He leans down to place his pitcher into the clear water of the pool but is startled to find himself surrounded by a group of beautiful red haired nymphs. They emerge from the water, bare breasted with flowers clinging to their long tresses. He looks down and finds one of the women has taken hold of his arm, she looks deep into his eyes and he can't resist the power of her gaze.
Hylas is never seen or heard of again.
Yesterday I heard that Manchester Art Gallery have decided to 'temporarily' take down one of it's paintings from the PreRaphaelite gallery in order “to prompt conversations about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection”
The removal is part of a gallery takeover for a forthcoming exhibition by Sonia Boyce and hopes to prompt debate about how females have been portrayed, as either passive decoration or femme fatales, and also raise awareness of how works should be contextualised in the future. I think it's a genius publicity move but one that could be so so detrimental to how we acknowledge historic art in the future.
Hylas and the Nymphs created by JW Waterhouse in 1896 is the painting in question and despite the curator Clare Gannoway insisting the move isn't to censor or deny the painting's existence I can't help feeling that to make an example of it in this way will forever mar its appreciation.
She said, 'For me personally, there is a sense of embarrassment that we haven’t dealt with it sooner. Our attention has been elsewhere ... we’ve collectively forgotten to look at this space and think about it properly. We want to do something about it now because we have forgotten about it for so long'
I find this very unsettling. It somehow implies that as a society we can't handle anything that questions a safe and sanitised version of the world. Why must we judge the aims and morals of a painting that is over a century old by today's standards? Surely it is better to study the context from the era in which it was painted to place into the framework of our own understanding so that we can learn from it, not point a finger at it.
I understand that the story inspiration for the painting fueled a Victorian erotic fantasy. As a classical myth it gave license for a society that was easily morally outraged to enjoy a bit of titillation and sensuality. Young, beautiful naked girls (the same girl in fact, painted seven times) all wet and covered in flowers suggestively tugging at a young man's arm to join them for... well who knows what, the myth never actually says, and the Victorian imagination could be very kinky.
I also understand that the painting holds layers of meaning. The usual male and female stereotypes being turned on their head. The strong Hylas is struck passive by the intense energetic sexual force of the nymphs. As he enters the water he loses himself... a little death... The power of the female sex overwhelming and destroying him. Victorians reveled in their fascination with sex, and more importantly their fascination and fear of female sexuality.
The painting's style is inspired by the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) which strived to show truth in nature, both of the natural world and natural psyche. It wanted to do away with the sterile primness that had become the fashion and show real feelings and ideas that subsequently shocked and upset the art elite of the time. They painted about love sex and death. As a long time lover of the PRB's I very much appreciate Waterhouse's work for these very reasons.
The ideology behind the female form was so different from what is acceptable today but I understand how and why it was and that doesn't make me appreciate the work any less. I can clearly separate what the artist was trying to achieve from my own modern feminist values and enjoy the art from a place of pure pleasure. Taking away the painting denies future generations an opportunity to learn it's background or enjoy what is truly a beautiful piece of art.
Also it does seem ironic that a painting that aimed to shake up the art world back in the 'stuffy' Victorian era is now being treated in a similarly 'stuffy' way by an easily outraged age.
In a week when F1 has just announced that it will no longer have 'Grid Girls' at its Grand Prix and Darts PDC is to scrap its 'walk on girls' it's a clever move to then take away a provocative 'girl' heavy painting from a city art gallery, but I just can't see how the two eras can be compared.
As a society we are definitely at a stage where having women appear in part, for decoration and male enjoyment should be questioned. But this opens up further questions still about a woman's right to choose to appear in this way, for what is feminism if not to support female choice? This in turn asks questions about promoting the 'wrong' image of women and how that feeds into the everyday sexism that many of us face.
If Waterhouse's Hylas and the Nymphs were to be created today then we would have every right to ask the same questions. But it remains an historic art work and should only be judged by historic values. We can hypothesise about its relevance to today's standards, and we should, but if we begin to judge every art work from the past from a modern moral platform we lose sight of all the things they could tell us. We could be setting a dangerous precedent that dismisses any art work that hits an over sensitive nerve.
I am impressed with Manchester Art Gallery for having the gumption to create modern debate about historic art. How often does art, or specifically British historic art make the headlines? It is heartening to know that the public care enough to get involved and make their voices heard. I for one felt compelled to write this to get my feelings out in the open because this REALLY MATTERS!
I just worry that this could start a trend that gives an increasingly self absorbed generation the right to sneer with contempt at the past and ignore all the lessons it has to teach us. Who is to say that in a century from now the art work of today won't be viewed in the same way?
Please Manchester Art Gallery give us our nymphs back and don't treat us with kid gloves. You say this wasn't to censor, but by taking away the very thing that prompts the debate you rob us of the chance to make up our own minds.