Nymphs Begone!

The Arts


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.

WFF_City Art Gallery_03So, 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.

0f585314327f47935278937798bf561a‘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.

300px-William_holman_hunt-the_shadow_of_deathAt 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.

Big-Booby_2_2011Clearly 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.

20 comments on “Nymphs Begone!”

  1. Ken Mann says:

    Does this mean they don’t have anything by William Etty?

  2. Denise Treadwell says:

    Do you really want to know what I think?

  3. Brooke says:

    The problem: the curators are in charge, aided and abetted by the “ladies committee” of the board. Lost in outdated concepts of art, both groups have trouble coping with 21st century sensibilities and waffle between being nice and correct and being absurd. The last image above is an example of the latter but I have seen much worse, e.g. a Kehinde Wiley hung in a gallery of 19th c. American paintings because the curatorial staff is trying to demonstrate that they get multiculturalism.

    Sorry, but try as I may, I cannot like Pre-Raphaelite art–too much Ophelia dying limply. Thanks for the Chariot Race–hell of a good composition. For lowly narrative art, try Bellows at the National Gallery.

  4. Peter Tromans says:

    Remember the Guerrilla Girls: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” Eliminate the nude ladies and museums will have a load of space to redevelop as luxury flats.

    Be happy when few others, especially the mainstream, don’t appreciate something that you enjoy. First, it makes it financially more accessible. Second, it’s free of the constraints imposed by mainstream critics.

    Still, I fail to appreciate the Pre-Raphaelites.

  5. Steveb says:

    Chris you are soooooooo right on this.
    Enough said.

  6. Denise Treadwell says:

    Sadly, this is happening everywhere. There are numerous excuses for their removal. There are some whose fate are unknown.

  7. Paul Graham says:

    Oh I hope Charles August Mengin’s Sappho, is still displayed. Many a happy lunch hour spent in that fine gallery, when I worked in Manchester.

  8. Eliz Amber says:

    As a huge Waterhouse fan and a feminist, this has me frothing. There is no better way to sexualise women’s bodies than to imply that their depiction is shameful.

  9. Mike says:

    What next? Rubens, Goya and Botticelli hidden in the cellars?
    Statues clad in burkas?
    The world grows poorer as common sense retreats from the unchecked PC brigade

  10. Denise Treadwell says:

    I expect they won’t have a Klimt exhibition then ! Some of his drawings are very explicit!

  11. chazza says:

    Denise – nor Schiele!

  12. Mary Schultz says:

    Where does this put Georgia O’Keefe then?

  13. Helen Martin says:

    My objection to the top painting is the coyness, the implication that there is something to hide. There are only three nipples theoretically shown and they are almost painted into neutrality. Just look at those strategically placed leaves. They might just as well be fig leaves (and why figs, for goodness sake? There were other trees in the area.)

  14. Ian Luck says:

    It might be blasphemous, but I always thought that the Holman Hunt painting of Jesus that you show, looks to me, like Jesus is dancing to a tune on the radio. ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ by Rick Astley, in all probability. What?

  15. Bill says:

    I think Mr. Hunt’s Jesus is quite sexy.

    Fill the museums up with male nudes!

  16. Helen Martin says:

    There are male nudes from Discobolus to the two famous Davids and beyond. The problem with male nudity is the difficulty of creating a continuous smooth line. Works on women but things interrupt the line with men, hence draping or other covering material. Perhaps there’s a thought that complete nudity suggests vulnerability.

  17. Ian Luck says:

    A little, very dark corner of my mind always hoped that the British Museum would have an exhibition of all the bits removed from statuary by authorities that didn’t want their population shocked by the sight of the human undercarriage. The exhibit would exist solely to wind up people who hate that sort of thing (or, indeed, those sort of things). I detest unnecessary censorship in all forms. When it is used properly, to protect innocent or vulnerable people, then yes, great, well done, good job, etc., but when one person decides that they don’t like something, because it does not correspond to the narrow parameters of their life, and finds a way to stop others making their own minds up, then that is very wrong indeed. I always hoped that wherever Mary Whitehouse went after she died, she was neighbours with Russ Meyer, Lenny Bruce, John Holmes, and Bill Hicks.

  18. Peter Tromans says:

    Ian, in a film of C. de Sica, he called such a collection a ‘cazzeria’.

  19. Ian Luck says:

    Thank you, sir. I had an idea that the word was something along that line – I remember watching a show by the late Brian Sewell when he visited Pompeii, and was describing, with ill-concealed glee about all the ‘filth’ that was removed so as not to upset the tourists. He used the term then, as all the salacious art, and statues of Priapus, and the myriad phalluses that advertised brothels were put into a store, where the more unshockable Victorian tourist could pay a fee to view them.

  20. Vivienne says:

    As a girl who grew up with only sisters, a visit to the V and A was my only resource for discovering what men’s bodies really looked like. All those marble muscles probably made my expectations a bit high though.

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