In recent weeks, the #MeToo debate has made its way from the world of film to the world of art, with Manchester Art Gallery’s controversial decision to take down JW Waterhouse’s ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’. The painting has since been returned to its original display, following the criticism that the removal of it provoked. However, its absence created a disconcerting feeling that the boundaries of artistic expression are tightening. Just how beneficial is it to apply modern day concerns to cherished items of historical culture?
The piece, originally painted by John William Waterhouse in 1896 and showing a mythical scene of naked nymphs luring Hylas to his death, was removed to “prompt conversation about how we display and interpret artwork”. The gallery said that the decision was inspired by the #MeToo debate and was an attempt to “challenge this Victorian fantasy of the female body as either a passive decorative form or a femme fatale”. It was also intended as part of an upcoming exhibition by artist, Sonia Boyce, who is renowned for work centred around the concept of ‘removing’. Interestingly, Boyce had not commented on the story at the time this article was written, despite the huge amount of media attention the exhibition has garnered. In place of the painting, the gallery left a space where visitors could write Post-it notes detailing their thoughts and reactions, many of which were highly critical and dismissive of the act. Outrage at the stunt was echoed online, with one tweet from @AliRadicalli reading “If removing art to appease establishment mores is ‘art’ then I guess the Nazis were pioneers in the field”.
So, a clever publicity stunt or the prising open of a worrying can of worms? There’s no doubt that Manchester Art Gallery’s aim to invite debate has succeeded. Its subsequent hasty replacement of the painting would indicate that the removal was a genuine artistic decision, rather than a media grabbing ploy. Generally speaking, technical staff responsible for assembling or dissembling exhibitions would not work on a weekend, when the Waterhouse was replaced. It would seem that the gallery could not even wait until Monday to placate the overwhelmingly negative public response. What critics have voiced, however, is the idea that the original act adds nothing constructive to the posed issue and even questioned whether it really has any relevance at all.
Dr Liz Prettejohn, Professor of Art History here at the University of York has previously curated an exhibition of JW Waterhouse’s work, which was shown in the Netherlands, London and Montreal, and which included the now infamous ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’. She told Muse, “At the University of York, what we’re interested in doing is having real discussions around art objects and looking very closely at the work. We would never think you could have a debate without actually being able to engage closely with actual work. You can’t talk about the issues unless you’re actually looking at the art. The visual ways in which the content is represented are part of the content.” She went on to say, “I find it interesting that the Victorians are always being accused of being too moralistic. Well, who’s too moralistic here?”
It certainly seems counter-intuitive to culture of open discussion and opinion. Indeed, the absence of the painting would imply that there is only one correct answer- yes, it is morally condemnable in its depiction of women. Dr Prettejohn highlighted the fact that not only had the painting been removed from the gallery, but also the postcards. “That seems like censorship more than an attempt to start a debate.”
Surely a viewer of the painting would be capable of understanding it alongside its original context, in order to achieve a more holistic appreciation of the work. If this is not the case, then we begin to rewrite history, carefully removing the aspects which no longer sit comfortably with us. Waterhouse was a Romantic painter, taking inspiration from the legend of ‘Jason and the Argonauts’, in which the warrior, Hylas, was ensnared by the beautiful water nymphs on an island, resulting in his ship being forced to leave without him. Artistic interpretations of Greek mythology and the Romantic interest in the female nude are both being edited to suit Manchester Art Gallery’s political stance.
It must be considered that, in its own right, Waterhouse’s work was a vital aspect of the depiction of women in art. His paintings often reflect a fascination with sensual and powerful women. Certainly, they do not resonate with our modern-day ideals of female independence, but neither do many episodes of the hit TV series Friends! Progress cannot be made without first understanding what came before it. A comprehensive knowledge of art history- the highs, the lows, the successes and the controversies- is crucial, particularly when it comes to a topic such as #MeToo, to appreciating the full picture (pun not intended). How can one begin to form opinions on the issue without assessing the spectrum of ways that women have been portrayed throughout history? The work of Waterhouse and his contemporaries would likely have been used by the Hollywood designers and directors who prompted the #MeToo debate as visual aids and inspiration over the decades.
What the gallery has done is invite a whole new question: is the preservation of art that depicts morally reprehensible views no longer acceptable? ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ is an undeniably beautiful and historically loved painting; does its portrayal of females that use their sexuality to tempt men to their untimely fate really annul that? If so, then how many other culturally celebrated artefacts would meet the same fate? Lolita with its paedophilic protagonist, would presumably be consigned to the intellectual store room in order to avoid any suggestion that Penguin Books condoned a sexual proclivity for children.
This is not the first attempt to censor an artistic display in recent years. In December, an online petition was started, demanding that New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art remove Balthus’ 1938 painting ‘Therese Dreaming’, on the grounds that it romanticised the sexualisation of children. The campaign gained over 6000 signatures in support before the Met publicly refused to comply with the request. As the Guardian’s Jonathon Jones argued, throughout history people have consistently found reasons to moderate and censor art, from Nazi Germany to the Reformation. In an article discussing the Balthus scandal he asked, “Do we really want modern liberalism to ape such illiberal precedents?” Interrogation of art that we find morally contentious is essential. But to wipe it from existence altogether, as increasingly seems to be the preference, raises serious concerns about the state of artistic development.
Is it possible we are approaching age of cultural hysteria, where fears about breaking laws on social appropriateness are stifling artistic expression? When asked what other artists would have to be removed from the public gaze, if the logic of the Manchester Art Gallery were applied elsewhere, Dr Prettejohn looked alarmed. “We’d have to get rid of Titian, half of the Parthenon sculptures, most of the figures from Ancient Art, Rubens, and a lot of contemporary artists like Sarah Lucas, the Chapman brothers. We’d have to get rid of the lot!”