Dirty Old MenOne of the embarrassments curators and art historians have had to endure in the past is that of being put in a position of censoring the work of famous artists based upon its erotic content. Often, museums have acquired such works mostly for their historic and curiosity value but were highly reluctant to display them for fear of tarnishing the reputations of the masters and thus diminishing the value of their larger holdings by the same artist. On the other hand, Picasso for instance, left quite a portfolio of such works, a few of which have found their way into program publications from some of his major shows. But then again, we've always known Picasso was a "dirty old man" so there's little chance Les Demoiselles de Avignon" would be worth any less for the exposure of a few "naughty" little forays into the boudoir. In fact, insofar as private collectors are concerned, such things add a bit of spice and colour to what might otherwise be rather dry, esoteric holdings.
The British Museum in London has recently mounted a show entitled "Rembrandt the Printmaker." We've all come to feel we know Rembrandt the painter pretty well. And while a few of his more popular etchings such as the famous Hundred guilder print, and The Three Crosses have become familiar too, for the most part, we recall Rembrandt as having been a master of the etcher's art yet we're not well acquainted with much of his printed work. The British Museum show marks the largest exhibition of Rembrandt's etchings in history - fully one-third of all those he ever made. And for the first time, the restraints of curatorial censorship have been removed, revealing that, like Picasso, Ingres, Caravaggio, Matisse, Gauguin, CÚzanne, and others, Rembrandt was something of a "dirty old man" too.
In 1848, the British Museum purchased the Rembrandt print, The Monk in the Cornfield. It's been in the print storeroom ever since and it was already two hundred years hold when the museum bought it. What sounds innocent enough according to the title actually depicts the aforementioned monk and a willing young milkmaid involved in, as the catalogue demurely puts it, "a deed as old as humanity." Even today, such works are usually ignored by surveys of Rembrandt's prints (and there were more than a few). Until recently, and perhaps even now, such works have been deemed too obscene to display. Not only that, but in this particular case, inasmuch as a religious figure is involved, the element of sacrilege also raises its ugly head.
And what the British Museum didn't have along this line, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam was only more than happy to supply in filling in the gaps. Woman Making Water and Defecating foregoes sacrilege in favour of scatology without even so much as the pretence of a euphemistic title. And while painters have never been reluctant to draw and even paint various scenes involving the act of seduction, Rembrandt's The French Bed picks up where most artists (except Picasso) have had the good taste to leave off. What artists won't do for money... It would appear that, in addition to selling exceptional etched masterpieces of both a secular and religious nature, Rembrandt also ran a thriving "under the counter" business in erotica.
In all fairness, the erotic works make up only a relatively small number of the hundreds of Rembrandt prints on display in the British Museum Show. And likewise, perhaps it's only because they've been suppressed so long that we now find them as shocking as they are interesting. And in Rembrandt's case, unlike the work of Picasso and most of the others, the Dutch master seems to have segregated sex from nudity. None of the sexual indulgences in Rembrandt's etchings depict total nudity, which I might add, he was in no way reluctant to paint. All of which makes us wonder if such prints should not have continued to be suppressed if for no other reason than that of good taste. Do we really need this kind of stuff to "round out" the persona of some of our greatest artists? Or, has the exhibitionist art world come to the point that it needs such works to attract crowds to art shows, even when such a titanic talent headlines the exhibit? I'm not so prudish as to pretend erotic art doesn't have its place, but one does have to question whether its place is on the walls of our most prestigious museums. Maybe our museums need seductively lit back-room boudoirs for such exhibits.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
30 January 2001