The critics are missing the point: Manchester Art Gallery has attempted to contextualise, not to censor.
A rare but potent controversy has awoken this blog from its sweet, toddler-induced slumber. Even rarer, a modern, political discussion is being had in the Victorian art world. (We Victorian art historians don’t often make the news!) It appears that Manchester Art Gallery, in order to provoke conversation, removed the very popular painting by J.W. Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs (1896). In its place they put a notice of removal and invited public response via post-it notes. The removal will feature in an upcoming solo show by artist Sonia Boyce, a British Afro-Caribbean artist whose work explores art as social practice.
Manchester’s curator, Clare Gannaway, has said that the painting was only temporarily taken away to provoke debate. Indeed, it was re-hung seven days later, as planned. However, the backlash it created was probably beyond what she envisioned.
From my perspective, the reaction has been a bit hysterical. ‘Censorship’, ‘po-faced’ and ‘a crass gesture’ were some of the ways those in the media described the removal. But it is hardly censorship when the gallery publicises that they’ve taken something down FOR A WEEK, and then invites the public to have their say. Not really an authoritarian move.
If anyone is pearl-clutching, it’s the critics. They indicate that attempting to put 21st century feminism into a 19th century picture is an aberration of art history and doomed to failure. Jonathan Jones expresses the majority sentiment in The Guardian:
“To remove this work art from view is not an interesting critique but a crass gesture that will end up on the wrong side of history…Even a kinky old Victorian perv has his right to paint soft-porn nymphs.”
Sure, Waterhouse had that right. But we don’t have to let it go unnoticed or uncriticised. And we shouldn’t.
Waterhouse is, arguably, one of the most popular Pre-Raphaelite artists. Though coming later in the movement, his pictures are perennially popular; found proudly displayed in museums, living rooms and college dorms. In fact, when the Royal Academy did a Waterhouse show in 2009 they noted that The Lady of Shallot was the most popular postcard at the Tate Britain.
Waterhouse’s paintings are undeniably beautiful. Full of jewel-like colours, perfectly detailed flora and fauna, and figures with the smoothest, palest skin imaginable. They are a dreamscape, a gorgeous fantasy. Yet, like many Victorian artists, Waterhouse’s depiction of women is…not great.
Waterhouse’s work, for the most part, gives the viewer two images of womanhood: the beautiful, helpless agent of men’s desire or the beautiful, dangerous femme fatale. The Lady of Shallot is a perfect example of the helpless agent, on the point of death due to her desire for a man.
Hylas and the Nymphs shows the other side of womanhood: dangerous beauty, as the mesmerising nymphs lure Hylas to his death.
All Waterhouse’s women look basically the same. They have similar hair, facial features, skin colour, breast size, body weight and age. He takes this one step further in Hylas by using only one or two models for the seven nymphs. Their nakedness is erotic, suggestive and part of their dangerousness. These are not real women, with agency, with an internal life of their own. They are symbol, sexual object and ideal. They are merely a muse.
We take so much of this for granted, as art historians and viewers, that we don’t even question it. Of course 19th century women are depicted as helpless and sexually objectified. Of course the elevation of one type of womanliness and one type of beautiful body is a distortion of reality. Surely, we think, that was a different time. It was okay back then, right?
When Waterhouse was painting his deadly beautiful nymphs, a growing women’s movement was threatening the traditional masculine-dominated culture. Like with the women’s movement today, notably responses to #MeToo or #Time’sUp, we can see a real backlash from men who feel the cultural order, and therefore their own domination, is threatened. Writing for the RA exhibition about another of Waterhouse’s deadly and beautiful subjects, A Mermaid (1900), Robert Upstone notes:
“The mermaid represented a very clear archetype of male anxiety in the face of an enchanting woman to whom capitulation could prove disastrous…There are similarities [to European Symbolist painters] in the strategy of using traditional mythology as a way of articulating new concerns and anxieties. With the questioning of gender roles and calls for women to be socially and politically independent, alongside a demand for proper sexual fulfilment, the 1890s saw throughout Europe an almost millennial male anxiety about their status and appropriate role.”
As a young woman I loved the work of Waterhouse and his contemporaries, (Leighton, Moore, Burne-Jones) especially their depiction of women. I longed to be the willowy, pale muse, romantically rescued by a man. I never questioned these longings, and only now realise how damaging they were, to my self-esteem and my relationships with men.
Of course, it wasn’t merely Victorian art that gave me these ideas. Our culture is saturated with unhealthy images and messages to women, which we internalise from a young age. But if we can trace some of this back to these particular cultural artefacts, then for the sake of those living today, we must note where these ideas come from and that they just might be toxic.
I still love Waterhouse. But having explicit conversations about the role and depiction of women is long overdue. Women need to make a conscious and concerted effort to shake off the role of muse, object or femme fatale and become living, breathing human beings.
One of the huge challenges for art historians today is to write women back into their own history. Where women’s art, women’s stories have been neglected, we have a responsibility to unearth and restore what women contributed to visual culture. If we’re going to do that, then we have to acknowledge all the ways that women have been objectified by and marginalised from the art world.
#TimesUp and #MeToo are all about saying the unsaid. Though we can’t change history, we need to contextualise it.
 Some critics point out that Hylas was a likely homosexual character, whose lover, Hercules, had just left him in battle. In my opinion, this still doesn’t change the way we understand Waterhouse’s translation of this scene, which was certainly meant for a straight male audience.
 E. Prettejohn, et al., eds.: exh. cat. J.W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite, London (Royal Academy of Arts) 2009, p.144.