A few mornings ago I caught the end of a report on the news on the radio about an art gallery that had removed a painting from the walls of one of its galleries because the content of the painting, painted over 100 years ago, didn’t fit in with modern sensibilities in a post Weinstein world. I raised my eyebrows but it was only later in the day that I discovered that it was Manchester Art Gallery and they had removed a painting called ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ by the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite painter, J.W. Waterhouse. It’s one of the gallery’s most popular paintings and one of the city’s great, cultural treasures. Whenever, I’m in the gallery looking at something else, I usually go and spend a couple of minutes in front of it. Here it is…

A little about it….

Hylas was the son of King Theiodamas somewhere in Ancient Greece. He was a handsome lad it seems. Heracles had an argument with the king over a bull that Heracles killed and ate. The argument turned nasty and Heracles killed the king. He then took on the son, Hylas, as his companion and servant. The sort of relationship that went on a lot in Ancient Greece but might cause controversy today. Heracles took Hylas on the Argo to look for the Golden Fleece, a trip organised by Jason. On a stopover somewhere, Hylas wandered off and found a pool. The pool was full of nymphs who took a fancy to the handsome lad and pulled him into the pool and drowned him so he could stay forever with them. Note to self…avoid nymphs. Heracles was desolate and stayed on the island looking for his companion. In the painting we see the moment where Hylas, enchanted by the beauty of the nymphs (it seems he was very 21st century in his romantic entanglements) is about to be pulled into the pool. This theme has been portrayed in art, and continues to be so, since ancient times.

The gallery curators said the picture would be removed to ‘encourage debate’ about how we view women generally and how the Victorians viewed them and should we be still encouraging such views. The nymphs are quite young we’re told and is this appropriate? Well it certainly did encourage debate. The story went viral, first in Manchester, then across the UK and on around the world.

I’m not sure about the exact percentage of pro/con removing the painting comments but my very unscientific appraisal of what I have read has been against the removal of the painting. And the debate has been moved from a debate about how women are portrayed in art. A lot of the comments have been about the curators of the gallery censoring what the public can see as it doesn’t fit in with their political view of the world. Others commented about how legal was it for the curators of a publically funded gallery to remove an art work from the walls that is owned by the city? Others said it was a stunt to promote the gallery. If so it’s certainly done that.

The fact that the debate so quickly moved from what the gallery wanted to the subject of censorship was interesting. Politics has been shaken around the world by people, tired of being ignored by political elites, voting in such a way that has led to Trump in the US and Brexit over here. The curators of the gallery seem to have been cast as an out of touch political elite trying to foist their view of the world on the people who like to visit the gallery. As well as this incident there have been instances of some less than well received ‘art’ exhibitions.

I was going to go into the gallery to photograph the space today but the picture has been restored to its position. The debate is rumbling on though.

I was surprised by the choice of painting. A couple of rooms along there is this, ‘The¬†Sirens and Ulysses’ by William Etty, another Victorian painter but not a Pre-Raphaelite.

Guys, if you thought nymphs were bad, you really need to avoid sirens. What these voluptuous ladies like to do was sing a song so beautiful that it would drive men, on ships passing their island, wild and lure them to their doom. You can see some of their previous victims littering the shoreline. Ulysses, on his trip home from the Trojan War, wanted to hear the song. He had his men put wax in their ears so they couldn’t hear the sound and keep rowing and not be doomed. He had himself tied to the mast so he couldn’t throw himself to his personal doom but still listen. It worked. Their island was supposed to be off the coast of Capri on the Bay of Naples. We have been to Capri and we did arrive by boat. We didn’t see any of them. It must have been the sirens day off.

This picture was in a dreadful state a few years ago and we had the pleasure of watching it being restored in public, in one of the smaller galleries. It’s a huge painting and maybe they thought these rubenesque beauties could stay put because they were just too heavy to move.

What next? If we start removing pictures because they might offend people where will it end? How safe will ‘The Shadow of the Cross’ by William Holman Hunt be if it is seen to offend non-Christians and people of no faith?¬†

« »