Hit & Run

Gallery Nixes Naked Nymphs Because #MeToo

"Feminism gone mad! I'm ashamed to be a feminist!"

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Hylas
Public Domain

The Manchester Art Gallery has removed a John William Waterhouse painting, "Hylas and the Nymphs," due to concerns that the artwork—which depicts young, nude white women alongside the Greek hero Hylas—is no longer suitable in a post #MeToo world.

"For me personally, there is a sense of embarrassment that we haven't dealt with it sooner," Clare Gannaway, the gallery's contemporary art curator, told The Guardian. "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."

Gannaway also described the painting—and others like it—as old-fashioned for depicting women "either as passive beautiful objects or femmes fatales." She said there were "tricky issues about gender, race and representation." It's a bit unclear what exactly the problem is here, but the curator seems to be suggesting the girls are too white, and too naked.

The Guardian reports that the #MeToo movement "fed into the decision."

The removal might not be permanent, and it is intended "to prompt conversations." The gallery wants attendees to leave post-it notes expressing their views on the wall where the painting used to hang. One such note had this to say: "Feminism gone mad! I'm ashamed to be a feminist!"

The Manchester Art Gallery's website suggests that the painting's removal "was part of a group gallery takeover" and was filmed as a piece of performance art that explores "gender trouble" in 19th century paintings. The gallery is clearly attempting to frame the decision as an artistic choice rather than an act of censorship. But the gallery also removed postcards of the painting from its gift shop. Liz Prettejohn, who curated an earlier Waterhouse exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, told BBC News:

This is a painting that people love and the most ridiculous thing is the claim that somehow it's going to start a debate to take it out of public view.

Taking it off display is killing any kind of debate that you might be able to have about it in relation to some of the really interesting issues that it might raise about sexuality and gender relationships.

The Victorians are always getting criticised because they're supposed to be prudish. But here it would seem it's us who are taking the roles of what we think of as the very moralistic Victorians.

In any case, Gannaway's apparent criticism—that the painting depicts young girls who are partially nude and serve as passive objects for the male gaze, or some such thing—is wildly off base. Look at it a little more closely and you will see that the nymphs have plenty of agency: They are dragging Hylas to his doom within their watery abode. According to Greek mythology, Hylas was abducted by the nymphs, probably raped, and never seen again. His friend and lover Hercules searched for him, but alas, poor Hylas was never seen again.

So I guess there is a #MeToo angle here: The painting literally depicts a sexual crime. It would be silly to withdraw the painting for that reason too, but at least the perceived offense would have fit the situation. Yet the politically correct curator seems to have missed the point of the painting—she's too busy re-applying fig leaves to R-rated art.