On the Representation of Sexual Violence In Current Exhibitions

with Resources for Survivors and Supporters

BOSTON, August 2021

On August 12, 2021, the Isabella Gardner Museum opens a suite of three exhibitions: Titian: Women, Myth & Power; Body Language: Barbara Kruger; and The Rape of Europa: Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley. The foundation for these exhibitions is the Gardner’s Rape of Europa, one of the most iconic Renaissance artworks in America, painted by Venetian artist Titian in 1562 and acquired by the museum’s founder in 1896. Depicting the sensual mythological heroine Europa on the back of Jupiter (assuming the form of a bull), the painting is a stunning example of the artist’s technique. However, as the title suggests, the painting depicts the titular character’s abduction and (eventual) rape. As noted in the Titian exhibition Gallery Guide (See section entitled “Violence and Power”), like The Rape of Europa, Titian’s other poesie, or painted poems, depict stories of sexual violence and coercion--themes not uncommon to Renaissance artists. 

Two contemporary exhibitions were commissioned to respond to Titian’s paintings and address similar themes. On the museum’s Ann H. Fitzpatrick Façade, Body Language: Barbara Kruger is a provocative image of two overlapping bodies using a detail from Titian’s painting Diana and Actaeon. In the film The Rape of Europa: Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, on view in the Fenway Gallery, Europa is given agency and voice using sexually explicit language and imagery that purposely contrast with Titian’s erotic depictions of the female body. Intended to be confrontational, these contemporary works may offend some viewers. 

Why would the Gardner present exhibitions centered around Titian’s Rape of Europa and its story of sexual violence? In presenting these exhibitions, the Gardner does not condone this violence, nor suggest that gender discrimination and sexual assault live in the annals of history alone. Rather, we ask audiences to consider what Titian’s paintings meant in their time and what they mean today, and to confront the persistent issue of sexual assault. 

The Gardner Museum was founded by an art collector, philanthropist, and patron of the arts who defied the conventions for women in 19th-century Boston high society. As stewards of her legacy, we explore the complex stories of the extraordinary collection she bequeathed the community and seek to demonstrate its continued relevance. We also share our founder’s commitment to contemporary artists, this season engaging with artists who are influenced by the feminist movement and cultural critique, and in their work challenge the portrayal and objectification of women in art and society.

We recognize that sexual violence is far too prevalent in our own society. Through our artistic projects and collaborations, we support efforts to educate ourselves and others about issues of gender and sexual discrimination and assault. Sexual and gender-based violence are a threat to the health, safety, and security of people of all gender identities and sexual identities, but disproportionately affect women and girls worldwide. One 2018 study¹ showed that 81% of women (self-identified as cisgender women) in the United States have experienced some form of sexual harassment and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. 27% of women are survivors of sexual assault. Sexual assaults are the most prevalent crimes in the United States, but also the most underreported. 

To better prepare our audiences for the themes addressed in this season’s exhibitions and programs, we worked with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC), the only comprehensive rape crisis center in the Greater Boston area and the oldest and largest center of its kind in New England. BARCC’s mission is to end sexual violence through healing and social change and they are recognized as a national leader in this work. With their guidance, we created content notes to alert visitors to potentially triggering themes in the exhibitions. This allows viewers to make an informed decision about whether they feel comfortable engaging with content about sexual violence and assault. 

Additionally, we offer the following resources, recommended by the team at BARCC, for survivors of sexual violence and their supporters, and for all those who want to take action:

We invite you to access these resources, and the exhibition resources available on our website, and to reflect, learn, and discuss with others. Share your responses to the exhibitions on the interactive Art Wall on the first floor outside of the Bertucci Education Studio and visit our calendar for a full suite of programs, spanning topics of art conservation to ancient mythology to contemporary discussions of agency and power. 


¹ 2018 Study on Sexual Harassment and Assault | Stop Street Harassment