic art at the Pompidou and one of the curators of the Bellmer exhibition, told Le Monde newspaper that when the show was being installed in London and it became clear that it would not fit into the space available, she was shocked to hear Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick say she was removing works that might cause offence to the local Muslim population as well as to anti-paedophile groups. Ms de la Beaumelle told Le Monde that Ms Blazwick described the works as “sulphurous” and removed them despite her protests.

The Paris-based gallerist Natalie Seroussi, who loaned a number of works to the show, told The Art Newspaper that Ms Blazwick had also made the same remarks to her at a VIP dinner in London organised in conjunction with the show. She said she informed Paris dealer Marcel Fleiss of Galerie 1900-2000 who was also a lender to the exhibition.

Mr Fleiss discovered that five of his 12 works had been withdrawn, and wrote a letter of complaint to the Whitechapel with Ms Seroussi. He told The Art Newspaper he considered demanding the immediate return of all the works he had loaned to the show.

“Ms Blazwick must defend her actions,” he says. “I am greatly opposed to this kind of self-censorship. I also run a commercial gallery and I am not happy if my art is neither on display here nor in the exhibition to which I have loaned it. They should have known how much space was needed well in advance. I will never lend works to them again.”

“Bellmer is certainly hard to show”, concedes Ms Seroussi, “but Ms Blazwick knew this and still decided to host the exhibition. The Pompidou showed the entire exhibition without any problems”, she said. “I think that removing these works is an affront to the spirit of the artist.”

Others say the whole affair is a storm in a teacup. The Paris-based financier Alain Kahn-Sriber, owner of an important collection of erotic art and also a lender to the exhibition told The Art Newspaper that although some of his works had been removed, the erotic essence of the show had not been diluted. “There were still many challenging pieces [on display],” he said. “This is all a fuss about nothing.” He also pointed out that there were some works by Bellmer, particularly of a scatological nature, which Agnès de la Beaumelle had decided not to include in the original version of the show at the Pompidou.

In a statement to The Art Newspaper, the Whitechapel said: “Though smaller than the original Paris exhibition due to the Whitechapel’s smaller exhibition spaces, the works displayed in London were selected in close consultation with the exhibition’s curators Agnès de la Beaumelle and Alain Sayag and with the Whitechapel’s curator Anthony Spira.”

The Pompidou Centre also issued a statement saying that the London version of the show had been cut because of a lack of space. The exhibition travels to the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich in 2007.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 175 December 2006