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Contemporary art scandalises newspapers but, as Ronald Pickvance noted in 1963, even Degas was misunderstood by the British press.

This year London's Saatchi Gallery marks its 30th anniversary. Younger readers may struggle to imagine how the institution, now comfortably installed in a listed Georgian building off the King's Road, could once have inspired public anger and media wrath. As recently as 2001, a show of Tierney Gearon's photographs at the gallery was described by the News of the World as 'a revolting exhibition of perversion under the guise of art' and visited by police officers from Scotland Yard's obscene publications unit. But four years ago, the News of the World closed down in a blaze of scandal while the Saatchi continues to thrive.

Shifts from periphery to mainstream, together with the ability of journalists to whip up popular indignation, are regular occurrences in the art world, as was noted by Ronald Pickvance in the May 1963 issue of Apollo. The focus of his attention was Degas' LAbsinthe (1873) and the outrage it occasioned when shown in the inaugural exhibition of the Grafton Gallery in 1893.

As Pickvance points out, what made the brouhaha especially surprising was that the painting had been in Britain since 1876 when it was shown in Brighton with the title A Sketch at a French Cafe. A local critic then judged the work the 'perfection of ugliness: undoubtedly a clever painting, though treated in a slap-dash manner, amounting to affectation'. The objection on that occasion, Pickvance observes, was aesthetic rather than moral, the reverse of what would be the case some years later. However by 1876, Degas' picture had already entered the collection of his greatest English admirer Captain Henry Hill. Following the latter's death in 1892, it came up for sale at Christie's--with the new name Figures in a Cafe--and was bought for 180 [pounds sterling] by Glasgow art dealer Alexander Reid; he in turn sold the painting to fellow Scotsman Arthur Kay. It was Kay who lent the picture to the Grafton Gallery where it hung with a fresh title: L'Absinthe.

The change of name appears to have been the catalyst for the ensuing controversy, although initial critical response was respectful. In England, Pickvance comments, Degas had always been the most popular of modern French painters: in 1883 Frederick Wedmore who wrote for the Evening Standard called him 'the master of the Impressionist School, the man of genius, the inspirer of the whole party.' Thus when the Grafton Gallery show opened, L'Absinthe was deemed by the Glasgow Herald 'A picture showing great power of rendering character and a superb use of material', while according to The Star, the work was 'Grim in its realism, incomparable in its art.'

As is so often the case, problems began when someone unfamiliar with contemporary art decided to write on the subject, in this instance the popular journalist J.A. Spender whose vehicle was the Westminster Gazette. Tellingly this newspaper had only made its debut a month before the Grafton Gallery opened and was therefore in the process of seeking readers. Spender, who would become the Gazette's editor three years later, chose to adopt the high moral ground. 'If,' he pronounced, 'you have been taught to think that dignity of subject and the endeavour to portray a thing of beauty are of the essence of art, you will never be induced to consider "L'Absinthe" a work of art ...' Of course if you have been taught to think the essence of art is serving as a source of greeting-card illustration then Spender's words make perfect sense, as they did to the many of the Westminster Gazette's target audience. The row spread to other publications and writers, all eager to express an opinion on the merits or otherwise of modern art. Interestingly, comparisons were made between visual and literary media, with Degas designated the painterly equivalent of Emile Zola. Artist and establishment pillar William Blake Richmond declared L'Absinthe 'not a painting at all. It is a novelette--a treatise against drink. Everything valuable about it could have been done, and has been done, by Zola.' What began as the representation of Paris cafe life had been transformed through the imagination of certain influential observers into a tract on the evils of alcohol. Curiously the one person whose opinion remained unsought was Degas: according to Pickvance, he was appalled to find his work subjected to scrutiny by the English press.

Of course eventually the row blew over, just as it did at the Saatchi Gallery in 2001. As The Times critic wrote in 1893, 'Evolution in art is rapid in these days, but evolution in opinion about art is much more so.'
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Title Annotation:FROM THE ARCHIVES; Degas LAbsinthe
Author:O'Byrne, Robert
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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