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Banksy and the art of sneezing

12 December 2020

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

Achoo! It’s that time of the year. Your correspondent has barely stepped outside for weeks and yet he finds himself snivelling and sneezing like a poorly elephant. So he feels sympathy with the woman depicted on a wall painting by Banksy that popped up in Bristol this week, in which the old dear has been so stunned by a sternutation that she has not only dropped her stick and bag but evicted her false teeth from their lodgings. The moral of the mural: cover your nose and mouth, people.

Banksy’s suffering subject has had Rakewell digging in the dusty archives (Achoo!) in an effort to scrabble together a genealogy of artistic sneezes. But there isn’t much: it’s not as though Munch painted The Sneeze. Sneezes are among those involuntary gestures that don’t give our bodies much warning – like laughter, unless we’re faking it, or a yawn. It’s not as though models can pose for them, unless they’re being force fed barrels of snuff. (The calm before that storm is captured by the American genre painter Louis Charles Moeller.)

There are a few significant sneezes, though. Fred Ott’s Sneeze is a five-second film that shows one Thomas Edison’s assistants on the snuff in 1894 – a sneeze that’s preserved in the US’s National Film Registry, no less, and indeed the subject of the earliest copyrighted motion picture to survive. Marcel Duchamp played around with sneezing – ‘a metaphor for erotic arousal’, the Tate says – in Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy? (1921). And Andy Warhol caught the transitory torture of a sneeze in polaroid self-portraits in 1978.

The most virulent artistic sneezes of all? Perhaps those shown by Mika Rottenberg in Sneeze (2012), a short film in which three suited fellows eject rabbits, steaks and lightbulbs out of enormous prosthetic honkers. Gesundheit!