This Europe: German Greens tweak the nipple of taste

A woman naked to the waist, in a bathtub framed by red satin curtains, gently pinches the nipple of another naked woman. The pair are Gabrielle d'Estrées, the mistress of Henri IV, and one of her sisters, and their nude bathing scene is an anonymous work of the Fontainebleau School painted in 1595.

But the picture, appreciated by the millions of art lovers who queue to see it at the Louvre each year, is suddenly at the centre of a mini political storm in Germany. The mayor of Konigstein-im-Taunus in the western German state of Hesse decided earlier this week that a Green party election poster inspired by the Renaissance-era painting was an affront to the 4,000 citizens of his town.

The poster promoting new legislation on the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry, shows, in the manner of Gabrielle d'Estrées and her sister, two bathing naked women, one pinching the other's nipple. That would have been at the limits of good taste so far as Siegfried Fricke, the Christian Democrat (CDU) mayor, was concerned. But the Greens added a naked male couple behind the women, one pinching the nipple of a smiling bathing companion, and a cheeky caption hinting that sex might be about to take place.

"The representation of two naked women in the company of two naked men suggests a sexual act, the depiction of which crosses the line into pornography," Mr Fricke solemnly declared before ordering the posters be removed. He also imposed a fine of €150 (£95) on the Green party for each of the offending items remaining on display in the town. The advertising agency behind the campaign said it was surprised at the reaction.

"We were inspired by a famous piece of art which has a lesbian theme. But the poster is ironic and we did not really think it would offend anyone," said Bernd Heusinger of Zum Goldenin Hirschen.

But CDU bosses in Berlin have now suggested that Mr Fricke may have been over-sensitive, in the light of the conservative party's attempts to modernise its image ahead of the general election on 22 September. The official town hall website said yesterday that the posters could be reinstated.