The Cambridge art museum has removed a painting on the theme of multicultural free love from its exhibition after calling it ‘racist’.
The university’s Fitzwilliam museum boasts a collection of work by Sir Stanley Spencer, one of the most distinctive British painters of the 20th century, but the curators have contested the artist’s ‘ignorance’.
Prior to its removal, a label for the 1935 work, Love Among the Nations, stated that Sir Stanley’s work contained “offensive” imagery and revealed “unquestioned racism”.
The canvas, one of his works celebrating “free love”, depicts twisted figures of various ethnicities kissing and embracing.
Sir Stanley’s work etiquette stated that “the image is heavily shaped by its own ignorance” and amounted to “a series of racist caricatures”.
He added: “None of Spencer’s human subjects escape this taste for the grotesque, but the painting shows how this largely misanthropic vision intersects with an unquestioned racism.
“Raised on the moral correctness of British imperial rule, Spencer envisions civilization firmly in the West and savagery in its colonies.
“New conversations are developing about the status of paintings like this.
“What should happen to images that contain offensive racial stereotypes, given their connection to the real suffering of generations of colonized and enslaved subjects?”
Sir Stanley (1891-1959), after living on the front lines of the First World War, became known as a deeply Christian artist, influenced by ideas of free love.
He is most famous for setting religious scenes in his home village of Cookham, Berkshire.
In 1963, his Love Among the Nations canvas was donated to The Fitzwilliam, governed by the University of Cambridge.
Speaking to today’s audience
Following the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the university said its museums would “actively transform their collections to speak to today’s audiences.”
In 2022, the label denouncing racism was created for Love Among The Nations to provide a “critical perspective”.
In December of that year, the painting was removed from public view and there are currently no plans to show it again.
A speaker from The Fitzwilliam said, “The rotation of artworks is part of our ever-evolving exhibitions to offer new, diverse and more comprehensive narratives.
“The complexity and racist imagery of Stanley Spencer’s Love Among the Nations has been referenced in our interpretation on display with the painting in 2022.
“Where works with offensive or difficult imagery are displayed, we seek to provide our visitors with an interpretation that addresses these images, places the work in historical context and offers critical perspectives.”
Great art should be creepy
The removal of the artwork from public view has caused concern, with Free Speech Union general secretary Toby Young warning: ‘If The Fitzwilliam is only going to show images that reflect our values, we should visit its galleries it will be like going through a hall of mirrors.
“Great art should be haunting and disturbing, not a vehicle for the dissemination of official orthodoxies.”
Independent curator and art consultant Manick Govinda has noted a growing trend in the industry towards removing or relabeling controversial works as a matter of “best practice”.
He said: “Unfortunately, this is the new normal in curatorial practice. All dead white male art must now be viewed through the lens of critical race and gender theory. It has become the dominant narrative in curating, criticizing and appreciating art. All other readings are submitted.
“Removing the work patronizes the public. It is not a question of enjoying the various signs and meanings of the work, or even of appreciating it critically. Suddenly, the work is read as ‘immoral’.”
Sir Stanley’s most famous work, Resurrection, Cookham, had previously been reinterpreted by Tate Britain with a new label which said its depiction of a black figure in the painting “reinforced racist stereotypes and divisions”.