An 1880 art-and-obscenity trial: Ingres comes to Pitt St, Sydney

24 May

Hopefully, the Bill Henson imbroglio of 2008 is behind us in Australia now (for those who missed it: Australian police shut down the renowned artist’s shows at the rosylnoxley9 gallery last year, claiming that his photographs of teens sans clothes were child pornography).

I don’t have anything to say about that brouhaha that hasn’t already been said elsewhere. But I thought I would note an incident in Sydney in early November 1880, in which police once again stormed an establishment selling art, and in that case charged the dealer with obscenity.

The prosecution was for the exhibition of Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres’ La Source, a reproduction of which hung in the window of the dealer’s shop in Pitt Street, Sydney.

ingres_sourceThe Source (1856)

This painting had a ‘demoralising influence’, the prosecuting constable told the court, because ‘it represented the naked form of a woman’, and because it attracted large crowds of ‘the larrikin class’ – not only boys and young men, but ‘low, abandoned women and girls’ as well – who gathered to gaze at it on the Pitt Street footpath. This was, of course, the nub of the matter so far as he was concerned. The danger in 1880 lay with the inflammatory effects of female nudity on the lower orders, who would allow it to further demoralise themselves.

The charge in this case was roundly dismissed, you may be happy to know. Evidence in support of the dealer was given by a judge in the Art Section of the Sydney International Exhibition, who gave the usual testimony in such circumstances. He declared that ‘the indecency lay more in the mind of the critic’ than the painting itself, and that paintings of as much explicitness were available for view in the Art Gallery any day of the year. In spite of the contemporary panic about paedophilia and the very 1880s one about larrikinism, one is tempted to say, has really all that much changed?

2 Responses to “An 1880 art-and-obscenity trial: Ingres comes to Pitt St, Sydney”

  1. Perry Middlemiss 29 May 2009 at 6:17 am #

    I believe “Chloe” – the naked nymph in Young & Jackson’s pub here in Melbourne – was shifted indoors from an outside position for a similar reason, though I don’t have any evidence for this. This piece from THE ARGUS of 1945 might be a clue

    The painting was originally purchased by the hotel in 1909.

    • Melissa Bellanta 1 June 2009 at 7:58 pm #

      Will have to have a drink at that pub next time I’m in town…

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