‘Wearing William’ is a 75 cm gypsum cast of a male bottom decorated with colourful patterns loosely based on Morris designs; its counterpart, ‘Mrs Morris’ is a little more muted in its colour scheme, but more than makes up for that by its sheer callipygous breadth. Both are the products of Kent-based artist C.J. Munn, and the former featured recently on the BBC’s ‘Show Me The Monet’ show, in which it got the critics’ votes it needed in order to be displayed at the Royal College of Art where, if you were so moved, you could have bought this handsome Morris rump for £2100.
Introducing her sculpture to the panel of critics, C.J. Munn attacked artistic work based solely on ‘shock value’ and argued for a ‘return to a time when old-fashioned aesthetic values become important again’; art shouldn’t just be based on clever instant gimmicks, but should ‘still be lovely in 30 years time’. Well, there’s something a little disingenuous in this. Morris floral designs may have the requisite aesthetic loveliness, but a Morris arse is in itself, clearly, a piece of ‘shock art’; for, as one of the critics aptly remarked, ‘William Morris would be turning in his chintz shroud’.
The Morrisian visual artist David Mabb has said that his own aesthetic aim is to make Morris designs ‘nasty’, which is in his view the only way to prevent them collapsing into kitsch. Do Munn’s male and female Morris bottoms succeed in this? Perhaps to a degree; for the ‘Wearing William’ cast, in particular, disturbingly resembles the whole-body colourful floral tattoos of the Japanese yakuza or mafia. But I think in the end that the graceful organic curves of the Morris-inspired patterns and the organic curves of the human (and particularly the steatopygous ‘Mrs Morris’) anatomy are too comforting, and dissolve the initial visual shock value of the artefacts into contemplative and mildly eroticised pleasure.
‘It’s ridiculous, but yes’, remarked one of the BBC judges in giving his vote. So I’m glad ‘Wearing William’ has graced the walls of the Royal College of Art; anything that draws renewed attention to Morris’s work and thought is a good thing. But we will need more challenging reinterpretations of his designs if we are truly to remake them – to effect a Brechtian Unfunktionierung of them - for our own century.