The decision by the Manchester Art Gallery to temporarily remove a famous Victorian painting showing nude mythological creatures has been deemed “puritanical” and an act of “authoritarian moralising”.
Inspired by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements against sexual assault, the gallery has removed Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) to “prompt conversation” about how artwork is displayed and interpreted.
Manchester Art Gallery blogged the directors’ rationale: “This gallery presents the female body as either a ‘passive decorative form’ or a ‘femme fatale’. Let’s challenge this Victorian fantasy!
“The gallery exists in a world full of intertwined issues of gender, race, sexuality and class which affect us all. How could artworks speak in more contemporary, relevant ways?”
Visitors are asked to share their thoughts on the bare wall space with post-its or on Twitter via the hashtag #MAGSoniaBoyce.
Gallery 10 may look a little different to how you last saw it… This is to prompt conversation about how we display and interpret artwork in #Manchester’s public collection. #MAGsoniaboyce pic.twitter.com/IXkcODOkTk
— MCR Art Gallery (@mcrartgallery) January 26, 2018
Curator for contemporary art Clare Gannaway told The Guardian that debates around sexual assault of women featured prominently in recent months fed into the decision. She denied that the removal was about censorship.
Gannaway criticised the name of the room the painting normally hangs in, ‘In Pursuit of Beauty’, claiming that it was comprised of male artists presenting the female body as decorative and passive.
“For me personally, there is a sense of embarrassment that we haven’t dealt with it sooner,” she told the newspaper.
#MAGsoniaboyce. Defining this 'an artistic act' doesn't disguise its authoritarian moralising as part of a rapidly spreading censorship championed by an increasingly puritanical, hectoring and intolerant feminism. It's dangerous and a long way from the feminism I grew up with.
— Kathryn Ecclestone (@EcclestoneK) February 1, 2018
However, the reaction has been broadly negative with art lovers, women, and even some feminists complaining of censorship, calling it “po-faced politically-correct virtue signalling” and “authoritarian moralising”.
Others have said it is “degrading” and “borderline offensive” to conflate art with the #MeToo debate on sex crimes against women.
“Defining this ‘an artistic act’ doesn’t disguise its authoritarian moralising as part of a rapidly spreading censorship championed by an increasingly puritanical, hectoring and intolerant feminism. It’s dangerous and a long way from the feminism I grew up with,” tweeted one woman.
The same scene, painted in the same period, by a woman, Henrietta R. Rae, who, according to Christie's, 'saw herself primarily as a painter of classical themes with a strong emphasis on the female nude.' #MAGSoniaBoyce @Mcrartgallery pic.twitter.com/mbftlkSwHU
— Philip (@philip_dantes) February 1, 2018
Another Twitter user posted an image of the same scene, with nudes, painted by a woman – disrupting the leftist narrative by posing the question whether only nudes painted by men can objectify women.
Both paintings depict the moment before Hylas, the companion of ancient Greek mythological hero Heracles, is abducted by water nymphs.
— Jennie Brown Hakim (@JennieBH) January 31, 2018
The concept that a removal of a piece of art “for contemplation” is art itself — versus having an actual painting to contemplate — was also roundly mocked.
Other users have noted that “Puritanism is not empowering” and compared the act to both book-burning by Nazis and Islamic morality laws on women’s clothing.
Respondents to the blog worried it set a “dangerous precedent” that only art considered “acceptable” may be on display in future.
#MAGSoniaBoyce We should not allow politics to censor art. If we allow art to be censored, how long before other forms of expression are censored? Books, speech, thought?
To normalise and accept censorship is to allow yourself to be cowed. This is anti-freedom.
— Æthelstan (@sudocrem4) January 31, 2018
However, some, like left-liberal Fawcett Society trustee Rachel Coldicutt, applauded the move, saying that it was “Brilliant that #MAGsoniaboyce is making it clear galleries don’t have to promote compliant, eroticised images of women”.
The removal of “compliant, eroticised” women has been in the news earlier this week after Formula 1 grid girls and Professional Darts Corporation walk-on girls found out they will lose their jobs in moves inspired by prudish third-wave feminism.