You’d have thought that an artistic output which consisted largely of naked children might have raised suspicion – obviously not. Ovenden has recently been found guilty of child abuse – one of his most avid fans is Lord McAlpine …
Via The Guardian:
Tastes change. In art as in clothes, the cool new thing of today may look repellent and absurd in the future. The art of Graham Ovenden is an extreme case in which new attitudes have made yesterday’s hip romanticism look deeply worrying and bizarre.
In the early 1970s, when Ovenden made pictures such as Little Lorraine, a black and white nude portrait of a child, or his psychedelically coloured images of Alice in Wonderland – to mention some of his 34 works in the Tate collection – the Rolling Stones were recording Exile on Main Street, Syd Barrett was unreeling his mind in Cambridge and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was scaring the suburbs. It was a time of self-conscious decadence, as hippiedom turned inward.
Ovenden’s art might have been invented for an early Ian McEwan story of soured libertarianism set in these years. His pictures reject the forward-looking art movements of the 1960s in favour of an ironic Victorianism; they recreate the look of pre-Raphaelite photography which in turn licenses – if you accept their retro logic – some frank child nudity.
In high Victorian times Charles Dodgson, author of the Alice books under his pen name Lewis Carroll, took photographs of little girls that are arguably as sexually troubling as those staged by Ovenden. The pre-Raphaelite photographer Julia Margaret Cameron also took bold pictures of young models. Ovenden is an expert on these photographers – his books on early photography include his 1973 work, Victorian Erotic Photography.
It was not just the decadent atmosphere of the 1970s that engendered his serious artistic reputation. He made an intelligent appeal to some big art critical ideas.
This was a confused and confusing moment in the history of art. Modernism was dying. The last extremes of abstraction looked arid and futile. Anything that brought back narrative and depiction and meaning was exciting to museums and collectors. Ovenden was a star of the dawning post-modern age. He was hugely rated: for comparison, Tate owns five works by Turner prize winner Douglas Gordon against its 34 Ovendens. Private collectors including former Conservative party treasurer Lord McAlpine coveted his works.
In 1975 Ovenden, along with Peter Blake among others, founded the Brotherhood of Ruralists, an avowedly regressive art group. At a time of disillusion with the modern, his cocktail of interests – the countryside, where his rambling estate was according to him an Edenic paradise, the quirky 19th-century origins of photography and, er, little girls – had a strikingly defiant and eccentric flavour that in its day seemed intriguing and English.
Today, it is hard not to see the dark side of this Englishness, whatever the truth may be about his personal life or the circumstances in which the works were created. His project to illustrate Nabokov’s novel Lolita invites comparison with one of the most florid sexual imaginations in modern literature. Nabokov appears to have sublimated a sexual fascination with children into a literary style of opulent brilliance. Ovenden’s Lolita drawings, however, seem quite baldly and openly sexual in a way that dares the onlooker to accuse him of something.
It is the quite crude sexual suggestiveness of some of Ovenden’s pictures that now poisons them as art. Nowadays, we don’t take that lightly. Ovenden’s success in earlier decades shows how profoundly times and values have changed. No one can ever have looked at his pictures of children and failed to see their flirtation with sexualising the young. But once upon a time no one thought it mattered so very much.