Flaming June! Save me from this necrophilia

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The Independent Online
IT'S been a great week for bad art: pounds 127m for an arts centre in Salford to honour LS Lowry's lifeless townscapes, while Londoners have been bombarded with the elephantine orange thigh of Lord Leighton's aptly-named Flaming June. As I shivered through Green Park underground station on my way to a friend's 40th birthday party, every second poster on the up escalator seemed to consist of Leighton's lightly-clad female.

You can't escape her, even if you don't live in London. It's the centenary of Leighton's death and newspapers have been full of features about the revival of his reputation as an artist, not to mention the story of June's discovery behind a fireplace where a previous (and, some might say, more discerning) owner had boarded her up.

A fashion editor produced aspread featuring a red-haired model in winsome poses, eyes soulfully averted in near-perfect imitation of Jane Burden, Fanny Cornforth and Annie Miller, who sat for the Pre-Raphaelite gang in the 1850s and Sixties. At least the model wasn't required to recline in cold water for hours like Lizzie Siddal, who posed for John Everett Millais's famous picture of Ophelia. Millais worked on the canvas in the depths of winter, immersing Siddal in a bath warmed by candles, and was so absorbed in what he was doing that he failed to notice they'd gone out. The uncomplaining Siddal, whose health was never robust, nearly caught pneumonia as a result, although this was as nothing to the indignity heaped on her after her death by her husband, the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The grieving widower, having recovered somewhat from his loss, regretted his hasty decision to bury his poems with her corpse and had her exhumed in a gruesome midnight ceremony at Highgate Cemetery. What's remarkable about stories like this, which illustrate the Pre-Raphaelites' opportunistic attitude to the supposed fair sex, is that women go on liking them so much, seeing something romantic in those pseudo-Grecian draperies and mournful expressions.

Yet the emotional paralysis and sexual timidity which led Rossetti, Holman Hunt et al to act out Pygmalion fantasies with their working-class models are all too vividly present on canvas. Leighton's sickly June, one nipple peeping suggestively through the fabric of her dress, exemplifies their voyeuristic vision of the perfect woman: silent, observed, unconscious, dead.

AN EVEN more startling instance of the way people wilfully misread sexual signals, especially when they involve celebrities, was on display at the Brit Awards. Who would have predicted just over two years ago, as a scandal involving his relationship with a pubescent boy broke around Michael Jackson, that he would rehabilitate himself as the Children's Friend?

Then Anthony Pellicano, the private eye hired to salvage Jackson's reputation, was reduced to insisting: "If it's a 35-year-old paedophile, then it's obvious why he's sleeping with little boys. But if it's Michael Jackson, it doesn't mean anything."

This was in response to the revelation that Jackson had shared a bed for more than three months with a star-struck 13-year-old, Jordan Chandler. In September 1993, lawyers acting for Chandler filed suit in the Los Angeles County Superior Court alleging a lengthy catalogue of misbehaviour: sexual battery, battery, seduction, wilful misconduct, intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud and negligence. What they were accusing Jackson of, in down-to-earth language, was mutual masturbation and oral sex. The case was settled out of court, with Jackson paying Chandler undisclosed damages said to be around pounds 21m.

Eight months later, the District Attorneys for Los Angeles and Santa Barbara announced they had wound up their investigation because "an important witness" would not testify. Refusing to clear Jackson, they said the file would remain open for five years - an outcome which left the singer's Peter Pan image severely dented.

OR SO we thought until this week, when Jackson appeared with 25 "young showbiz hopefuls" at Earl's Court to perform his grandiloquent "Earth Song". This brazen gesture suggests that Jackson's megalomania continues to rival the late Robert Maxwell's; the singer once founded a World Council of Children "to provide children with a forum to express their unique vision for healing the world". It also implies a shrewd judgement on his part that, for sizeable chunks of his audience, fame counts for more than reputation.

How else are we to explain the perplexing behaviour of those parents who were thrilled to have their children publicly associated with Jackson this week? "The whole episode was outrageous," said one mother, referring not to Jackson's antics on stage but Jarvis Cocker's mild attempt to register a protest. It can only be a matter of time, I suppose, before Jackson successfully applies to become a scout master.

I'D probably have walked out of the Brit Awards, not as a protest but because I've taken to slipping out of things at the interval and not coming back. There's something quite refreshing about admitting you're bored with a performance instead of staying to the bitter end, worrying about how much you've paid for the ticket.

On Monday I saw the first half of Mother Courage and Her Children at the National Theatre; it's not a bad production but I couldn't bear another hour of Diana Rigg hauling her wretched cart across the stage. The week before I dragged a reluctant friend out of Lee Evans's one-man show, unable to stand any more fart jokes once the interval curtain came down.

I did stay for the whole of one recent event, a talk on film noir and sexual anxiety at the South Bank, but that wasn't because of its brilliance and originality. It's not so easy to slip out unnoticed, I've realised, when you're the speaker.