Museum flaps nothing new

Way Back When

Protest: In 1955, an `obscene' museum exhibit in Baltimore was pulled by the mayor. It had all the emotion, if none of the elephant dung, of the current New York exhibit.

October 09, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani certainly has kicked up a firestorm of controversy with his declaration that the Brooklyn Museum of Art's current exhibition, "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection," is "sick stuff," and that a multimillion-dollar subsidy to the museum will be withheld.

In 1955, Baltimore Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. was both praised and denounced by critics after he ordered local artist Glenn F. Walker's painting, "In a Room," which showed a nude man and woman lying on a bed, removed from the Peale Museum's "Life in Baltimore exhibit."

The mayor explained his actions by simply saying that the painting was "obscene" and "morally objectionable."

While the Sunpapers took up the cause of Walker while denouncing the mayor's censorship, it also refused to publish a photograph of the painting that had turned the artist into a cause celebre, brought nationwide attention to Baltimore and eventually forced D'Alesandro to defend himself against a slander suit.

The picture is tame by today's standards and probably was even in the Baltimore of the 1950s.

"It's a picture of boredom," said Walker in a 1975 interview with The Sun. "I was thinking about the guy smoking in bed. That's the only thing I ever saw obscene about it -- the guy was smoking a cigarette on a straw bed."

Walker said he thought the controversy was rooted in the actions of the Catholic League of Decency.

"From what I know about it," he said in the interview, "the Catholic League of Decency supposedly got on the mayor's back because there was an `obscene' painting at the Peale Museum. He went to see it and ordered it taken off the wall."

The painting was placed for safekeeping in the office of Wilbur H. Hunter Jr., the Peale Museum's director, who willingly showed it to visitors who requested a look.

Explaining himself before a meeting of the Peale trustees, D'Alesandro said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I wish to make it clear at the outset that I do not regard myself as an art critic nor do I regard myself as a self-appointed censor for the city of Baltimore."

He said that in his role as mayor, he had the "responsibility to the hundreds of thousands of Baltimore children who are entitled to grow up in a moral atmosphere."

D'Alesandro couldn't resist a jab at the Sunpapers.

"Since the publicity started over this incident, the Baltimore Sun sent a photographer to the museum and took a photograph of the painting," he said. "However, it has not published that photograph. Despite the lively interest displayed in the news columns.

"Should the city government display in a public museum a picture which a family newspaper will not or dare not publish? I say we should not."

Hunter, the Peale Museum director, blamed the Sunpapers as the source of the whole controversy. "The first person who saw that painting and complained about it was a reporter for The Sun," Hunter said in a 1975 interview.

The Sun reported that "the museum director said that The Sun was looking for an issue with which to bludgeon Mayor D'Alesandro and seized upon this allegedly pornographic painting. But the mayor got wind of the adverse publicity on its way and launched a pre-emptive strike of his own -- he stormed the museum and ordered the painting removed."

"That's the real story," said Hunter, who later testified under oath at the mayor's slander trial.

Walker filed a $7,500 suit against D'Alesandro for slander and breach of contract. The suit was thrown out, brought back to life by the Court of Appeals, and then tossed out for good in 1957.

The avalanche of letters to the editor on the subject stimulated Baltimore poet Amy Grief to write:

Though not a peeper, nor a gawker,

We saw that picture by Glenn Walker,

About which, now, opinions rage,

By critic, politician, sage,

We quickly hied us hence, from thence.

In our vain intellectual quest,

For we remained quite unimpressed,

If you ask US, we're bound to shout --

"Oh Gosh! WHAT'S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT???"

The painting was later purchased by Bernard A. "Ben" Adler, owner of Bolton Hill's famed Eagle Tavern, now torn down. The painting later decorated the walls of Adler's Tyson Place Restaurant and after his death in 1972, it is believed that his widow took the painting with her to her new home in Florida.

Walker died in 1988. He was 60.

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