“There will be works of art on display in the Sensation exhibition which some people may find distasteful. Parents should exercise their judgment in bringing their children to the exhibition. One gallery will not be open to those under the age of 18.”
This was the warning that greeted visitors to the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in September 1997. Many museumgoers would have already received a similar message from the media furore that erupted the moment this exhibition of young British artists opened. “The Royal Academy of Porn,” the Daily Maiil jibed, and The Sun asked its readers: “Why not simply hang a bucket of sewer water in the gallery? It would smell a lot sweeter than this monstrosity.”
EXHIBITION POSTER FOR SENSATION: YOUNG BRITISH ARTISTS FROM THE SAATCHI GALLERY
DESIGN: © WHY NOT ASSOCIATES PHOTOGRAPHY: © ROCCO REDONDO AND PHOTODISC
Criticism went beyond journalists’ barbs. The survey of 110 works by some of the most well-known artists of their generation, resulted in resignations from Royal Academicians, bricks hurled through the windows of the 230-year-old institution and eggs thrown at an artwork. When the show travelled to New York in 1999, Mayor Giuliani withdrew funding from the Brooklyn Museum, which hosted it. In Australia, Sensation was cancelled before it even arrived.
QUEUE IN FRONT OF THE ROYAL ACADEMY FOR THE EXHIBITION IMAGE: © SAATCHI GALLERY
Why was this exhibition so inflammatory? The works were selected from the holdings of Charles Saatchi, the advertising executive and art collector who had become the de facto patron for the loose group that would become known as the Young British Artists, or YBAs: Damien Hirst, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Chris Ofili and Marc Quinn. Many of the works were provocative: Mat Collishaw’s Bullet Hole, a huge, close-up photograph of a bullet in a head, Marcus Harvey’s large-scale portrait of the child murderer Myra Hindley, and Tracey Emin’s embroidered tent Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, and Jenny Saville’s Shift, depicting nude female bodies. Saville’s now-iconic painting will be offered in Sotheby’s upcoming Contemporary Evening sale.
JENNY SAVILLE, SHIFT, 1996-97.
The art world cognoscenti admired the YBAs for pushing art in an invigoratingly different direction but for members of the public, encountering deliberately shocking work was a challenging experience – not that they stayed away. Nearly 3,000 people a day visited the show during its three-month run in London, making it one of the most popular exhibitions in the history of the Royal Academy.
SENSATION: YOUNG BRITISH ARTISTS FROM THE SAATCHI GALLERY AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY OF ARTS, LONDON, 1997 IMAGE: © SAATCHI GALLERY ARTWORK: © DAMIEN HIRST AND SCIENCE LTD. / © JAKE AND DINOS CHAPMAN. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, DACS
In the ensuing decades, the YBAs became established figures, enjoying exhibitions at major international museums as well as extraordinary commercial success. Many of its artists, including Saville, Emin, Fiona Rae and Gary Hume, have since been elected Royal Academicians, and are now actively involved in the running of the institution that took a gamble in showing them only two decades ago. Revealing the forceful new art of its time, its irreverent energy and incorrigible fearlessness, Sensation has proved prescient – and lived up to its name.
Lily Le Brun is an arts and culture writer based in London. She has written for publications including Sunday Times Style, the Financial Times, Frieze, The Economist and Apollo.
The Contemporary Art Evening Auction is in London on 28 June