We Brits are at our peculiar ways again: a painting has been removed by gallery management from an exhibition put on by Society for Women Artists (SWA) at The Mall Gallery, London. The reason? It has been branded ‘pornographic’ for depicting female pubic hair.
Oh, the irony. In porn, there is very little — if any — pubic hair on display, so rendering something as pornographic based on this criteria alone is rather contradictory.
According to the gallery management, Leena McCall’s Portrait of Ms Ruby May, Standing was taken down to protect ‘children and vulnerable adults’. Protection from what, I am not so sure, but it seems to be the concept that women may actually have body hair. God forbid children learn what a women’s body looks like in its natural state, sans-media influence and social pressure!
Now this has irked my skates, conveniently at the time of year I start to wear strapless t-shirts and have the privilege of watching someone’s gaze flicker to my armpits and then back to my face quickly, often with additional rouge to the cheeks. I do not shave my armpits. Occasionally I wax them, but only if I feel like it. I NEVER shave because I get a rash and so instead I have little tuffs of hair under my arms. Deal with it.
This absolute censorship has also annoyed me because I have a long standing career as a life model, which means I get naked in front of artists. I have done all kinds of sittings – from adult learning classes (groups of what the Mall Gallery Management would deem ‘vulnerable adults’) to professional artists, to a party of 10 year olds. I have always been naked, I have always had pubic hair. Never has anyone been disturbed. Never has it been classed as pornographic. It’s art.
McCall’s painting is also art. I’m neither art critic nor historian, but I know the naked body has been used as a muse for centuries. And yet, McCall’s painting is not of a naked body. There is no breast, no vagina exposed. Rather, there is a slight shadow-like suggestion of pubic hair. Therein lies the issue: pubes. Not just pubes, but lady pubes.
McCall has commented that the painting was meant to explore “how women choose to express their sexual identity” and that the muse, Ruby May, was proud of her pubic hair. In my shallowly informed and humble opinion, I would say that the painting is a comment on the representation and ownership of the female body.
We live in a society where female body hair is stripped off, hidden, shaved off, ripped out, and most importantly, denied. Even television commercials for women’s razors/waxing showcase models with already smooth legs. Or, they use some “mow your lawn” metaphor. Either way, our body hair denial goes so far that we cannot even market a product for removing hair by showing it actually removing hair. In this context, McCall’s depiction of body hair is radical, and a comment on society. And isn’t that what art’s meant to be?
But perhaps the ultimate irony here is that the very point McCall was making — about societal attitudes towards female sexuality and body hair — came full circle when the gallery management censored the painting. McCall’s argument was proven in a glorious metatheatrical display of the patriarchy at work.
So is this painting pornographic? By the standards of modern art, I’d say no. By the standards of modern pornography, I’d say no. And by the standards of logic, I’d say no.
So it’s a good thing Gustave Courbet’s “L’Origine du monde” is safely hanged at Musee d’Orsay then. We wouldn’t want the likes of the people in this British gallery management throw it in the darkest corner of the basement.