News & Commentary, Visual Arts Purging art from public places: it’s not censorship, just contextualising By Rosemary Sorensen | February 1, 2018 | Excellent! 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. 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? Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn Email About the Author: Rosemary Sorensen Rosemary Sorensen is director of Bendigo Writers Festival.