J. W. Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs: A Modern Debate

The Manchester Art Gallery recently removed what is probably their best-loved painting ‘to prompt conversation’. The story of Hylas and the Nymphs dates back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans and has come down to us in a variety of tellings which means the story can be interpreted more than one way. I like J.W. Waterhouse’s painting of the subject and was sorry to learn it had been taken from view.

Controversy was intensified by this Guardian interview with the curator Claire Gannaway which included the quote:

“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.”

By the time my sweetheart and I called in to the gallery earlier this week, the picture had been replaced, now above a sea of post-it notes.

People looking at a Pre-Raphaelite painting with post-it messages

The short-lived exercise generated significant publicity for the gallery not just nationally, but internationally. The Guardian alone appears to have published at least ten articles.

At the gallery, I had expected to be reaching for a post-it to add my own words to the debate, but discovered I was more interested in reading other people’s comments. In that spirit, I’m sharing a selection of viewpoints, taken from the 790 moderated comments that currently appear on the blog post on the gallery’s website. In the main, they were written before the painting was put back on view. They have been lightly edited and are inescapably coloured by being the conflicts that interest me. To get a proper feel for the debate, check out the unedited comments on the gallery’s website.

I’m really shocked by this decision. I grew up in Manchester and I love this painting. When I come back to Manchester, seeing it is always one of the highlights on my list. I was always proud that we had it in Manchester – it seemed so much more beautiful than so many of the gallery’s other paintings. I used to assume that it would be poached by a southern gallery at some point and was always pleased to see that it was still safely there. As a teenage girl, I had a print of this on my bedroom wall and often popped into MAG when I was passing to see it displayed there. I always saw it as entirely empowering – it’s the young girls in the painting who are powerful, not Hylas. It’s partly the trust in Hylas’s face that I used to find so moving and partly just the strength of the emotion in that central gaze – despite the painting’s title and theme, the gaze between Hylas and the central nymph isn’t lecherous and it isn’t coquettish, either; it’s a depiction of love – misguided young love, with all its passionate strength and hope and misjudgement. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful painting, too: the facial expressions are so realistic – much more so than in many paintings of the same era, and the detail is so carefully observed.  – Sarah

You’re not provoking discussion by removing a beloved painting, you are inciting negative reactions. – Nancy Kilpatrick

…you can’t make an art piece speak in a way it doesn’t speak, tell a story that isn’t its story to tell; all you can do is listen more deeply… If a museum has interest only in contemporary thoughts and voices (and has no interest in studying the rich history of the past to see the voices who moved human history forward), that’s fine but they owe it to the rest of us to donate those art pieces to museums who will respect them so that the rest of us can still study, interpret, and learn from them. – Michelle Gender

A blank wall filled with post it notes is just a sure fire way to anger most free thinking people and involve those who simply want a new excuse to rail against the ‘liberal elite’. Is this the conversation you want? You have made a mistake in removing the painting, please return it and let this all die down. There are far better ways to help with the Me Too campaign than blatant censorship. – Steve Hanscomb

While it is laudable that MSG has finally woken up and garnered the courage to remove the Waterhouse travesty, it is disappointing that none of the other offending paintings were removed, as they should have been.

The year is 2018 and we will no longer put up with such offensive dribble, if it is (supposedly) art or not. Women should be able to decide what kind of pictures of other women they want to be exposed to, not old white men.

I urge the resonsible curators not to be taken aback by the backlash they’re seeing on social media. Obviously people want to hang onto idols of their perverted view of gender dynamics. Such is the nature of discrimination. Fortunately, it is not up to them to decide what is being shown in museums and I hope more institutions will follow in your footsteps. – Gemma Fieldsroy

Some of us aren’t afraid of beauty, and don’t need big sisters to tell us other sisters what we’re permitted to see. – Cathy’s daughter

To me the gallery was a special magical place and I assumed the curators loved and cherished the wonderful art as I do. But now we know, not just Hylas and the Nymphs, but any number of other paintings in their care are considered “embarrassing”, “problematic” and needing to be censored… It’s a blow for Manchester as well, because of all the amateur happenings in the leading gallery and the fact that we now know that the gallery is ashamed of it’s own paintings. – Jon

Art can offend anyone, if you go down this path you’ll end up with an empty gallery. – Alex Jump

There are two important freedoms needed in an art gallery (1) the freedom to display art even though not everyone approves of it, and (2) the freedom of the viewer to interpret that art as they see fit. Removing an art work to the basement restricts the first freedom – and heavy contextualisation of art limits the second – Aileene C

Art is supposed to reflect the entirety of the human condition. Surely this includes exploring male desire, and men’s fear of female power, which is what this painting represents. It is a snapshot of male anxiety just at a time when women were starting to win more freedom. It tells a tale from our history, which is exactly what museums are supposed to do. Manchester Gallery should present their art to the public and allow them to judge, not hide it away, which is tantamount to cultural theft. – Tom Harrison

The curators complains that “it was male artists pursuing women’s bodies.” In the picture’s own terms, it is quite obvious that it is the opposite–the women are pulling the hunky man into the pool. – Nick

When I look at this painting and understand the Nymphs are luring him to his death, I see naked teenage girls in a lake about to commit murder. I can understand the historical context of the subjugation of women for the male gaze, but in today’s context of women shaking off gendered exceptions, a whole exhibition of murderesses in classic artwork would be bad ass. Sign me up. – Surrealistic 84

According to the Latin Argonautica of Valerius Flaccus, he [Hercules] never found Hylas because he had fallen in love with the nymphs and remained “to share their power and their love.” Not really seeing how this diminishes women. – Dante D’Anthony

Put a homoerotic image or sculpture next to the Waterhouse, to redress the balance. – David Newton

Unfortunately for Clare, the conversation just doesn’t appear to be going her way. That’s the problem with the public I guess, they don’t always do what they’re told. – Marcus Etinger

Ever since I was introduced to the Pre-Raphaelites, John William Waterhouse has been a favourite of mine. Having lost my husband four years ago to brain cancer, I found solace in three of his works, “Boreas”, “The Lady of Shallot” and “Hylas and the Nymphs”. Waterhouse’s paintings not only express an incredible artistic temperament, but he is a master at emotional storytelling within an ethereal world.

For years, I have been living in London and thinking how much I would love to see “Hylas and the Nymphs” at least once in my lifetime. Well, I finally got the opportunity to go to the Manchester Art Gallery only to be told the painting was removed on Friday 26th January as some part of feminist installation relating to the representation of the female body. I cannot express how devastated I am, not only to miss out on seeing the painting but to be told that it may never be exhibited again.’ – Annas Eskander

Here’s a suggestion for a follow-up event.

An open invitation (this time, genuine,) is given to the people of Manchester to assemble in the ‘Pursuit of Beauty’ Gallery. Lined up before them will be the trustees, directors, and curators of the Manchester Art Gallery. The people can then select one of them for temporary, or possibly permanent, removal. – Robin Betts

I’m in favour. You’d think the town where its paintings of passive women had been slashed by campaigners for the female right to vote wouldn’t be whining about “political correctness” and “censorship” by having a painting taken down and accompanied with a little note explaining what is happening. – Holl

No art exists outside of context, the context of its production, of its acquisition, of its history of display and of where it is displayed now, at the moment of apprehension by the viewer. And each of these contexts can be further examined – who was the curator who oversaw the purchase, what was their relationship to the artist, what had they bought before and what else would they eventually buy, where did the money come from, how was payment made, were there any conditions that the artist insisted upon. And each of these could be further examined, and so on. Is all of this evidenced in the very thing itself, as it stands or hangs in front of the viewer?… Having had the time to look at the reactions here and elsewhere, I can say that the gallery looked to have lost control of the message, and that this was a shame. They did not manage to communicate their real love and guardianship of an extraordinary and fine collection and of their wish to continue to present it meaningfully to a contemporary audience. – whyIOughta

You ask how could artworks speak in more contemporary ways. We are all of us surrounded by the contemporary : modern life throws news, facts, ideas at us all the time. One of the functions of the arts is precisely to take us out of today and remind us that people in other times and other places had different ideas and thought in different ways from us. If we can, at least occasionally, be aware of this, we might have a bit more perspective on our own times and not so easily fall for whatever is the latest fashion. – Richard

When I first heard about this ‘controversy’ I was slightly irritated by what I felt was the curator’s naivety and lack of awareness about the repercussions that such an act could potentially unleash. Having now trawled through, what I believe to be, so many deeply reactionary and disproportionate comments that have framed this online debate, my empathy now sits firmly with Clare Garraway and the Manchester Art Gallery. – Christopher Coppock

I think you should take heart in that the general public do engage with art and will protect it. They know how to place (this picture anyway) in its historical context as modern thoughts about it are easy, placing it backwards in time is not… They know the mythological backstory to the painting but felt you did not…

They are now asking you to ask questions of yourselves and your attitude to art. For goodness sack do not make the mistake of thinking them reductive – KM

Geez, people, it’s ONE painting! I think art will survive. – Amy

37 Replies to “J. W. Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs: A Modern Debate”

  1. Great post. I read about this in the Guardian and was appalled.They have put it back now fortunately. Censorship of art for any reason is a slippery slope.

    1. I agree – though this has made me aware that we have no way of knowing how much censorship goes on quietly when galleries decide what art is included in their current exhibitions and of past artists we have never heard of because their work was not considered worthy. These days every artist has the option to self-publish, if only on a blog.

  2. Fascinating discussion. Thank you for posting. I think the painting is beautiful. If anything that might be considered embarrassing or offensive were to be taken off gallery walls, there would be many, many blank walls in museums around the world! And what about male nudity? I once walked around a museum with my granddaughter, pointing out paintings with exposed penises. Of course she was mortified, but I hope she’ll remember and understand all the reasons art, whether is offends or not, has value. I once had an art teacher (I was an art major) who said, “The purpose of art is not to please; the purpose of art is to engage.”

    1. You’ve reminded me of being embarrassed as a schoolgirl to see some of the objects at the Pompeii exhibition – or rather, to be seen looking at them. But I’m glad nobody decided to censor the exhibition, and that schoolchildren were encouraged to see it.

  3. I’ve always thought that what the really lasting and meaningful art does best is contain stories, moments and individuals who acted & existed in *spite* of contemporary conventions. This is a period painting of an ancient story; which ideals are we supposed to be objecting to?
    I worry that art today might not be able to extricate itself from public dialogue. One really should never control the other, or we’ll end up with a bit of a narrow creative output.

    1. I thought I had replied to your comment, but it seems to have vanished in the ether. Art is a civilising influence and creative people will continue to break out of society’s weightiness. But I’m sure you’re right that views are being stifled because people use social media’s connectivity to act as a mass to suppress or criticise. You’ve reminded me of another comment that resonated with me:

      ‘As one individual responding to this event I strongly feel that my voice is heard along with the other individuals who have commented too. I do not need a group to air my views nor adopt a particular identity to do so. May that always be true.’ Diana M Smith

  4. It will be interesting to see how these post-it notes are incorporated in the future of the Waterhouse piece and whether this experiment generates any other interactive moments. It is so rare for museums to have this sort of dialog with those who go to see the works, but isn’t that an essential part of not just “seeing” art but absorbing it and its meaning into our lives? By its very nature art (from whatever period in history) is inextricably tied to politics and culture. It never sits outside of the current dialog. As our philosophical and ethical ideas change so does how we perceive the creations of the past.

    1. I can’t see the post-its lasting long where they were when I saw them (on the walls and the floor underneath). I hope the gallery or the artist involved in the event will record the comments and make them available – as you say, it’s rare to get this much interaction.

  5. Interesting mix of views. Art and life are inexorably inter-linked, and art will reflect the era in which it was produced. Society’s views and tastes change; many things that were the norm in the past are now considered vulgar or at least outdated. We shouldn’t hide from the past, but should be able to have a frank discussion and understand it in its original context. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Our own opinions change over our lifetimes too, which is just as it should be. Sometimes the triggers for change are obvious – things that happen to challenge how we have felt or spoken – sometimes our understanding is altered by a wave of tiny signals or ideas roughly aligned in the same direction. In the process of change, frank public discussions like this can only help.

  6. Very interesting, Susan. Thanks for sharing. I think women, people of colour and others from historically oppressed groups are generally at the stage where our discourse on how we are represented in the arts is still developing. Our reactions are often influenced by the times in which we live and our lack of power as much as by the artwork itself.
    In years to come, when a great many women and cultural minorities are afforded the same range and variety of human expression as the dominant groups, we will be able to tolerate and even welcome many kinds of depictions, from saints to murdering seductresses. In other words, until we acquire the kind of power and leverage in the arts that allows us full expression, we want the few pieces that depict us to not expose us to further harm, but to be — in some way — respectful. I have seen this reaction over and over, and I understand it. Yet great works of art require us to be somewhat “disrespectful”. I am therefore glad to see the varied responses from women to the removal of the picture.

    1. Thanks for adding your voice to the debate Cynthia. Very few points were raised by anyone that I don’t have some degree of sympathy with, including, for instance how many other works of art held in public collections are in storage, away from public view. You would have to say that’s a better fate than befell the artists never allowed voice over thousands of years of history.

      In the corner of the same room is a picture of Eve being tempted by a serpent – the first woman, responsible for the fall of everyone else. Whether we see that as a fact or an ancient myth, I wonder how much influence this has had on the evolution of our society.

      1. It’s had tremendous influence for centuries. I see its impact even today in the way Prince Harry’s partner has been treated. The stereotypes are incredible in 2018.

  7. Reblogged this on Emma's Insights and commented:
    I think the removal of John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs has raised an awareness and started a conversation that may be more important than the iconography and actual content of the painting. In the times of ‘#metoo’ and the current situation of sexual exploitation of women it is especially crucial to have the conversation of how women are treated and the importance of women. It’s valuable to analyse the painting in it’s context and carefully relate it to current climates but also to differentiate the two. The history behind the painting is significant and the femme fatal characters represented here are just as prominent when considering the progression women have made in art as well as in everyday life. The decision to remove the painting was crafty, cunning and intelligent. Most importantly, started a powerful conversation.

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