A painting by Swiss artist Miriam Cahn went viral this past weekend after many on social media misconstrued it for an image of a sex act between a child and an adult.
The work, titled fuck abstraction !, was one of 200 on view in Cahn’s current exhibition at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo, one of her biggest shows to date. The survey followed her appearance in the Venice Biennale last summer.
Cahn’s work has regularly offered images of violence that provoke discomfort in viewers, with past paintings graphically depicting rapes that act as feminist critiques of the patriarchy and misuses of power. She has also centered wars in Bosnia, the Gulf, and elsewhere, often focusing her attention on people who are violated by those conflicts’ perpetrators.
Yet fuck abstraction !, which was intended as a protest against human rights crimes against the people of Ukraine, provoked controversy over something it did not actually portray.
The painting shows a muscular figure with an erect penis being fellated by a kneeling nude figure who is smaller and who has their hands bound. The muscular figure holds another person’s head using a free hand.
Within the Palais de Tokyo show, there is a text underlining that this work is about the war in Ukraine. “The painting fuck abstraction ! was made during the war in Ukraine and after that, images of the mass grave in Bucha have been broadcast as well as images of the rapes of numerous women and men,” the text reads, adding, “Miriam Cahn reacts on the spot to these images that circulate on social media and make a world tour.”
The text quotes Cahn herself as saying, “this is a person whose hands are tied, raped before being killed and thrown into the street. The repetition of violence during wars is not intended to shock but to denounce.”
Over the weekend, the French talk show host Karl Zéro, who has previously tweeted about what he calls “pedocrime,” posted a picture of the work to Twitter, calling it “intolerable.” In a follow-up tweet, Zéro wrote, “School groups visit this exhibition. Imagine the children’s questions when faced with this painting.”
Zéro’s original tweet has been liked nearly 11,000 times since it was first posted on March 5.
The Zéro tweet continued to circulate, with Laurent Ozon, a former adviser to the far-right politician Marine Le Pen, picking it up. “This trash,” he wrote.
These tweets and almost all others decrying the work did not mention the statement about the piece that appears on the gallery’s walls.
On Tuesday, the Palais de Tokyo responded directly to these claims, reiterating that the work is a response to real horrors taking place abroad and that it does not depict a pedophiliac act. The museum and its leaders said they “deplore” the circulation of fuck abstraction ! without sufficient context, calling the various posts about the painting “reactions of incomprehension.”
In a statement included within that release, Cahn said, “These are not children. This painting deals with how sexuality is used as a weapon in war, as a crime against humanity. The contrast between the two bodies shows the bodily power of the oppressor and the underdog, kneeling and oppressed, during war.”
The Palais de Tokyo encouraged viewers to consider how Cahn had previously used her work to empathize with victims of various conflicts.