News & Commentary, Visual Arts

Purging art from public places: it’s not censorship, just contextualising

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Manchester Art Gallery has taken down the excruciatingly gorgeous and silly Hylas and the Nymphs painting by pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse, because of the way it depicts women.

Does this mean we can expect a purging of the walls?

Down comes Gauguin’s Tahitian Women from the walls of the Met for starters.

Manet’s Olympia and Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon have both been claimed to be pro-feminism since the prostitutes depicted look directly at the viewer, but let’s err on the side of caution, and remove them from sight for the time being.

Surely there’s no need to search out for exclusion Norman Lindsay’s Nymphs in the Glade since his ugly exploitative depictions of nubile women fell out of favour aesthetically a while back, didn’t they?

But in light of our newly-acquired, freshly-outraged realisation about the inequities of gender politics, let’s err on the side of over-reaction and take down centuries of art created by men which depicts their own and their society’s mythic bigotry.

At least, when we walk in to an art gallery, we can be confident we won’t be assaulted by nymphs.

There, that feels better.

Pity about all the misogynistic exploitative pervasive crap inundating popular culture, on screens big and small, permeating almost without discussion every moment of our lives, from the very young to the very old.

At least, when we walk in to an art gallery, we can be confident we won’t be assaulted by nymphs.

Manchester Gallery wants us to “challenge this Victorian fantasy”.

Hear hear, although, of course the Victorian fantasy is embedded in the myths of Greek and Rome, so good luck with that. Mary Beard’s superb little book, Women and Power, doesn’t advocate not reading Homer, or removing The Odyssey from library shelves.

The gallery is not advocating censorship. What they seem to be doing is clearing a space, metaphorically and literally, for a re-start.

They’ll have anticipated the backlash, the shouting, the media coverage as far afield as Australia (about an artwork! How about that!!), the accusations of political correctness (a tired old concept these days) and then, hopefully, the informed debate and renewed, refreshed scrutiny about whether or why art matters.

Curator Clare Gannaway said she was “personally embarrassed” that the gallery had been distracted by other artistic concerns, and left this 19th-century painting in a room titled “The Pursuit of Beauty”, with no “contextualising”.

It’s a pity it took an act that could be deemed negative to invite us to rethink this image of a manly man about to be drowned in the seductive power of the nubile female form.

Will there come a time when Whiteley will need to be “recontextualised”?

And yes, it’s a drop in the misogyny ocean, this sudden little act of artistic integrity.

There’s a particularly ugly Brett Whiteley on show currently at the Bendigo Art Gallery, unsettlingly vicious in its depiction of a woman on a beach.

WHITELY, the bathers,
BATHER ON THE SAND 1975-76: Brett Whiteley, oil on canvas, Australia 1939 – 1992. On loan to Bendigo Art Gallery from a Private Collection 2005.

We’re told in the curatorial notes that it’s “frenetic and visceral, but also sensuous and clever” – surely a challenge to the viewer to work out how such a torturous pose, with its elongated arms and cartoon head twisted over the looming bum/breast can be considered sensuous.

Will there come a time when this Whiteley will need to be “recontextualised” to take into account evolutions in the gender myths that underpin our societies?

48 responses to “Purging art from public places: it’s not censorship, just contextualising

  1. That is ridiculous…….not only are they natural – not an implant in sight. BUT there is not even a baby attached to one of them!!

  2. Hylas and the Nymphs is so beautiful. It’s more of a love letter to youth and beauty than anything else (the male figure is gorgeous too). As an exercise removing it for a short while is interesting I suppose but it could easily go into a new puritanism.

  3. This is ridiculous and counter productive for the advancement of women’s rights.
    Denying the past is whitewashing and airbrushing reality. These pictures remind us all- men and women too of what was and our viewing of them today is part of the journey of what can be.
    I am a rampant feminist getting more rampant as I age. This decision offends me.
    What do others think? Particularly those of us old enough to remember, not quite nymphs era but an era where female subservience was a given.

    1. Yeah i agree. Getting rid of these paintings is pointless. We should be encouraged to understand the context in which they were made rather than dismissing them as sexist and therefore not worthy of a gallery wall.
      And the idea that it is the nymphs who are holding the power and the man in the painting is a victim. No, not quite. The painting seems more likely a cautionary tale about female sexuality. But that is a good jumping off point to explore how women’s sexuality has, in the West, historically been used as a form of contraception (ie women are temptresses, men are hapless victims, women must be chaste etc etc).
      If anything in the #metoo era these representations are more important because they help us see how our history has dictated where we are today.
      Also, just saying, but the painting is masterfully done (how do people render the human body so realistically!)

  4. A frankly embarrassing bid for publicity. They actually referred to the #metoo hashtag when announcing the reason for its removal, as though it was somehow connected to that movement. That or #nameandshamepreraphaelites didn’t quite trip off the tongue.

  5. Another example of the stupidity of the human race. ? What tortured soul… confused about and not understanding human sexuality would want to place some interpretation of women somehow being exploited or used in such a painting…? Do they not understand that normal healthy women actually love sensuality and Sex…? There is actually no fixed formula as to people’s sexual and erotic proclivities….

    Whoever is driving all this misunderstanding of human nature…. and I recognise that there are far too many men who abuse their expected respect for and protection of women… maybe some who have not heeded the good teaching and advice of their mothers….. should perhaps rail against the atrocities of war…. and historians will tell you…. such comes from all sides of the conflict…. not the sensual and the erotic which is …. at least…. equally enjoyed by women….

    Art…. and Philosophy…. helps us to understand life…. Why is the sensual and the erotic not part of that…? Facts are… it is…. a very large part of it…. Any who find fault such as the above…. really needs to introspectively look at themselves…!!

    1. Thank you John, but we don’t need to be protected. Also some of us might not be entertained by the notion that you get to tell us how to be “normal healthy women”.

  6. Like Luke, above, I worry about a new puritanism, too. I’m also reminded of totalitarian regimes that have destroyed art seen to conflict with their ideology – the Nazis torched ‘degenerate’ art; the Taliban blew the Bamiyan Buddhas to smithereens… Rather than removing Hylas and the Nymphs from view, why not invite those troubled by it to respond to it artistically – and to the classical myth that inspired a Victorian man to paint it. That would be a much more powerful statement than merely removing it from view in a unilateral act of censorship.

  7. Not sure that the nymph picture is in this category, but I do believe we are long overdue to be purged of the loathsome male obsession with naked female bodies that are not actually art in any way, (other than they’ve used paint and canvas) as they are just an expression of the male fixation on seeing women as sex objects and it is like a repeating vitriole that has become so tedious. This is definitely fine to be noted as an ‘era’ for sure, but one to be relegated to the history books now and no longer given space in a gallery – about time too. It’s a sign of the beginnings of emotional maturityhopefully.

    1. What a load of drivel. While they were painting these pictures, the artists were using hitherto unthought of techniques that benefited art. I was introduced to pre-Raphaelites by a beautiful woman friend who alas in no longer in this world. Go stand in an exhibition of Caravaggio, Rubens, the impressionists, The Italian renaissance and say this. I am equivocal about the merit of this particular painting.

  8. Sorensen describes the painting as ‘silly’. Maybe it is, but if so then the women who adored the Beatles and other bands through history were and are too.

    Are we going to remove all celebration of and references to the Beatles and most other bands because they have encouraged inappropriate gender relations?

    It is fantasy to pretend that this type of relationship is not reflective of one facet of reality. Just because you wish something doesn’t make it so.

    The painting celebrates youth, beauty, love, infatuation and lust -all part of what it is to be human – powerfully and archetypally.

    I wonder whar the baby-boomer founders of counter-culture think of this new prudery? I think we are sliding backwards into fascism.

    1. Good point about The Beatles; if we deleted every pop song with “girl” in the lyrics used to refer to a grown woman there wouldn’t be all that much left.

  9. Historical objects should teach us – they are reference points for our more developed understanding: ideologues imposing a narrow perspective on the rest of society are insecure and self-righteous. It is a small step from censorship to the Buddhas of Bamiyan….

  10. Funny how this image – (are they quins or is it just that all those nymphs look the same?) needs to be removed lest our feminist sensibilities be offended, but Bruno Mars’ lyrics in his recent grammy award winning song – That’s What I Like – are just peachy with everyone, thanks very much.

  11. You couldn’t make this stuff up, could you ? The image reminds me of a Boys’ Brigade camp I went to some 60 odd years ago.

  12. Fear is the driver of this stupidity Fear that we offend some loudmouthed feminist or some such person ,it’s only a painting of semi nudes by a painter who probably never thought of anything else but doing a painting , we get caught up in so much crap these days about things that don’t matter a thought , Sick of it alkl!

  13. I am disgusted. This episode is just a cunning way to endorse all those filthy-minded Renaissance painters who seemed to paint women as whores before turning to immortalising sundry cardinals and Popes. One Venetian ‘old master’ in particular, should be expunged from the world’s art galleries. His painting ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ depicts Bacchus JILTING Ariadne. How obscene.
    To allay the suspicious minds of the far right, I enclose the following rhyme.
    “While Titian was mixing rose madder,
    His model reclined up a ladder.
    Her position to Titian,
    Suggested coition,
    So he climbed up the ladder and had her.

  14. This new Neo-Puritanism taken to its practical extent will probably not end the way social power activists and negotiators think. Care needs to be taken. Religions of many kinds will gleefully reify and retweet shifts of taste and repeal rights as and when the power, ideology and theories concur in practice. Censorship by another name. Quacking like a duck, looking like a duck. The iconoclasts could help fetishize through concealment, and aide and abet vicars and slutshamers alike. Putting men in the spotlight by removing female images does not necessarily follow. Hiding even a negative narrative is not a complete, truthful or elucidating history. The redacted impulses of men will not serve to provide a verity of human depiction. The concealed woman can be just as limiting an orthodoxy. What would be more interesting, and challenging, is the visual expression of women, in conversation with the unredacted products of male fixation. For all to compare and contrast. Evidence too is in the eye of the beholder.

  15. Purge the naughty bits from the galleries and the Bible and arent there naughty bits in Chaucher as well. We could have a big fire in Martin Place, er Plaza and the Hitler youth could throw all the naughty book and paintings into the fire !

    Oh shit, hasent that been done before ?

  16. Like wine, I don’t know much about art but I know what I like: and I like this painting just because. As for any connotations of lust or whatever, it seems to me that the nymphs are chiding Hylas to stop being a prude, to get his gear off and join them in the pool (where they will all be on neutral ground, so to speak, and on an equal footing). As for misogyny – I fear that here, Hylas is depicted as being a bit out of his depth in that department.

  17. Not one person, feminist or otherwise, has agreed with this silly decision, described as a response to the me-too movement. That says all that need be said about ideologically driven prudery. We are adults after all. As a long standing feminist, I never thought that I wanted anything other than equality between men and women- now I find that paintings expressive of sensuality and sexual attraction between men and women are to be censored, or is it “contextualised “, as though lust is presumed to be the loathsome exploitation of powerful self-serving men indifferent to the suffering of those they exploit. What can be done to put a rocket under such silly people?

  18. It’s all about context, and this artwork needs to be serin within the relevant social/sexual/political whatever context of when it was produced (or if later, a comment thereon). One important aspect of Art is the message; either factual, theraputic or utopian. In this respect such Artworks are worthy of public viewing and discussion at the very least. I may not be so kind about some contemporary “art” like that misogynistic graffiti spproaching Richmond train station (WTF is that and why is it still up there??!!), or the lyrics to much rap music.
    I thought the whole MeToo conversation and broader feminist/sexual revolution was about POWER. Aren’t “nymphs” exercerting power over the male ??? Sounds very empowering to me.
    As to the question of beauty, it seems like more responders feel this painting is sublime. Surey beauty is subjective.
    Thanks for opening up the forum and with a healthy dose of humour and non-PC 🙂 !!!

  19. Hylas was a handsome young member of the ‘Argo”s crew – sent to fetch water from a spring, but he never returned…. Predatory water nymphs fell for him, dragged him under water and drowned him. People should check what stories are about, before they condemn pictures. The nymphs look alluring, but they are dangerous. He is the victim.

  20. I was so disgusted by all this that I put my Warren Zevon CD in to calm myself down – what do I get but : ” I went home with the waitress the way I always do,” A bloody serial seducer of waitresses. And I’ve been listening to this for 30 years ( lawyers, guns and money ).

    Probably warped my view of the whole world listening to perversions like that !

  21. As a committed feminist, once 70’s- 90’s activist, I find some of the present day young women scary and lacking in humanism. It is all about their perspective, no nuanced response. We had those types in my day too, but thankfully fewer. As an art student, also in the 70’s, I was a little scathing about the artistic merits of this painting but now find it quaintly appealing.

    1. It’s the lack of humanism that freaks me too. Addressing misogyny while you’re a misanthropist? Yeah, works well. I’m starting to understand why some people use the term feminazi now. It’s starting to fit.

  22. I would say that this is a simple exercise of the removal of ‘degenerate’ art from the brave new world of international meetooism. Funny that; seems to ring a bell from the 20th century.

    Should be getting rid of all that 15th century renaissance ‘daughter breastfeeds starving dad’ rubbish and those naked pre-pubescent cherubs which are clearly the pre-internet version of child porn for all those perverted prelates.

    My god that feels good….I’ve done my bit of virtue-saving for mankind.

  23. I love the Pre _ Raphaelites. A young woman once told me they were one of the worst things to have ever happened to art . Waterhouse didn’t actually belong to the Pre -Raphaelite Brotherhood, as they called themselves ( What ? How awful , no female artists. Bloody Victorian misogynists !). He came along a bit later but painted in their style., as did many other late Victorian artists. This painting has been my background image on my PC more often than any other photo or painting. Yes indeed, Hitler’s book – burning days are almost here again. Sack the bitch responsible for removing this painting. She calls herself a curator but she doesn’t seem to have any knowledge of the legend this painting illustrates . If she did, she’d know it’s the nymphs we have the power here, not the lad !

  24. Seeing you don’t want it Ms Gannaway, can I borrow it? I’ll hang it in my “Manshed” alongside my copy of The Venus de Milo.

  25. Hey, what about getting an artist to paints burqas over each of the nymphs and return the painting to the Manchester gallery. Then all the prudes out there might be happy. Me, I’m right. I’ve downloaded a high-res digital image from an art website and have got it up on my desktop.

  26. I once took these beautiful young things out on my boat and they all took their clothes off and cavorted in the water.they seemed terribly happy and it seemed a bit like the garden of Eden. What should I have done according to the me-too crowd. I know, I should have admonished them and told them to put their clothes on and told them that they were? Well , what should I have admonished them. IN this new world having fun is verboten.

    1. What on earth does this have to do with #metoo, a movement where women let each other know that they are not alone in their experiences of having been sexually predated on?

  27. Thank you Rosemary. I remember looking at a few of Norman Lindsay’s “nymphs” at the Norman Lindsay gallery in the Blue Mountains. I was absolutely stunned by the sheer sensuousness of them. There was absolute goddess power in them. I was talking about it to my mum who was getting on a bit by then. “Ah” she said. “One of our neighbours in Mosman was reputed to be a “Lindsay Girl” and she looked as if she could be too. Some people made a scandal some were just jealous.” Did someone say “Context”?

  28. Context is important.

    Hylas is the youthful lover of Heracles. He has been represented many times in different periods – usually as an idealised figure of male beauty and homoerotic desire.

    The nymphs are nature spirits governed by the goddess Artemis/Diana. Like her they are independent of men’s desires. The most famous example of this is the story of the hunter Actaeon. He stumbles upon Artemis and her nymphs bathing. Artemis catches him and punishes him by turning him into a stag and turning her hounds on him. They rip him to shreds. If this isn’t a lesson about the male gaze I don’t know what is.

    Of course, the Victorians who first viewed this painting were well-versed in classical mythology. Alas we moderns are an ignorant lot and so miss the context.

    Now knowing this, look at the painting again. Are you sure this is about female beauty or more an allegory about the dangers that befall mortal men when they wander into untamed territory ruled by nature spirits? And are the nymphs passive creatures or agents of wildness?

    1. Wonderful, thank you for that gentle corrective. and perhaps this is exactly what the curator hoped for. Ah to Artemis, Belles Dames sans mercy and all the others … whom, as astounding as it may seem, were the first inklings many of us educated in the 60s had things did not have to be as our mothers told us. Then there was Friedan, De Beauvoir and Greer, and we were away on out voyage of empowerment. And I loved my long ago years as a nymph….on the occasion I stepped out of adolescent terror and was brave enough to embrace the role.

    2. All forms of censorship of art as practised by non-artists, bureaucrats and self-appointed moral guardians are repugnant. Artists themselves don’t both with this; they are too busy getting on with the precarious process of making a living. To exhibit only those works which cannot conceivably offend is to set in stone a culture of blandness and relegate art to insignificance; an artwork which offends for any reason – except maybe for incompetence of execution, and even that is a highly subjective and contentious area – should still be displayed so that the public should draw its own conclusions as to what it is that offends them. I have seen Mein Kampf on open display in many libraries, including school libraries. It is the most offensive work of litearture ever printed, but no way would I countenance banning it; that would make it far too attractive!

    3. Although a Classical education could prevent unwanted erections, painters would still use Classical settings and narratives as a pretext for painting nude chicks in a vain attempt to titilate all the stoically non-priapic gents who were having none of it. If an artist wanted to paint and exhibit a picture of a naked teenage girl he just slapped the name of a nymph on it, like…Oh, say, Chloe, and he was good to go. You’re not helping your case by pretending this wasn’t what they were up to.

  29. Breasts are for feeding babies . Implants objectify women, unless required after a medical procedure such as a double mastectomy.Doing breast enlargements or reductions to fit a boyfriends fantasy borderlines on stupidity.

    Having any such procedure done overseas in a third world country can result in death.
    Greater legal requirements for cosmetic surgery needed

  30. Similar arguments to those used to knock all the penises off Greek statues a few years back.
    Why do some people have to be so righteous?

  31. Mary Beard is an exceptional classist and one that should be read by all. The assumption in the article that one can critique Homer of understand Cicero from the perspective of a new wave of feminist ideology, is part of the essential problem and that is of essentialising the other, in this case men and men from 2500 yrs ago or from 100 or 50 years ago. It should be noted that Professor Beard is as much a head birth of Homer and/or Cicero, as was Athena a head-birth of Zeus.

  32. Unless you live in the artist’s brain, you cannot say what the intentions of the artist are. But, as we’ve had many thousands of years of misogyny, and not allowing women’s voices to express what they want to say, we must start to change things and make our world that has everyone on an equal level.

    The world today is still is not equal for women, so we must do something about it.

    When there is real equality, it is only then that can any of us say, my life, my art and my existence means something. Because without equality, you cannot measure anything, because nothing is equal.

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