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John Lennon’s ‘Bag One’ public exhibition and controversy

The London Arts Gallery came to the notice of an international public when in 1970, its then owner Eugene Schuster was charged with corrupting morals when he exhibited erotic artwork by Beatle John Lennon of himself and Yoko Ono in various stages of lovemaking.

The London Arts Gallery, located in an upscale district on New Bond Street was the first gallery to exhibit John Lennon’s artwork.

The gallery was known for original fine print works by Old Masters like Durer and Rembrandt and modern artists such as Picasso and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The gallery was also an important and respected showplace for many contemporary Pop artists of the time.

 

The signed and numbered lithographs included five prints that were erotic or offensive depending on whom you asked.

Two weeks later London Arts Gallery, located in the historic Fisher Building Detroit was also the first U.S. exhibition of the prints.  

 

At the opening of the London exhibition eight of the fourteen lithographs were confiscated by the Vice Squad of Scotland Yard on the grounds of indecency.

"The police came with a search and seizure warrant.  They also took away other materials including press releases. I refused to give them the names of people who had already bought sets of the prints."
Eugene Schuster
London Arts Gallery Director
“I’m just amazed and I find it rather humorous. It seems to me if the police wanted to seize anything they’d go down to Soho seize smut, seize blue movies. If they can let (the controversial film) I Am Curious pass how can they object to this? "

"It appears they seized the art mainly because John Lennon did it.” 
Eugene Schuster
London Arts Gallery Director

A London Arts Gallery press release from the time commented:

“Lennon’s sex life in the medium of lithography is a poignant comment on a modern society. In the last year Lennon has repeatedly attempted to identify himself as an artist beyond Pop music. It has brought ridicule on him and his efforts have been scorned.”

“The history of lithography has seen a change of emphasis from content to technique and Lennon has taken advantage of this movement to expose a society by exposing his own private life to encourage a more introspective commitment to content by today’s artists who can be so timid. In a society where movement and social change play such an important part, the artist’s need to experiment is not new. Warhol and Rauschenberg have created a pattern. John Lennon is developing this tradition and although he may not be making many friends, he has committed himself to a particular cultural leadership which has always been the position of the artist.”

"I’m not trying to show erotica I’m trying to show Art."
Eugene Schuster
Gallery Owner
 

The Police later said that the gallery could reopen the exhibition of the remaining lithographs If it wished to do so.   

The gallery owner Eugene Schuster, an American citizen was tried in the Queen’s Marlborough Street Court.  Witnesses were called on both sides. At one point prints by Pablo Picasso were brought before the court for comparison.  The charge of obscenity was changed to disturbing the pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk. 

Ultimately, the gallery was  cleared of all charges.

 
The prints returned to the gallery where a second exhibit was greeted with even more public enthusiasm.  A few weeks later the first U.S. exhibition was held amidst scrutiny and much anticipation.  

The critics and public remained divided on both the subject of obscenity in art and the artistic merit of John Lennon’s lithographs. 

“Many toilet walls depict works of similar merit. It is perhaps charitable to suggest that they are the work of a sick mind.”
Detective Fredric Luff
Scotland Yard's 'Dirty Squad"
“When I saw the first picture on the far wall I was stunned I couldn’t believe what i was looking at I went on and looked at two or three ball I went to the other wall and suddenly I felt I couldn’t stay in the gallery any longer I went over to my husband who hadn’t left the first picture I took him by the arm and I said I can’t stay in here I’ll go on up the road you can follow me he turned looked at me and said you’re red in the face your scarlet as I spoke to him I realized that I was red with embarrassment.” 
Mrs. Nanci Creer
Witness for the Prosecution
"Personally I think some of the things are good, some of them not so good and some of them quite bad.  Nonetheless...Lennon is an artist and I want to encourage him to do more art."  Schuster declared.  "Good or bad that’s up to the critics. It’s not for the police to say."
Eugene Schuster
London Arts Gallery Director
"Most of the art establishment thought that Lennon was trading on his reputation as a pop star they were denounced as as poor drawings, and in actual fact they’re not. They’re actually by today’s standards actually rather accomplished drawings. You can tell he’s trying to be amusing and that’s a difficult skill to to master, of course."
David Lee
Art Critic
Bag One is erotic, but also quite beautiful and intimate.
Victoria Patience
assistant curator of the 2019 Double Fantasy: John & Yoko exhibition. at the Museum of Liverpool.

Portillo State Secrets British National Archives

In January 1970 the first ever exhibit of Bag One by John Lennon took place at the London Arts Gallery 22 New Bond Street. The opening was raided by the Scotland Yard Vice squad and the prints were confiscated. The gallery owner was charged with Obscenity and a trial was held the next month.

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