Art and Public Nudity

In the mid-1980’s, I was a junior book editor at Macmillan and Charles Scribner’s Sons in New York, neither of which still exists as a corporate entity. One of my most rewarding experiences was working with the late English journalist Colin Simpson, who I recall had a reputation as somewhat of a scoundrel and troublemaker – the perfect combination for any ambitious editor chasing the best-seller list.

In 1987, we published Simpson’s book about the secret and unsavory relationship between the legendary Renaissance art scholar Bernard Berenson and the most successful art dealer of the early 20th century, Joseph Duveen. The book received a New York Times Book Review front-page review (print edition) by the great American novelist John Updike.

I was in book publisher’s nirvana.

My point, and I am getting to it, is that a prominent story in the Berenson-Duveen narrative pivots at the state capitol in Harrisburg, where I lived and worked for 29 years.

Duveen had a business relationship with the American sculptor, George Grey Barnard, who has been described both as a Pennsylvania native and a taxidermist from Illinois. In the early days of the 20th century, Barnard had been awarded a commission to create 33 larger-than-life-size sculptures for the new capitol building. Upon receiving the commission, Barnard moved to France to complete the work. However, after finishing only 11 of the sculptures, Barnard ran out of money.

To complete the commission, he entered into a relationship with Duveen to sell French masonry to American collectors. The transactions flirted with and skirted French laws designed to keep French artistic and architectural treasures in France. The largest of Duveen and Barnard’s shady business deals resulted in the construction of the Cloisters museum in upper Manhattan. With financing secured, Barnard completed the sculptures. Since their installation in 1911, they have been one of Harrisburg’s greatest artistic assets for more than a century.

Of course, you can still buy the book from Amazon and read all the lurid details, of which there is no shortage.

The sculptures as seen today are not in their original state, when they were exhibited in Paris in 1910. They have been cleaned, certainly, but the most notable “improvement” to the sculptures was the addition of marble “diapers” to the male figures to protect the sensibilities of the good Christian women and legislators of southcentral Pennsylvania from seeing the full male form.

I have never understood when prudes hide behind the teachings of Christ to insulate themselves from the beauty and mystery of life and the world created by God. Let’s be honest here, folks: difference in taste and sensibility has nothing to do with religious doctrine.

Art cannot hurt you.

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