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Victorian Mature

Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) – John William Waterhouse

It’s not such a mystery, we’re really living a new middle age of thought and action. And what is happening to art is but a thermometer of our mind blurring level. After the facts of Balthus and Egon Schiele‘s artworks, now it’s the turn of John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, a scene from Greek mythology in which Hylas, the young handsome companion of Heracles — Roman Hercules —, is surrounded by enchanting nude nymphs looking up from tranquil water. Manchester Art Gallery decided to remove one of the most recognisable of the pre-Raphaelite paintings from its walls — and its postcards from sale in the shop —, replacing it with a notice explaining that a temporary space had been left “to prompt conversations about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection”. Members of the public have stuck Post-it notes around the notice giving their reaction.

Clare Gannaway, the gallery’s curator of contemporary art, said the aim of the removal was to provoke debate, not to censor. The question they’re asking for is whether a painting that shows pubescent, naked nymphs tempting a handsome young man to his doom, but is it an erotic Victorian fantasy too far, and one which, in the current climate, is unsuitable and offensive to modern audiences.

#MAGSoniaBoyce Notice – Photo: MAG
Visitors read the commentary on notes, which are attached to the place formerly reserved for the painting Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) by John William Waterhouse – Photo: Britta Schultejans/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

MAG officials took down the painting on the pretext that its removal was part of an ongoing project with contemporary artist Sonia Boyce, leading up to her one-woman show in March. The gallery website asserted the event was conceived as a “take-over” of “some of the gallery’s public spaces” by Boyce, “to bring different meanings and interpretations of paintings from the gallery’s collection into focus, and into life.” This included a “series of performances, all filmed by Boyce’s team, addressing issues of race, gender, and sexuality, culminating in the careful, temporary removal of the Waterhouse painting.” This is academic double-talk and damage control.

Liz Prettejohn, professor of history of art at the University of York, who curated a major Waterhouse retrospective at the Royal Academy in London in 2009, told BBC News, “This is a painting that people love and the most ridiculous thing is the claim that somehow it’s going to start a debate to take it out of public view.”

Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) by John William Waterhouse at the Manchester Art Gallery (2016) – Photo: Fabian Fröhlich
The Sirens & Ulysses (1837) by William Etty at the Manchester Art Gallery (2016) – Photo: Fabian Fröhlich

“We think it probably will return, yes, but hopefully contextualised quite differently. It is not just about that one painting, it is the whole context of the gallery,” said Gannaway, while the artist Michael Browne who attended the event where the painting was taken down said he was worried the past was being erased: “I don’t like the replacement and removal of art and being told ‘that’s wrong and this is right’. They are using their power to veto art in a public collection. We don’t know how long the painting will be off the wall – it could be days, weeks, months. Unless there are protests it might never come back.”

Of course, in such an inquisitive climate, no one is safe anymore, not even us who, in order to spread news like this, must constantly pay attention to the choice of covers and images to avoid the burning of censorship.

The Burning of Archpriest Avvakum (1897) Grigoriy Myasoyedov

However, it seems that the art world still has the sensitivity and strength to be indignant at such decisions. In addition to the Post-it protest, many people reacted on social media too. Clare Gannaway said “they were reacting from afar and didn’t have a sense of the context that the painting is displayed in, or even much investment in what was going on.”

But, at the moment, this story has a happy ending, as the work is back in its place after just a week of “experimenting”.

The return of the work – Photo: MAG
Visitors were invited to fill the blank space left on the wall with a Post-it note sharing their reaction – Photo: Michael Pollard

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