The Exhibition Sensation

Subject: Art
Type: Critical Analysis Essay
Pages: 5
Word count: 1118
Topics: Art History, Painting, Postmodern


Sensational art was first showcased as the British Royal Academy of Arts between 18th September 1997 and 28th December 1997. The artwork was a demonstration of the works of Charles Saatchi and a group of artists, collectively referred to as the Young British Artists. Indeed, the nature of the art in display at the time set the precedence for a new category of artwork, collectively referred to as the era of sensational art. It brought to light a new approach to explication of the British way of life as well as the pre-existent culture in the 20th century. Most of the art was controversial and indeed, reminiscent of pseudo-distasteful work that generally had little to do with the 1990s and more of the medieval era, a century earlier. One of these pieces of art that was deemed rather controversial was the Garden of Earthly Delights by Norman Rosenthal (While 2003).

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As the exhibitions continued to demonstrate and spark different reactions, so did they continue to gain audience in galleries in other parts of the country and even across the world. Soon, the exhibitions were showcased in London, then in New York City and later in Berlin and Australia. British art was demonstrated in a rather explicit way, much to the distaste of many. Nonetheless, the artists continued to develop and showcase their pieces for most of the 1990s. While it may be lost to imagination the actual message intended with the nudity, there was a strong message on the contemporary problems that plagued society. The rather naked images of the visual objects and personalities displayed demonstrated a part of society that could not be avoided; the nudity of the reality that society was evil and rotten at the time (Stallabrass 1999).

Artwork from the Sensations

Charles Saatchi was the main artwork collector and contributor behind the sensation era in Britain. His works formed a majority of the paintings at the Royal Academy of Arts as well as in most other galleries across Europe and America. Saatchi’s work was however faced with a lot of challenges. He was condemned for the desecrated painting of the Holy Virgin Mary, the various naked paintings and indeed, the infamous Myra painting. Saatchi’s painting of the Virgin Mary never faced significant condemnation in Europe. However, in the United States’ Brooklyn Museum, the painting was controversially rebuked and taken down within hours of the gallery. Although Charles had not done the work, the fact that he had acquired the painting at a high cost surprised many New Yorkers.  It was said to have been a desecrated version with cow dung smeared among other atrocities. The then New York Mayor called it “sick stuff” (Welchman 2001).

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Saatchi faced condemnation in Australia as well, by the time the gallery showcasing was due, since it was financed mainly by collectors. The art work mainly failed to get significant sponsorship due to the nature of the paintings. Most of them were deemed to be offensive and indeed unpopular among many gallery owners. Paintings by Marcus Harvey and Sarah Lucas were also very unpopular among many galleries in the rest of the cities they were displayed, other than in Berlin, London and Oxford. The paintings were very explicit and very large as well. They represented a different British culture from the prevailing nineties, yet represented the artists from the 1990s as being bold and detailed in their artwork. This form of expressionism had not been seen in England before. This is why these images greatly caught many gallery owners by surprise (While 2003).


The exhibitions of ‘the Sensation’ led to an era of renaissance in British art. Explicit artworks were used to represent a better version of ancient British artwork and forms. The artwork represented a period of medieval Europe that was immensely under-reported at the time. The era was reminiscent of the societal view of different aspects of life, from a medieval point of view. Paintings with the title; Blood Must Continue to Flow, the images of severed limbs and the Olympia were all difficult to watch images that were painted with utmost precision. The major reality in the artwork was that it did not demonstrate anything positive about society; but the effects of war. Indeed, the paintings all depict a society full of war, violence and religious desecrations such as the defaced figurine of the Holy Virgin Mary. The concern indeed became that there was less commitment to peace and stability and society was majorly focused on war (Stallabrass 2006).

Britain in the 1990s as seen from the Sensations is one that was very fragile and politically unstable. Many persons were indeed involved in many heinous crimes as demonstrated in the paintings. Cases of prostitution and slavery are also demonstrated clearly. The paintings depict a possibility of atheism, and little regard for religion. The paintings may have been made out of old pictures and demonstrations. However, indeed, the fact that they were well received in Britain means that society greatly embraced this message. The different reactions the sensations had in the different cities and countries across Europe only go to show how different other cultures and communities were from the European culture. Indeed, the representation of British culture from the images cannot be understated or taken lightly. The fall of the sensations marked an era of change and modernization of British art. This showed that indeed, there was a lot of investment in the sensations (While 2003).


The sensations marked a defining moment in British art, more than 18 years after the Freeze. Regardless, the controversy that markets the showcasing of these art forms across different parts of the world proved that indeed, the world had a different opinion of art from that of the British. Generally, it was an unexpected collection. It showcased nudity, death by decapitation and other medieval characteristics (Stallabrass 1999). These were majorly from the Kingdom wars. However, the history of the British empire was well laid out for the world to see. It was one of general explicit paintings and cruel treatment of dissenting voices. Various persons who had caused horrific incidents in society were painted as well. True to the name of the collection, ‘sensations’ indeed caused significant sensations among many who viewed the paintings. The messages passed as well as the paintings made that were an affront to society was greatly rebuked especially in America. However, the general feeling was that there was a great demonstration of ancient life in the United Kingdom (Adams, et al 1997). Although most of the paintings were archived in many museums across the world, they are not among popular paintings due to the message passed by the paintings.

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  1. Adams, B., Jardine, L., Maloney, M., Rosenthal, N. and Shone, R., 1997. Sensation: young British artists from the Saatchi Collection. Thames and Hudson.
  2. Stallabrass, J., 1999. High art lite: British art in the 1990s. Verso.
  3. Stallabrass, J., 2006. High art lite. The rise and fall of Young British Art.(revised and expanded edition). London: Verso.
  4. Welchman, J.C., 2001. Art after Appropriation: Essays on Art in the 1990s. Psychology Press.
  5. While, A., 2003. Locating art worlds: London and the making of young British art. Area, 35(3), pp.251-263
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