Making the news this week is a marble sculpture of the Biblical figure Susanna carved by 19th century German artist Reinhold Begas. The figure, plundered by the Nazis from noted newspaper publisher Rudolf Mosse, who was Jewish and held in the Berlin State Museum, is now going back to the Mosse family. The untold story is the work itself.

The moral of the story

The story of Susanna, told in the Roman Catholic book of Daniel, is about a Hebrew woman in her bath spied on by two elders who threatened to charge her with promiscuity (punishable by death back in the day) if she didn’t have sex with them. She didn’t and was arrested until the false accusation was exposed and the elders were put to death.

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Moral of the story: virtue conquers evil.

Telling the whole story

Many artists have made this story the subject of their work, though usually with the pair of Peeping Toms in the picture, as in Peter Paul Rubens’ painting “Susanna and the Elders” and Francis Bossuit’s ivory carving of the same title. But others, particularly sculptors, have depicted the unclad Susanna as a stand-alone figure with no voyeurs in sight. And without that context, the figure ends up adding a second layer of voyeurism – that of the viewer. Without any allusion to the back story, the sight of Susanna in a state of undress leaves nothing for the viewer to ponder except her nude form.

Embellishing the story

Painter Thomas Hart Benton seemed to push the notion of prurience in his version of “Susanna and the Elders,” even with the inclusion of the ogling men with the addition of pubic hair to the figure and painting himself as one of the oglers.

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The painting so shocked Meyric Rogers, director of the City #Art Museum of St. Louis where it went on display in 1939 that he ordered the painting roped off to keep up close and personal viewing in check. “Much too nude,” he explained.

The end of the story

Benton also caused a stir with his painting “Persephone,” based on the ancient Greek myth that bears similarities to “Susanna.” What you see is a mythological goddess lying nude by a river while an old man (Hades) spies on her behind a tree. Again, Benton put himself in the picture, this time as the god of the underworld. And he further updated the tale by making the old man (him) a farmer and the setting an American farmland. So much for the allegorical nude. The Greek myth is completely lost and all that Benton pictures is an invasion of privacy. The painting so shocked Benton’s employer, the Kansas City Art Institute, that he lost his job over it. Community standards change, but the penal code holds that invasion of privacy is unlawful. Such an invasion in art can look a lot like pornography.