When the curator of the contemporary art section at the Manchester Art Gallery, Clare Gannaway, decided to pull out from displaying a painting from Pre-Raphaelite painter J.W. Waterhouse, the initiative was said to be about encouraging conversation and starting up a discussion about female body’s representation during the Victorian age.
The decision was made in the aftermath of the recent outbreak of Hollywood sexual scandals and allegations that have involved many famous Hollywood producers and directors. The so called “Weinstein scandal” has opened up a Pandora’s box, putting the whole media industries on the spot. Since then, many actresses and employees who have worked and continue working in the industry have come forward, denouncing years of abuses and sexual misconducts.
This has prompted the formation of many women-led movements such the Time’s Up movement and #Metoo, which are fighting against men’s sexual abuses and advocate for a more just and equal treatment of women in the workplace. In the aftermath of recent events, many people not directly affected by the accusations have joined the protest, lending their voices to the cause and each contributing in their own personal way.
But how does this connect back to a Pre-Raphaelite painting?
According to Gannaway, the idea of removing the painting was initiated by the protest in order to sensitise the public on the misogynist depiction of women, especially in the Victorian age. The unlucky victim is J.W. Waterhouse’s famous painting Hylas and the Nymphs. Based on the Greek epic poem ‘The Argonautica’, Hylas is Heracles’ young squire, who falls victims of the Nymphs’ seduction while watering at their spring. Depicted by many critics as a symbol of misogyny, the painting is said to be diminishing of women and especially to be encouraging a male-gaze perspective on the female body. The Nymphs are seen as static femme fatales and sorceresses who lack individuality.
Hence the gallery’s decision to remove it temporarily from the exposition. Unsurprisingly, the gesture rose a conflicting and polarising reaction on the public. While some people were interested by the idea, the majority felt outraged, with one person suggesting ironically, “why not remove Sirens and Ulysses in gallery 6?”, hinting at the futility of the initiative if we were to condemn every piece of art that has wrongly depicted women. When it comes to art, there are hardly any boundaries (Gustave Courbet, I’m looking at you), as art is supposed to express our freedom of thought and our inner extravaganza. Certainly, sexism and a good dose of chauvinism has always characterised classical and traditional art. We have to look into post-modernist art for a less abating representation of women, so the cry to condemn and overhaul this kind of behaviour is long overdue.
Censorship is never the answer, even when it comes with the best of intentions. A better idea could have been organizing an exposition that instead collects every piece of work that diminish women and reflect upon it instead of hiding it.
Nonetheless, even if Gannaway’s idea was intended to challenge rather than curb the conversation, the decision left a lot of people perplexed, to say the least. It seems like the curator failed to grasp the message behind the protest entirely. How can we change things for the better if we decide to hide what needs to be changed? Even though the gesture served its purpose and drew a lot of attention to the cause, I’m pretty sure we can find better ways to encourage conversation about the topic. Censorship is never the answer, even when it comes with the best of intentions. A better idea could have been organizing an exposition that instead collects every piece of work that diminish women and reflect upon it instead of hiding it.
After a week of debate and angry tweets over the decision of taking the painting off, the experiment is already over and the painting back on view. According to Gannaway the response was exactly what people at the Manchester Gallery were hoping for. People have talked about it (probably more than the poor Waterhouse could have hoped for when he painted the painting) so much so that now there is a whole section in the gallery’s web site in which people are encouraged to ‘get involved in the conversation’.
The initiative definitely served its purpose, if the purpose was just to get people to talk about the gesture. If, however, the intention was to stimulate the conversation about women’s representation in art and to link it back to recent protests against sexual assault on women, the success of the stunt remains debatable.
(Image courtesy of Manchester City Galleries)