One of my favourite art galleries is the Manchester Art Gallery, with its astonishing collection of Pre-Raphaelites and figurative paintings displayed at ideal heights for close study. It has always amazed me that you could walk in there on a Saturday morning and have the place virtually to yourself while everyone else is creeping around the shopping centre bewitched by retail opportunities.
So, in a shrewd but rather risky move, the gallery has taken the unusual step of removing John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs. I’ve always loved Waterhouse and his strange sense of melancholy. I’m old enough to remember when Pre-Raphs were so unloved and disrespected that you could pick them up at street markets. They were considered to be bits of old Victoriana that needed to be got rid of. A friend of mine who collected them (he was not by any means rich) sold off his collection when he discovered he was terminally ill, and barely made a penny from the sale. Two years after his death they were re-evaluated and prices skyrocketed.
‘The Chariot Race’, based on the life of Porphyrius the Charioteer, is hard to fault as a painting but is lowly narrative art (naturally, I love narrative art). In the gallery’s basement are stacks of art waiting to jostle for limited wall space. The Waterhouse painting, which shows young girls luring Hylas to his death, has been taken down ‘to prompt conversations about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection’. Ie. in a time of virtue signalling and trigger warnings, is it offensive to have nude women in art? They also have Holman Hunt’s ‘The Shadow of Death’, an on-the-nose allegory (watch out for those nails!) but nobody is crass enough to regard the golden-bodied Christ as sexy.
At first I thought this was all a cunning plan to increase visitor numbers, in which case it would be the first time a gallery has added visitors by removing art. But the curator, Clare Gannaway, was both reassuring and a little worrying. She says ‘there is a sense of embarrassment that we haven’t dealt with it sooner’, meaning that the painting usually hangs in a room titled ‘In Pursuit of Beauty’, which contains late 19th century paintings of naked ladies.
It’s all about re-contextualising the male gaze, something that understandably exercises the minds of curators. But the nymphs seducing Hylas are very coyly painted, and they’re the ones who are in control.
Clearly the gallery tries to push reactions from its no doubt rather staid visitors, but if they wish to show modern work it should surely be split off and given its own space, rather than plonking it against classical subjects in the gruesome example shown here. Perhaps it’s all a stunt – but it’s one which could well backfire, forcing other galleries to do the same. At least it has us talking about a wonderful gallery that everyone should visit.