It's Rubens v Facebook in fight over artistic nudity

Museums in Belgium are protesting because promoting Flemish Masters falls foul of the social network's adult content rules and automatic censorship

The opulent, exuberant nudes of Peter Paul Rubens have been evoking both shock and delight for four centuries and now, in 2018, his Baroque paintings are causing controversy on the internet.

Museums in Belgium are uniting in protest against Facebook because they cannot promote Flemish Masters including Rubens as they fall foul of the social media site’s adult content rules and automatic censorship.

“The bare breasts and buttocks painted by our artist are considered by you to be inappropriate. We have noticed that Facebook consistently rejects works of art by our beloved Peter Paul Rubens,” more than a dozen top Belgian art officials wrote to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.

Belgium Art Nudity
Visitors look at Adam And Eve by Flemish Master Peter Paul Rubens in the Rubenshouse in Antwerp, Belgium (Olivier Matthys/AP)

The Visit Flanders tourist board has even produced a mock news video where security officials prevent visitors from seeing nudity in the Rubens House museum.

In one scene an official spreads his arms in front of the Adam And Eve painting, in which the biblical figures are covered only by the proverbial fig leaf, instead diverting them to other paintings where everyone is properly dressed.

Point made, they hope.

“Twenty percent of the (Facebook) posts that we dedicated to the Flemish Masters couldn’t be shown to our audience, our cultural audience worldwide,” said Visit Flanders spokeswoman Tama d’Haen.

“It’s really embarrassing for Visit Flanders that we cannot show one of our main assets to the world. That’s why we came up with the idea of a video,” she added.

Belgium Art Nudity
The Martyrdom Of St Andrew by Peter Paul Rubens in the Rubenshouse in Antwerp (Olivier Matthys/AP)

Facebook said it understands the issues.

Even if it allows paintings like those from Rubens to be posted, it has more restrictive rules when it comes to advertising which “must not contain adult content. This includes nudity, depictions of people in explicit or suggestive positions, or activities that are overly suggestive or sexually provocative.”

The rules go on to say that it includes “nudity or implied nudity, even if artistic or educational in nature”.

And that is where Rubens and other Masters get caught in the act.

Ms D’Haen said they want Facebook to “make a difference between nudity in general, pornographic nudity, which is of course not allowed on their platform, and the nudity which is part of many paintings hanging in Flanders and worldwide”.

She said museum visitors never complain about feeling shocked at coming face to face with the nudity.

She said both sides have already agreed to a meeting to discuss it more in detail.

Belgium Art Nudity
The restored Peter Paul Rubens self-portrait from 1628 in the Rubenshouse in Antwerp, Belgium (Olivier Matthys/AP)

Facebook wrote in a statement to the Associated Press on Friday that “as part of a longer-running and continuous review process, we want to make sure that museums and other institutions are able to share some of their most iconic paintings”.

“We are thus currently reviewing our approach to nudity in paintings in ads on Facebook,” the statement said.

The censorship would not be unfamiliar to Rubens. When he was painting, the Roman Catholic church asked him to paint loincloths over body parts of his Venus figures, although he preferred the natural concourse of muscle, skin, and fat.

Belgium Art Nudity
Rubens’ painting The Raising Of The Cross, on display in the Our Lady Cathedral in Antwerp, Belgium (Olivier Matthys/AP)

It was always thus, said Paolo Grossi, director and area co-ordinator of the Italian Cultural Institute in Brussels.

“Everyone knows the story of Il Braghettone, the famous Daniele da Volterra who was asked to paint loincloths over Michelangelo’s nudes in the Last Judgment,” in the papal Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, Mr Grossi said.

If that was prompted by moral concerns, Mr Grossi wondered if Facebook was now driven “by the need to deliver a politically correct message … and comply with Facebook’s ad and business model to avoid any ripples”.

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