Banned Books Week
Celebrating the Freedom to Read
September 27–October 4, 2008
How are you celebrating Banned Books Week? Observed during the last week of September each year since 1982, the American Library Association event reminds Americans and other interested people not to take this precious democratic freedom for granted.
Reflecting upon the fact that one of the books that is counted amongst the top 100 Banned Books is D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover led me to recall a visit La Fonda de Taos in Taos, New Mexico approximately ten years ago. Outside of the lobby door of the hung a wooden sign bearing the words:
My curiosity was piqued; for the paltry sum of one dollar, I gained entry into the hotel manager’s office where the paintings were unceremoniously hung alongside numerous photographs and correspondence from “The British Crown.”
Prior to my trip to Taos, I was familiar with Lawrence the writer, but was blissfully unaware of his experience as a painter. It has been suggested Lawrence's desire to paint was due to his growing disenchantment with words and his sense that language was too civilized to convey the rawness of emotional depth. Additionally, he apparently felt a need to provoke the viewer, not just in words, but in images, for as he wrote to one friend: 'I put a phallus in each one of my pictures somewhere. And I paint no picture that won't shock people's castrated social spirituality. I do this out of positive belief, that the phallus is a great sacred image: it represents a deep, deep life which has been denied in us, and is still denied'.
The story of how Lawrence’s paintings came to reside in Taos, in my opinion, is an interesting tale – one that makes us examine our own social prejudices and re-examine what is truly offensive to the spirit. On 15 June 1929, approximately 20 oil paintings and watercolors by D.H. Lawrence debuted as a one-man exhibition at the Warren Gallery in London, England. Although many of the paintings were inspired by Biblical scenes and mythology, (ie. A Holy Family, Boccaccio Story, Fight With an Amazon, Leda and the Swan and Under the Mango Tree), many (if not most) of the paintings reflected unabashed nudity. As D.H. Lawrence’s book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, had already been declared obscene in the UK , the exhibition drew additional attention and complaints condemning the work as “an outrage upon decency.” No less than 12,000 visitors viewed the paintings prior to the authorities confiscating thirteen of Lawrence’s paintings, and ultimately forced the Warren Gallery to close.
Paradoxically, when Lawrence’s paintings were censored he responded not with anguish,as when Lady Chatterley's Lover was proscribed, but with a satire of 'Innocent England':
'Oh what a pity, Oh! Don't you agree that figs aren't found in the land of the free! Fig trees don't grow in my native land; There's never a fig-leaf near at hand When you want one; so I did without; And that is what the row's about'
Despite this, he did not want the works to languish in obscurity, or to "be burned". Therefore, after much notoriety, the prosecution and defense counsel final arrived at a compromise by which the paintings were returned to Lawrence on the condition that they would never be exhibited in England again. The paintings were subsequently shipped to the United States, where they have remained since that fateful decision in March 1930.
Some of the paintings are at the University of Texas, Austin, but nine of the thirteen paintings landed in the hotel in Taos. Frieda Lawrence returned to Taos a few years after her husband’s death with her Italian lover, Angelo Ravagli, who became her husband in 1950. After Frieda died in August 1956, Ravagli sold the nine oil paintings to Saki Karavas, a Greek expatriate, art collector, and hotelier of La Fonda de Taos. Karavas, an avid Lawrence fan, hung the paintings in his office at the hotel, amongst stacks of papers, boxes stacked high, and general disarray. Saki. never would disclose what he paid for Lawrence’s paintings and, though he received many generous offers over the years, he refused to sell them. When I visited the “office/Gallery”, there was a copy of a correspondence that had been exchanged between Karavas and Her Magesty’s Government, requesting the return of the paintings to Britain contending the paintings were “National Treasures”. His clever response was to offer to trade the paintings for the return of the Elgin marbles to Greece. Needless to say, both the paintings and the Elgin Marbles remained unmoved. Unmarried, Karavas left the paintings and the hotel to the five children of long-time friends, George and Cordelia Sahd.’ at the time of his death in 1996. I am advised that after the death of Karavas, Lawrence’s paintings were dispersed, although I haven't been able to confirm this inforation.
As a writer, Lawrence followed the principle advocated by Saul Bellow's Augie March that "everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining". I suspect that as a painter, he saw things quite similarly, especially as he held William Blake in great esteem because of the visionary quality of his poetry and paintings. Blake was a notable exception in Lawrence’s view, and it is my opinion that he sought to emulate Blake’s prophetic spirit in his artistic works.
In his essay, "Introduction to these Paintings", Lawrence held that the reason why the British and the Americans produce so few Old Masters is because, "The fault, lies in the English attitude to life. The English, and the Americans following them, are paralysed by fear. That is what thwarts and distorts the Anglo-Saxon existence, this paralysis of fear... It is an old fear, which seemed to dig into the English soul at the time of the Renaissance. Nothing could be more lovely and fearless than Chaucer. But already Shakespeare is morbid with fear, fear of consequences."
Alluding to matters of sex, and the impact of Puritanism, Lawrence argued, "Vision became more optical, less intuitive... look at England! Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough, they are all already bourgeois. The coat is really more important than the man. It is amazing how important clothes suddenly become, how they cover the subject..."
Whether one is reading Lawrence or viewing his paintings today, it is hard to evoke the passion the works once induced amongst the public outcry concerning obscenity. Certainly, there are hints of lubricous behavior to act as a pied piper for the mind, but in our jaded society even Lawrence would be shocked to discover that nudity isn’t enough today to scandalize the general public nor has it reduced our fear of inspired and creative spirits.
The contemporary visionary John F. Kennedy held, " If this nation is to be wise as well as strong, if we are to achieve our destiny, then we need more new ideas for more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries. These libraries should be open to all --- except the censor. We must know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms. Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors. For the Bill of Rights is the guardian of our security as well as our liberty."