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Putin Not The First Politician Painted In Women's Underwear

"Mirth & Girth" by David Nelson, a student of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, depicted late Mayor Harold Washington dressed in women's underwear. (Click to see full painting)
"Mirth & Girth" by David Nelson, a student of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, depicted late Mayor Harold Washington dressed in women's underwear. (Click to see full painting)
In St. Petersburg this week, a small private gallery was raided and police seized four satirical paintings, including one featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in women's underwear.

Paintings of Patriarch Kirill and other vocally antigay politicians were removed, the gallery was closed, and the painter, Konstantin Altunin, told RFE/RL that he was requesting political asylum in France.

Putin is hardly the first politician whose portrayal in lingerie has raised a storm. But he might well be the first one in more than two decades whose depiction prompted such heavy-handed intervention by police.

In 1988, student artist David Nelson sparked a political crisis in Chicago when he painted that city's recently deceased mayor, Harold Washington, dressed in women's underwear. In his hand is a pencil -- a reference to the fact that an aide thought the mayor was slumped over his desk reaching for a pencil, when he had actually suffered a heart attack.

The painting was titled "Mirth & Girth," allegedly a reference to an organization for overweight gay men. There were rumors that Washington was wearing women's underwear under his clothes when he died.

When he died in 1987, Washington had just won reelection as Chicago's first black mayor and was lionized in the city's black community. Nelson said he was inspired to paint the satirical portrait after seeing Washington on a poster with Jesus Christ looking over the Chicago skyline under the motto "Worry Ye Not."

When city councilors found out about the painting, they were not amused. An alderman put forward a resolution that the city would cut off funding to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago unless it apologized for exhibiting the painting.

Then outraged city aldermen (council members) showed up at the Art Institute and tried to remove the painting from the gallery. Though they were prevented from doing so by school officials, city police then ordered the confiscation of the painting, describing the work as an "incitement to riot." The Art Institute later agreed not to display the painting and issued a formal apology for having done so in the first place.

''I would have gone to jail to get that painting down,'' one of the aldermen told "The New York Times." ''It is an insult to a great man and an affront to blacks, and there would have been trouble in this city if it stayed on exhibition.''

But the artist refused to give up so easily. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit in his name against the three aldermen who removed the painting, claiming $100,000 in compensation for violation of his rights to freedom of expression, to protection from unreasonable seizure, and to not being deprived of property without a hearing.

The city of Chicago eventually settled with Nelson for $95,000 in 1994, although the city refused to pay the legal costs of the three aldermen named in the suit, which amounted to much more than the settlement, despite their claims that they were performing their official duties "in protecting the security of the city during the turmoil created by the exhibit" when they removed the painting.

The court rejected arguments that the three aldermen were protected by any sort of official immunity or that they had saved Chicago from race riots in reaction to the painting of Washington. In a statement, the artist said that he respected Washington as a "person, a mayor, and a political leader" and that the painting was not meant to be insulting to Washington, his family, or supporters.

"But that does not mean that as an artist I am limited in how I can depict his image," Nelson said.

-- Dan Wisniewski

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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