Painting by blunders: Spear me your insults

By Frisco Rosso

Just over a week ago a portrait by South African artist Brett Murray was exhibited in Johannesburg to the consternation of the South African public.

The Spear depicted South African president Jacob Zuma in an unflattering light until it was vandalised and subsequently removed from the Goodman Gallery.

The painting has since sparked a nation-wide debate amid protests and lawsuits as to the lengths art and freedom of expression should morally be allowed to extend to.

With this in mind I’ve listed five particularly inflammatory and art works that have initiated similar debates: pieces you should try and see or deface before you die.

  • Shark by David Černý

Czech sculptor David Černý created Shark in 2005, a forthright piss-take of Damien Hurst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, which ran the gauntlet by depicting the former president of Iraq Saddam Hussein.

Unlike Hurst’s work, no living creatures were physically harmed in the making of the piece, although one or two public officials were considerably bent out of shape at the prospect of reprisal from supporters and sympathisers of the late president.

Shark was to initially be exhibited in the town of Middelkerke in Belgium at an arts festival in 2006 in the town’s square.

However, Middelkerke mayor Michel Landuyt banned the piece on the basis it was too provocative.

Although slippery on the subject of whom he believed Shark would provoke, Landuyt made the valid point that “families with children pass by the square that it was to stand on and some of them may not have taken it too well. The other thing that bothers me is that the exhibit portrays an almost deformed human being, a real person, who is still alive. He is in trial but should be presumed innocent until proven guilty”.

  • Liz and Phil Down by the Lake by Greg Taylor

With the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee just around the corner it’s only fitting to give Down by the Lake with Liz and Phil a mention.

Australian artist Greg Taylor’s depiction of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh sitting naked on a park bench drew lethal attention from Australian objectors shortly after its unveiling in 1995.

The controversial piece survived the wrath of the public for a mere week before its remains were permanently removed. In this time legs were severed from both sculptures, graffiti engraved and in an astonishing Elizabethan twist Her Majesty’s head was lopped off.

Whether or not the culprits gained inspiration from the current queens’ predecessor Elizabeth I, who was a decapitation enthusiast of note, is neither here nor there as it seems they were more intent in ridding the park of the royal personage rather than making a stand for their dignity.

Anglo-Australian relations concerning monarchy continue to be frosty.

  • Myra by Marcus Harvey

Myra by English artist Marcus Harvey caused outrage in the United Kingdom in 1997 as it portrayed convicted child killer Myra Hindley.

The paining essentially recreated a well-publicised police photo of Hindley shortly after her arrest in 1965.

The artist used a caste of an infant’s hand to build a mosaic of handprints that constitute the image of Hindley.

Symbolism notwithstanding, Myra did nothing to appease the suffering of the victims’ families or the shockwaves from Hindley’s crimes still felt by the British public some 30 years later.

Commenting on the piece, The Times of London’s newspaper’s art critic, Richard Cork, stated, “far from cynically exploiting her notoriety, Harvey’s grave and monumental canvas succeeds in conveying the enormity of the crime she committed. Seen from afar, through several doorways, Hindley’s face looms at us like an apparition. By the time we get close enough to realise that it is spattered with children’s handprints, the sense of menace becomes overwhelming.”

The opinions of the victims’ families were not reprinted as eloquently, and despite repeated requests from themselves and even Hindley herself, the painting was not removed from display at the Royal Academy of Art. Although defaced on the first day of exhibition Myra was removed for restoration and rehung a fortnight later.

  • Piss Christ by Andres Serrano

Taking the piss in an altogether different way is Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, first exhibited in 1987.  The photograph depicts a plastic effigy of a crucifix submerged in the apparently dehydrated Serrano’s urine.

As was to be expected, the image caused an uproar with US senators and Christian representatives leading the charge.

Death threats, hate mail and condemnation from numerous quarters ensued but Serrano did gain supported from art critics who interpreted the work as an indictment of the commercialisation of Christian and religious iconography.

Catholic nun and art critic Sister Wendy Beckett provided an insightful and balanced critique of the image in an interview with Bill Moyers.

A reproduction of the photograph was violated just over a year ago while on display in Avignon – evidence that not all viewers shared Sister Wendy’s interpretation.

  • Loose Lips Sink Ships – Peter Langenbach

Exhibited at the California State Fair in 2001, Langenbach’s satirical sculpture illustrates former US President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, highlighting their affair while Clinton was still in power.

The piece caused a furore and was apparently barred from the fair shortly after it was named best-in-show and having won first place in the three-dimensional sculptures category.

Manufactured from a variety of recycled materials, Loose Lips Sink Ships seemingly received no political condemnation and was initially banned from public view by fair officials due to its sexually suggestive depiction of the couple.

The controversy was short-lived and the piece has since slipped into relative obscurity but it serves as an example of how art can be lauded and censored in the same breath and that freedom of speech is fine, providing nobody hears you.



Frisco Rosso

With more tension than your mother’s suspension, I am Frisco Rosso. I’m likely to deliver a few lines worth at any given moment regarding film, music, sport, books and anything morally unsound that strikes a blow between the eyes in the name of entertainment.


One thought on “Painting by blunders: Spear me your insults

  1. I like Harvey’s “Myra”. Cork sums up its power masterfully. It interacts with the viewer in a way that makes you think of the victims. Granted, had it been one of my children who had died by the hands of those two, I would find it difficult to see beyond my own grief as well. Yet, I don’t see it as exploitative. Aggressive yes, but not exploitative.

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