In the wake of a decision by Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli to cover up the bare-breasted woman on the Virginia state seal, officials at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond are concerned that Cuccinelli will next turn his attention to the museum and its collection. Cuccinelli’s interest in the state’s seal was first reported by Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot newspaper. Cuccinelli is a right-wing Republican best known for questioning President Obama’s citizenship and for ending protections for gays and lesbians at Virginia universities.
The Virginian-Pilot reported on May 1 that Cuccinelli had modified the state’s seal — which was designed in 1776 by a four-man committee consisting of Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, George Wythe and Robert Carter Nicholas. The seal features a classical-inspired image intended as a clear departure from a British-style coat of arms. In a reference to the colonies’ separation from Great Britain, the seal shows a bare-breasted female figure, intended to signify virtue, standing victorious over a male figure meant to personify tyranny. According to the Virginian-Pilot, Cuccinelli recently distributed lapel pins to his staff that feature Virtus with her torso covered by a breastplate.
The timing is especially difficult for the VMFA, which re-opened last weekend after a $150 million expansion that makes it America’s 14th-largest art museum. The new VMFA has more gallery space than the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Seattle Art Museum or the J. Paul Getty Museum. Its collections of French art deco, south Asian and African art are among the nation’s best. The VMFA also has particular strength in European painting, modern art, American art and in Faberge objects. The VMFA is effectively the state of Virginia’s art museum and describes itself as state-supported but privately endowed, a phrase that is believed to concern Cuccinelli.
Museum officials think that Cuccinelli may be outraged by numerous works in the museum’s collection. “Certainly our first worry is how the attorney general will react to our Artemisia Gentileschi, Venus and Cupid (ca. 1625-30, above),” VMFA director Alex Nyerges said. “We held a meeting and decided our best bet was to call Hirshhorn director Richard Koshalek and to ask him to send some of his staff to Richmond. We understand they’re experienced at walking around a museum on request, so we’ll send them to to walk around the Gentileschi in the hopes of obscuring it from Cuccinelli’s view. We’re also having our staff study this turn-of-the-17th-century Italian suit of armor. As soon as possible, we’ll send our staff into our gift shop to draw breastplates onto posters of the Gentileschi. Same low price.”
Other works of concern to VMFA officials include Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude #35, a George Segal sculpture, and a Greek female figure from ca. 2400 BC. “Normally we’d date the Greek figure to ca. 2400 BCE, before the common era,” Nyerges said. “However, we know that Cuccinelli is a Catholic conservative, so we’ve re-dated it to ca. 2400 BC, before Christ.”
While those works just include bare breasts, Nyerges said that he realizes that Philip Pearlstein’s Two Models Reclining on a Cast-Iron Bed will likely outrage Cuccinelli. “Cuccinelli has said that homosexuality is ‘intrinsically wrong,’ and that it is offensive to ‘natural law,’” Nyerges said. “In this work of art, an oil-on-canvas that Pearlstein may have been talking about when he described the human body as a ‘constellation of still-life forms,’ two women are sharing a bed. Our research shows that Cuccinelli also said that homosexual ‘acts’ are a detriment to our culture. Well, we’re not sure if sharing a bed is an ‘act’ or not.”
A museum official suggested that the museum’s best hope of avoiding a problem with the attorney general was an approach suggested by John Ravenal, VMFA’s curator of modern and contemporary art and the president of the Association of Art Museum Curators. Ravenal said that he thinks a Henry Moore in VMFA’s collection, Reclining Figure (Exterior Form) might actually be a work that the museum can use to reach out to Cuccinelli. “It’s a reclining female nude,” Ravenal said. “But that’s not as ‘bad’ as it sounds. Instead of breasts, it just has holes where the breasts would be. There’s nothing for him to want to cover up, just the absence of two entire body parts.”
Late Monday night Cuccinelli’s office announced that it was discontinuing use of the new, toned-down seal. “That’s great,” Nyerges said. “Now maybe we can show him the Gentileschi and explain to him the erotic symbolism of Venus’ left hand playing with that flimsy bit of sheer wrap.”