Art museums are known to show and uphold some artists whose work continually incites controversy, among them Robert Mapplethorpe and Chris Ofili. But when does art become too controversial for a museum to openly support or display it? The artist Graham Ovenden, who became famous in the UK in the 1970s for his prints and photographs, has had his work removed from the Tate’s website and print and drawing department following his conviction for six charges of indecency with a child and one of indecent assault.
Ovenden had a long-abiding fascination for children and representing them “sensually” in his work under titles like “Aspects of Lolita.” In the 1970s, his pieces were seen as a postmodern return to narrative and myth, according to Guardian critic Jonathan Jones. In 1975, Ovenden and a group of fellow artists who called themselves the Brotherhood of Ruralists retreated to the Ovenden’s countryside estate. There, Ovenden would photograph friends’ children and turn the portraits into paintings like “The Picnic” and “After the Bath” (NSFW).
Today, the paintings are “worrying and bizarre,” as Jones writes. They clearly sexualize children in an inappropriate way, and, it turns out, the paintings were only the surface of Ovenden’s fascination with children. “His portraiture was part of a ruse to abuse young girls, making them dress in Victorian clothing before removing it and committing indecent acts,” the Guardian reports. One victim of the abuse described it to the court: “I would … be made to take my clothes off and put on some kind of gown. I would have my eyes stuck down with black tape. We would have to go through this strange ritual.” The offences occurred between 1972 and 1985, but the children have only come forward as adults.
Ovenden rejects that he has any sexual interest in children and simply uses them as allegorical and aesthetic figures in his work. He has said he believes children are “’sensual’ in the same way the bark of a tree is sensual,” according to the Guardian.
This isn’t the first time Ovenden has been embroiled in legal trouble for his work. His pieces have been censored from various public exhibitions and images have been confiscated from his studio by Scotland Yard. In 2009, he was charged with creating indecent photographs or photo montages of children, and possession of indecent material, but the case was later thrown out.
The Tate acquired 34 of Ovenden’s prints in 1975, many from the gallery that represented the artist, Waddington Galleries. The works were part of a large gift of almost 3,000 objects acquired when the Tate was expanding its print collection. Ovenden’s pieces are still listed in the Tate’s online collection archive (see “Wendy” from 1970), but the listings have the images removed (some are still viewable on Google Image Search).
This doesn’t mean that the Tate is literally removing Ovenden’s pieces from its collection in the sense of deaccessioning; rather, they have just been removed from public access. As Jonathan Jones points out, times have changed, and the artist’s work, and the crimes implicated in it, is simply untouchable for the museum. “No one can ever have looked at his pictures of children and failed to see their flirtation with sexualizing the young. But once upon a time no one thought it mattered so very much,” he writes.
Ovenden is not the only artistic figure to face renewed scrutiny after the issues of child abuse and pedophilia have become more openly discussed in the last few decades. Case in point, the renowned 19th C. author and photographer Lewis Carroll, of Alice in Wonderland fame, is well-known for his dozens of haunting of images of young girls, often nude. There have long been rumors of Carroll’s possible pedophilia but more recently cryptic letters have surfaced to fuel increasing speculation that the rumors may in fact be true.
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