The Mall Gallery in London has removed a painting from its recent art exhibition because it depicted a woman’s pubic hair. Leena McCall’s oil painting, ‘Portrait of Ms Ruby May, Standing’, was selected for the exhibition by the Society for Women Artists (SWA). The portrait captures May smoking from a pipe, wearing a fur-lined vest and a pair of shorts which are undone so as to show a small tuft of the offending hair.
In the Mall Gallery’s defence, a spokesperson said: ‘As an educational arts charity, the federation has a responsibility to its trustees and to the children and vulnerable adults who use its galleries and learning centre. After a number of complaints… we requested the painting was removed.’ McCall has responded by arguing that the removal of the painting ironically underlined the issue she was trying to address, that is ‘how women choose to express their sexual identity beyond the male gaze’.
Leaving aside the small detail that as the portrait was on public display then it certainly wasn’t beyond the male gaze, the Mall Gallery’s willingness to pander to those who complained, at the apparently small cost of stifling artistic expression, is disturbing. By removing McCall’s painting from the SWA’s exhibition (without even notifying the organisation beforehand), the Mall Gallery is reinforcing the modern (and vaguely Victorian) idea that depicting nakedness, or in this case pubic hair, can only ever be pornographic – there purely for masturbatory consumption.
What’s more, it is absurd to assume that ‘children’, much less ‘vulnerable adults’, need to be protected from such an image. Does the gallery really think children’s minds can’t cope with the idea that people grow hair around their genitals? They’re going to find out someday. As for these supposedly ‘vulnerable’ adults, who are these people who live in constant fear of glimpsing pubic hair? They must plunge themselves into perilous danger every time they go to the toilet, have a shower or get dressed.
I suspect the claim that the gallery removed the offending painting to ‘protect’ the ‘vulnerable’ was a piece of cheap demagogy. The main reason is clear: the Mall Gallery were trying to avoid offending anyone. It seems bizarre to have to say this in this day an age, but needs must: if an individual decides that the portrait of May – who is revealing far less than many of the women on display in the National Gallery – is just too much to bear, they don’t have to visit the exhibition. Exhibitions end – that supposedly nasty, mentally destabilising and child-warping painting won’t always be there. So if it offends you, don’t go there. But most importantly, don’t try to stop others from appreciating the expression of the human form, either male or female, in art.