Articles and Features

The Shows That Made Contemporary Art History: Sensation

Sensation poster. Courtesy Royal Academy of Arts London
Sensation poster. Courtesy Royal Academy of Arts London

By Shira Wolfe

“There will be works of art on display in the Sensation exhibition which some people may find distasteful. Parents should exercise their judgment in bringing their children to the exhibition. One gallery will not be open to those under the age of 18.”

Royal Academy of Arts – Disclaimer for the Sensation exhibition

There are multiple ways to delve into the fascinating world of contemporary art. One may consider the development and succession of different artistic movements; the personalities of the major players in the field; not to mention the most iconic artworks that have defined our era. But why not consider the history of art exhibitions themselves? Landmark shows of the modern and contemporary period have impacted and shaped the course of art history, both launching entirely new genres and shaping the history and habits of exhibition-making through innovative practices.

In 1997, the Royal Academy of Arts in London exhibited Sensation, the controversial art show with works from the private collection of Charles Saatchi that would launch the careers of a new generation of British artists and bring Young British Art into the public consciousness. From Damien Hirst’s iconic formaldehyde shark to Marc Quinn’s self-portrait made of his own blood, Sensation would change the shape of contemporary art as people had known it.

Sensation
Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991. Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection installed at the Brooklyn Museum October 2, 1999 through January 9, 2000. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Charles Saatchi and the Young British Artists

After visiting Damien Hirst’s exhibition Freeze in 1988, and seeing the artist’s first major animal installation, A Thousand Years, art dealer and collector Charles Saatchi set his sights on the art that was to become known as Young British Art. He became Hirst’s first collector, and an important sponsor for other Young British Artists. From 1992, Saatchi put on a series of shows called Young British Artists, bringing a great deal of media coverage to these artists. The Sensation art show at the Royal Academy was really the point at which the importance of the Young British Artists was solidified. The exhibition attracted around 300.000 visitors, provoked many protests and started a media sensation.

Sensation
Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991 and Marcus Harvey, Myra, 1995. Sensation Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection installed at the Brooklyn Museum October 2, 1999 through January 9, 2000. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Sensation’s Sensational Artworks

The Sensation exhibition included 110 works by 44 different artists, and gave the art world a shock the likes of which had not been felt in a long time. According to Gregor Muir, author of “Lucky Kunst: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art”: “For better or for worse, Sensation put British art on the map. Nowhere has embraced contemporary art in quite the same way Britain has. Everyone from cab drivers to politicians was talking about a group of young artists. It felt like an opening up of art. Suddenly it wasn’t elitist.”  

Indeed, it seemed like large audiences were strictly reserved for Old Master and Impressionist exhibitions, but Sensation helped make contemporary art more accessible and desirable for the general public. Nearly 300.000 people flocked to see the show, and the exhibition prepared the ground for the opening of Tate Modern 3 years later in 2000.

Marcus Harvey Myra, Sensation
Marcus Harvey, Myra, 1995. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Although the art included in Sensation spanned many different styles and media, what tied them all together was the shock-factor. The biggest media controversy was over Myra, Marcus Harvey’s image of the serial killer Myra Hindley made up of hundreds of copies of a child’s handprint. The Mothers Against Murder and Aggression protest group, accompanied by Winnie Johnson, the mother of one of Hindley’s victims, picketed the show and demanded the portrait be removed. Demonstrators threw ink and eggs at the artwork, and several people working at the Royal Academy resigned. Despite all this controversy, the painted remained hanging.

Tracey Emin. Sensation
Tracey Emin, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, 1995. Sensation Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection installed at the Brooklyn Museum October 2, 1999 through January 9, 2000. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Other notable works included Tracey Emin’s tent titled Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, Damien Hirst’s iconic formaldehyde shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, and Marc Quinn’s Self, a self-portrait of the artist created by filling a frozen silicone cast of Quinn’s face with ten pints of his own blood.

Marc Quinn. Sensation
Marc Quinn, Self, 1991. © Marc Quinn, courtesy the artist and National Portrait Gallery

“The contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety.”

The Brooklyn Museum – Disclaimer for the Sensation exhibition

Sensation in New York

When the show moved on to New York and was shown at the Brooklyn Museum between 1999 and 2000, a work that had not been met with much outrage in London – Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary – provoked the strongest reaction and was met with instant protests. Ofili’s piece depicts a black Madonna decorated with a resin-covered piece of elephant dung, surrounded by collaged images of female genitalia which replace the cherubim traditionally depicted in paintings of the Madonna. New York City’s mayor at the time, Rudy Giuliani, saw the work in the show’s catalogue and called it “sick stuff”, threatening to withdraw the annual $7 million City Hall grant from the Brooklyn Museum. He stated: “You don’t have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else’s religion.” Funding to the museum was briefly stopped, but was soon restored again following a petition in support of the museum and its exhibition signed by 100 actors, writers and artists.
On 16 December 1999, a 72-year old man was arrested for smearing the Ofili painting with white paint, after which the museum produced a disclaimer for the exhibition which read: “The contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety.” The painting was shown behind a Plexiglass screen from that point onwards, and guarded by a museum attendant and an armed police officer. 

Chris Ofili
Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996. Sensation Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection installed at the Brooklyn Museum October 2, 1999 through January 9, 2000. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Sensation: recognition and legacy

Today, Sensation is considered to be one of the most significant exhibitions of contemporary art in the 20th century. It also went down in history as one of the most controversial shows the art world ever saw. The show attracted a record number of visitors at the time, and catapulted the Young British Artists into the mainstream art world, launching many a shining career. The YBAs enjoyed a great deal of publicity, and even used the tabloids as an alternative space to represent themselves, using all the publicity, good and bad, to their advantage as their names became bigger and more notorious.

Finally, Sensation challenged the boundaries of what can be considered art, and what is acceptable to be represented in art. The show paved the way for other difficult-to-digest contemporary art to be shown at major art museums around the world and heralded a new era for British artists.

Relevant sources to learn more

Royal Academy of Arts
Brooklyn Museum
Damien Hirst website

For previous editions of our series “The Shows That Made Contemporary Art History”, see:
Live in Your Head. When Attitudes Become Form
Primary Structures
This Is Tomorrow

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