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Is This 19th Century Painting Offensive?

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John William Waterhouse’s (1849–1917) painting Hylas And The Nymphs depicts naked nymphs tempting a hot young man to his doom. But, in our era of political correctness and new puritanism, is the erotic Victorian fantasy too offensive to today’s viewers?

The British Manchester Art Gallery has removed the painting, one of the most famous of the pre-Raphaelite paintings. Postcards of the painting are no longer from sale in the gift shop.

Hylas And The Nymphs was taken down last week and in its place is a card explaining that the empty space had been left: ”… to prompt conversations about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection”. Visitors to the museum have stuck Post-it notes around the notice with their reactions. The removal of the painting has become art itself.

The Waterhouse painting used to live the gallery’s In Pursuit Of Beauty room, which exhibits lots of 19th century paintings with many naked females. The gallery’s curator of Contemporary Art, Clare Gannaway, claims the name is bad because it features male artists’ take on women’s bodies, with paintings that present the female form as a passive decorative art.

Gannaway:

”For me personally, there is a sense of embarrassment that we haven’t dealt with it sooner. Our attention has been elsewhere; we’ve collectively forgotten to look at this space and think about it properly. We want to do something about it now because we have forgotten about it for so long.”

She also stated that the debates around the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements were part of the decision.

So far, reaction has been mixed. Some people have said it sets a dangerous precedent, while others have called it politically correct.

Gannaway also says the the aim of the removal was always to provoke debate, not to censor:

”We think it probably will return, yes, but hopefully contextualized quite differently. It is not just about that one painting, it is the whole context of the gallery.”

Waterhouse, Via Wikimedia Commons

Waterhouse is one of the most notable of the English pre-Raphaelites. His Lady of Shalott is one of Tate Britain’s bestselling postcards. Yet, his work has been accused of being uncomfortably close to pornography.

The Tate, via Wikimedia Commons


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