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Works of art that are “offensive”

In the summer of 2020, during the months of deregulation of the epidemic in the UK, I went to several places in England and Wales. Among them, I deliberately revisited Plas Newydd on Anglesey Island in North Wales. The last time I visited was two years ago. Now due to the epidemic restrictions on the number of people in the park, the park is very deserted. The most regrettable thing is that the mansion in the park is closed to tourists. I have not been able to revisit the most famous attraction of the new park: restaurant wall On the wall.

This 20-meter-long mural is the work of British painter Rex Whistler, who was specially invited to paint by the 6th Marquis of Anglesey. During the creation period, Whistler also had a fruitless relationship with the eldest daughter of the Marquis, Caroline. This story was the subject of my first article for “Watch the World” magazine.

Whistler was in the news a while ago, related to his other famous work: a mural for the Tate Britain restaurant in London, which was recently ruled as “offensive.”

Whistler was already well-known before creating the murals in the New Garden. In 1926, when he was a student in the art school, he was selected by the Tate Gallery to create murals for the newly renovated restaurant. It took him a year and a half to complete the mural titled “A Hunting Journey in Search of Rare and Delicious Food”.

The mural shows a hunting team’s journey in search of rare delicacies in a fictional duchy called Epicurania. The hunting team passed through the beautiful scenery, encountered various rare birds and animals, and finally returned with a full load.

Whistler used two different methods: painting directly on the wall and painting on a canvas and then pasting it on the wall. The style is the same as the later Xinyuan murals, combining realistic scenes with mythological characters. After the restaurant opened at the end of 1927, customers continued to flock, but more than a month later, severe flooding occurred in London, and the Tate Gallery, located on the banks of the Thames, was flooded, and the restaurant was located in the basement of the art gallery. But I didn’t expect the murals to be intact. It turned out that in order to protect the work from the influence of food, tobacco and alcohol in the restaurant, Whistler specially added a layer of paint to the painting, which helped the mural survive the flood accidentally.

Up to now, the purpose of this restaurant has never changed, and admiring the murals while dining has always been its selling point. However, the fate of the mural in the future is quite unclear. The reason is that the ethics committee of the Tate Gallery received a complaint and ruled that the mural was “offensive”: there are two parts showing a black slave with his hands tied up. The scene of people being led by ropes, and the images of several Chinese people seem to be demonized. As a restaurant facing the public, these details make the “offensive” of the painting more serious.

The Tate Gallery has actually added explanatory text to this mural in the past few years, explaining that the image of slaves in the painting is a legacy of the artist’s era, but according to the strict ruling of the Ethics Committee, just add an explanation. Obviously it is not enough. The restaurant is currently closed due to the new crown epidemic, but after the epidemic has passed, it is estimated that diners will not be able to enjoy this “offensive” mural while eating.

It is obviously not feasible to remove the murals, and it is impossible to manage and technically do it. The only feasible way seems to be to change the restaurant into an exhibition hall, but in fact there are problems with this: Is it completely open or restricted? If tourists flock to watch the “offensive” part, is it completely counterproductive?

In the history of world art, there are many “offensive” works, but because of the special location of this mural, how to deal with it becomes very tricky. I hope the Tate Gallery can be creative and find a compromise solution. When I went to the Tate Gallery last time, I was too rushed to have a meal. I also thought that next time I would have the opportunity to enjoy this piece of Whistler with my own eyes. I hope it will not become my permanent regret.

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