The Controversy of the Sensation Art Exhibition

January 7, 2020

It's been over 20 years since The Royal Academy's controversial Sensation exhibition that launched the careers of some of Britain's biggest artists. Taking place at a beloved British art institution, the debased, debauched and seriously upsetting artworks from the private collection of Charles Saatchi shocked the world.

About a decade earlier, after visiting Freeze in 1988 and becoming captivated by Hirst's first major animal installation, A Thousand Years, Charlies Saatchi set his sights on what would become Young British Art. Before that, the advertising mogul collected mostly American and German contemporary art, most by already established artists. Altering his focus to emerging British art, Saatchi became not only Hirst's main collector but also the main sponsor for other YBAs. He put on a series of shows called Young British Artists starting in 1992, bringing intense media coverage to these artists.

First exhibited in The Royal Academy in London in 1997, the Sensation art exhibition somehow certified the generational turnover that started with Freeze in 1988, demonstrating that the new British art was a fact and that it was ready to conquer the world. It attracted 300,000 people, while inspiring countless protests, resignations and tabloid columns. It shook the art world to the core, capturing the final stage of a historical time in British art.

Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection in New York, view of Jenny Saville and David Hirst in London
Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, October 02, 1999 through January 09, 2000, The Brooklyn Museum

The Sensation Art Exhibition

The Sensation exhibition in London included 110 works from 44 artists, bringing together creatives who not only worked in different artistic media but who also had few aesthetic or ideological positions in common. The themes to be found in the works in the show varied, from contemporary and pop culture, identity politics, to feminism, cultural diversity and racism, mortality, memory, class, and social criticism. However, the exhibition sought to define a generation of artists and their diverse artistic visions.

Among artists featured were Jake and Dinos ChapmanMat Collishaw, Keith CoventryTracey Emin, Damien HirstSarah Lucas, Martin Maloney, Chris OfiliMarc QuinnJenny Saville, Yinka ShonibareGavin Turk and Rachel Whiteread.

Many of the pieces in the show had already become famous with the British public, such as Damien Hirst's shark suspended in formaldehyde titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Tracey Emin's tent titled Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, Marc Quinn's self-portrait, a frozen head made from pints of his own blood, Sarah Lucas's explicitly sexual images and sculptures and Jenny Saville's abstract paintings of overwhelmingly fleshy female forms, but it was the first time that a wide audience had had the chance to see these works en masse.

The Royal Academy posted this disclaimer to visitors on entry:

There will be works of art on display in the Sensation exhibition which some people may find distasteful. Parents should exercise their judgment in bringing their children to the exhibition. One gallery will not be open to those under the age of 18.

Among the works in the adult-only gallery was the one by Jake and Dinos Chapman featuring child mannequins with grotesque genitalia grafted onto their heads.

After London, the show traveled to the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin in 1998, where it was extended by a month to accommodate visitors from all over central Europe, and to the Brooklyn Museum in New York in 1999.

Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection
Left and Right: Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, October 02, 1999 through January 09, 2000, The Brooklyn Museum

The Controversies

When the exhibition opened the season at the Royal Academy, the reception was wild, turning it into one of the most successful shows the institution has ever held. It also quickly caught the attention of TV news, newspapers and tabloids, with the latter expressing new levels of alarmist controversy. The BBC summed up the show as a collection of "gory images of dismembered limbs and explicit pornography".

The controversies surrounding the show were myriad. Many were shocked by the Chapmans’ porno-genetic sculptures, while others denounced the tent in which Tracey Emin had sewn the names of all the people she had slept with. However, it was one artwork that caused serious public outrage, resulting in protests and vandalization - Marcus Harvey’s Myra from 1995. Painted with the aid of a group of children's fingerprints, the work depicted the famous portrait of Myra Hindley, the infamous Moors infanticide.

Lead by Winnie Johnson, mother of one of Hindley’s victims, protests in front of the museum called for the removal of the work. After the organizers refused, some of the Royal Academy’s windows were smashed and two visitors managed to throw ink and eggs at Harvey’s painting, forcing it to undergo a quick restoration. There was strong opposition from within the Royal Academy too; three Academicians, Michael Sandle, Craigie Aitchison and Gillian Ayres, resigned in protest. An RA spokeswoman said:

It is true to say that the work in the exhibition has caused a sensation and shocked people, but we are not afraid to shock people. The public have said to us that they are internationally acclaimed artists and they should be shown. It has been very successful.

Two years later, when Sensation toured to the Brooklyn Museum, controversies continued. When announcing the exhibition, The Brooklyn Museum of Art Director Arnold L. Lehman described it as "reflective of the contemporary artistic energy and creativity in Great Britain," featuring "important work that provokes, challenges, and rewards the viewer". Two weeks before it opened, the Daily News ran an article headlined B’Klyn Gallery of Horror. Gruesome Museum Show Stirs Controversy describing the show as "R-rated' and brimful with 'animals sliced in half, and graphic paintings and sculptures of corpses and sexually mutilated bodies".

However, in the center of the controversies in New York was another painting - Christ Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary from 1996. It showed a Madonna decorated with resin-covered elephant dung and surrounded by small collaged images of female genitalia from pornographic magazines. In a press conference, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said the work offends him, adding that “the city shouldn't have to pay for sick stuff.”

What followed was the battle between Giuliani and Catholic groups on the one side and the Brooklyn Museum, backed by lawyer Floyd Abrams and many artists on the other, centering around whether the City could cut off funding to the museum over the controversial exhibition. The case went to court and a federal judge ruled against the Mayor and the City of New York. However, a month after the exhibition was opened, a 72-year-old retired schoolteacher from Manhattan vandalized the painting by smearing white paint across the canvas' surface.

Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection
Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, October 02, 1999 through January 09, 2000, The Brooklyn Museum

The Impact of the Show

According to the artist Martin Maloney, writing at the time of the exhibition, Sensation substantially mapped "the contribution of those participants who have added to the diversity of what art is and what it can say ... It has engaged and entertained an audience who find in it a reflection of their own pleasures, anxieties and phobias.”

At the same time lauded as epochal and derided as a mere publicity stunt, Sensation is one of the most infamous and controversial exhibitions of recent times. Nevertheless, it was an exhibition that had put British art on the map. Gregor Muir, author of Lucky Kunst: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art, wrote:

Nowhere has embraced contemporary art in quite the same way Britain has. Everyone from cab drivers to politicians was talking about a group of young artists. It felt like an opening up of art. Suddenly it wasn’t elitist.

At the same time, Sensation was one of the key exhibitions leading the way to more contemporary art at major museums, preparing the ground for the public excitement around the opening of Tate Modern in 2000. It was also the first show that brought not only art but the artists who made it out of the margins, turning them into celebrities of sorts. While it announced a new era for British artists, few have managed to scale the same dizzy heights since.

Sensations at the Brooklyn Museum in New York

  Editors’ Tip: Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection

Sensation features the work of forty-two of the most exciting and radical artists working in Britain today. Many of them--such as Jenny Saville, Rachel Whiteread, or Jake & Dinos Chapman--are already internationally acclaimed; others are destined to be. The book's original and penetrating essays include the critical context of their work and trace the phenomenon of the British art scene since "Freeze," the 1988 exhibition that is now recognized as a defining moment in the story of British art. Cutting through tabloid headlines, controversial press coverage, and art-world debate, Sensation reveals the achievements of young British artists and the role played by courageous and imaginative patronage.

Featured images: Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, October 02, 1999 through January 09, 2000. Images via Brooklyn Museum.

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