Text: Robyn Sian Cusworth
This week, Manchester Art Gallery rocked the boat in the art world for removing the Pre Raphaelite painting of Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse in 1896. Was this the right painting to pick to spark debate in light of #MeToo and ‘Time’s Up’ when arts and culture is full to the brim with misogyny? Or is any firestarter to debate a good one?
The painting harks back to the old myth of a handsome hero being lured into a lake by a sensual sisterhood of water women with their breasts exposed. According to the myth, Hylas was never seen again. The absence has been described by curator Claire Gannaway as ‘provoking a debate ‘about the ‘Victorian fantasy’ of the ‘female body’ as either a ‘passive decorative form’ or a ‘femme fatale’ and links inspiration to the #MeToo and #Time’sUp campaign. Though, the arts & culture world is not short of idolised abusers *cough cough* Paul Gauguin, R Kelly, Woody Allen (the list goes on), so is discussing Victorian stereotypes really all that relevant to a meaningful, contemporary discussion?
Sure, this painting was created by a privileged white man and it’s integral to stir up conversation about diversity in paintings we see hanging on the walls of galleries, for the future of art and a positive change. It’s a great stunt to pull off to get people talking - and not as radical as many (mostly male Twitter trolls) seem to be portraying it to be, people have shamed it ‘a step backwards’ and verging on ‘censorship’. It’s barely that, when it has been so disclosed and welcoming of opinion. That said, unless we link the lack of roles for women in Victorian fiction and art to the lack of roles for women in contemporary arts and culture, what is so special about Waterhouses’ nymphs?