Portrait of Ms Ruby May, Standing by Leena McCall Photograph: Leena McCall
by Rowan Pelling
You might think that in an art world that encompasses the Chapman brothers’ phallus-nosed children and Jeff Koons’ lascivious studies of La Cicciolina (sample title: “Dirty Jeff On Top”), you would have to sweat blood to produce a work so offensively sexual it would be ejected from a top London gallery.
This, however, was the fate meted out to Leena McCall’s Portrait of Ms Ruby May, Standing, which was removed from the Society of Women Artists’ 153rd annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries after being deemed “disgusting” and “pornographic”.
When I tracked down the painting online I was so flummoxed as to the likely cause of disgust that I thought it must be the fact Ms May was depicted smoking a pipe.
Few things cause more umbrage now than someone wantonly enjoying tobacco. But further investigation revealed it was the way the sitter’s short waistcoat and undone breeches framed a luxuriant dark V of pubic hair – not to mention, the “Come hither, if you dare!” expression on May’s face, as she coolly scrutinises the viewer – that seemed to be the problem.
The painting smacks of Isherwood’s Berlin with its cabaret noir sensibility: Ruby May is a demi-clad femme fatale in pantomime boy’s clothing, channelling Liza Minnelli and EF Benson’s Quaint Irene – as alluring to women as she is to men.
You can just about see how it might épater la bourgeoisie, without feeling for a second any outrage is justified.
The Mall Galleries have issued the following statement: “As an educational arts charity, the federation has a responsibility to its trustees and to the children and vulnerable adults who use its galleries and learning centre.
After a number of complaints regarding the depiction of the subject and taking account of its location en route for children to our learning centre, we requested the painting was removed.”