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Looking at Visual Culture

Choose ONE example of Visual Culture (artwork, design or media practice), research it and write three different accounts of not more than 250 words each (750 words total) which:


  1. DESCRIBE THE WORK – Try to see the piece with fresh eyes and describe it in the most basic terms, looking for what is overlooked.


  1. ANALYSE THE WORK – Break to work down into its constituent parts and consider the materials used.


  1. CONTEXTUALISE THE WORK – Place it in the historical development of it’s type and time, and relate it to the events and people who made it.


The three short texts must be accompanied by a visual reproduction of the object.


In addition, you should list any sources or references which you use in a bibliography.

ure to add all the relevant details you want to share.

Analysis of Myra by Marcus Harvey (1995)

An imposing large format painting, acrylic on canvas, which stands at eleven feet by nine. Made from casts of a small child’s hand layered in mosaic form. It precisely replicates, from a distance, the monochromatic 'mugshot' of Myra Hindley, taken some time after her arrest in 1965 for her part in the ‘Moors Murders’; heinous crimes that saw 5 children sexually assaulted, their bodies concealed in graves dug across Saddleworth Moor. But up close the juxtaposition of the infant’s hands composing the face of Myra, creates a chilling unease and makes for uncomfortable viewing.


The photo Harvey has chosen to bring to attention in this unapologetic manner is a one recognised the world over and is synonymous with notions of deprivation and evil. The selection replicated in the painting is a cropped close-up on the original, filling the canvas, intensifying the experience and drawing the viewer uncomfortably nearer to the nonchalant gaze, leaving nowhere to hide.


Businessman, Gallery owner and advertising mogul, Charles Saatchi, bought the piece from Harvey for 10k. During this time, Saatchi played an integral role in the rise in profile for Harvey due to his inclusion of the piece in the Sensation exhibition. Saatchi later sold for it for 100k to Frank Gallipolli, a US Commodities trader, who still currently owns it.

I was fortunate enough to have visited the Sensation exhibition in 1997 at the Royal Academy of Art, London (RA). The exhibition featured controversial, challenging, and notorious pieces of work from the collective dubbed the ‘Young British Artists’ (YBA). This piece was by far the most provocative work in the show, inciting protests from the Charity Kidscape and The Mothers Against Murder and Aggression group of which included a mother of a victim in the Moors Murders. The frenzy even provoked Myra herself to weigh in on the matter. Writing from her prison cell, she thought the painting should be removed as it was “a sole disregard not only for the emotional pain and trauma that would inevitably be experienced by the families of the Moors victims but also the families of any child victim.” [a] Demonstrations saw the work defaced by eggs and ink, requiring it to be removed and restored. Consequently, the piece was protected behind Perspex and given a security guard. 

My visit predated the damage; thus, I was able to view the piece without these additional impediments. I vividly recall being one of only a few in the room viewing the piece and the memory, despite being 25 years ago, still gives me goosebumps. It was shocking and evocative. It moved me emotionally, forcing me to consider the devastating acts inflicted on those children far before my existence, the oldest being 17, the same age as I was at the time. 

Despite the accusation of “exploitation and glorification of the murders”, [b] and the blatant disregard for the feelings for those impacted, using it to attract attention and more importantly, paying visitors, I’m glad that the RA took the line to keep the Harvey’s work in the exhibition. It’s then Director and Curator in chief, Norman Rosenthal, stated that it was the single most important piece in the exhibit and made for a sobering and cathartic experience. A view I am inclined to agree with. David Gordon, Secretary of the Royal Academy went on to say: "The majority view inside the Academy was that millions and millions of images of Myra Hindley have been reproduced in newspapers and magazines. Books have been written about the murders. Television programmes have been made. Hindley's image is in the public domain; part of our consciousness; an awful part of our recent social history; a legitimate subject for journalism – and for art." [c]


Harvey uses the picture, not to ridicule or bring scorn on Hindley but to critique the media's exploitation of the Hindley story in general and that image in particular. "I think the photograph was used irresponsibly. The image itself took on its own life force. It became its own kind of erotic, sexy, child-murdering witch. It fitted some need we have in society to stereotype women who are not mumsy or who don't embrace their maternal instinct with both hands and push them towards this cold SS guard. That image picked up a lot of momentum that actually distorted her chance of ever getting justice.”[d] 

Harvey was born in Leeds in 1963, his work combines painting, photography, and sculpture and explores British iconography in pop culture, the landscape, and cultural history. Harvey’s piece, ‘Maggie’ 2009, plaster and acrylic on canvas, 14.4’ x 12’, although more of a 3D collage, incorporating casts of masks, vegetables and sex toys, is a return to the similarly visual experience of Myra. 


While I can’t say the visual styling has directly influenced my work, the experience of viewing the piece, has remained firmly at the forefront of my consciousness, when considering a contemporary art practice. This due to its lasting emotional impact on me, using the ‘shock value’ (a term that became synonymous with the Sensation exhibition) of children’s hands to forge an effigy of a convicted child murderer. Distasteful? Maybe? I found it jarring, yet mournfully poetic. 




[a] - Lyall, Sarah (20 September 1997), "Art That Tweaks British Propriety", The New York Times


[b] -


[c] - Press release: Sensation press conference, Royal Academy of Arts, London
16 September 1997


[d] The Guardian, Myra, Margaret and me. Simon Hattenstone

Sat 21 Feb 2009 00.01 GMT

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