Murky waters in the arts: Waterhouses' nude nymphs are not the real issue in an art world of misogyny

Text: Robyn Sian Cusworth
Image: Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse (1896)

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?
Image: Nafea Faa Ipoipo /When Will You Marry?, Paul Gauguin (1892)
It rings true that in British Victorian literature and art, especially Gothicism and Romanticism women are stereotyped into barely three roles, often in an otherworldly setting with slim bodies, perfect hair and white skin. This is problematic and not representative of society. Period. Although, how much art in the Western world before 1900 was? So where is the direct bond between this painting to #metoo and ‘Time’s Up’? Could it be the lack of diversity in portrayals of women in our galleries, mirroring the lack of roles in Hollywood? There is no clue of sexual harassment in this image, so to align it with such a serious movements may explain why some have got so offended. Side note too: Hylas may have been a gay man, and the women are a collective of mythological beings, living outside of a patriarchal world in natural spaces ( a dreamy scene that you don’t see that in many Victorian paintings).
So how do we link art to contemporary movements against real-life monsters such as Harvey Weinstein? Perhaps calling out real-life abusers in art would be a good move if we are going to align with a movement against sexual harassment and inequality? Because, when we do, it becomes all more clear that through the years, the unacceptable actions of powerful men in the arts have always been brushed under the carpet. How about the exploitative colonialist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)? Though this man paved the way in Primitivism, this is an artist who exploited the beauty of Tahiti for his own gain and married a thirteen year old woman named Tehamana - the subject of his best known works. Can we really remove potential abuse from art and ignore that when looking at Gauguin's work when wandering through the likes of massive establishments such as the Musee d'Orsay’ and the National Gallery?
Do we ignore it when we hop down the line and consider that Picasso was a misogynist and Lucian Freud didn’t acknowledge (potentially dozens) of love-children that he sired? When we continue through the years, we might remember Roman Polanski and Woody Allen are peadophiles and they have continued to hold down their untouchable legacies - why and how is this?
Image: La cena (The supper), Belkis Ayón Manso (1988)

So, while Waterhouses’ nymphs may pose problems as another product of an undiverse, western-european male gaze, it could be argued that there’s far more obvious works that pose questions on ethics. It may seem that Manchester Art Gallery are painting with a broad brush with this argument starter, which may explain so many negative responses suggesting that they had ‘jumped on the bandwagon of a serious subject’.
Nude Nymphs aside, let’s consider real change that can happen in the gallery and arts sphere that directly aligns with #MeToo and ‘Time’s Up’. Let’s be skeptical of problematic artists of the past. Let’s make more space for the female artists that history fails to limelight, such as Belkis Ayon Manso, in both physical gallery spaces and school learning curriculums. Let’s understand problems of the male gaze and encourage the current buzz surrounding the female gaze. Removing and ignoring the past won’t help us do that, but making space for the the new is key.
Last up, whilst it’s important to provoke conversation, as Manchester Art Gallery have done, let’s not forget the point of the movements in question. We can no longer ignore the monsters that are are still alive and lurking in the art world, and we need to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself.

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Robyn Sian Cusworth

  • writer, communicator, content coordinator


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Robyn Sian Cusworth
writer, communicator, content coordinator