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Can we have a debate about the art of desire if we remove the object of the discussion?

PUBLISHED: 18:25 09 February 2018

Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse, 1896. Picture: MANCHESTER CITY GALLERIES

Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse, 1896. Picture: MANCHESTER CITY GALLERIES

A major art gallery has returned a classic Pre-Raphaelite painting to its walls following a public outcry over censorship. Arts editor Andrew Clarke says that you don’t provoke debate by removing one of the voices in the argument.

Visitors to Manchester Art Gallery. Photo: Manchester Art GalleryVisitors to Manchester Art Gallery. Photo: Manchester Art Gallery

It’s been a funny old week in the world of art. By funny I, of course, mean strange. A week ago today the Manchester Art Gallery removed from view the much revered painting Hylas and the Nymphs by Pre-Raphaelite painter JW Waterhouse.

The act of removal was part of a staged gallery take over by artist Sonia Boyce, who coincidentally is having an exhibition of her work there from March to September. Not content with sending this beautiful picture back to the store room, she persuaded the gallery to remove all postcards and posters featuring this popular scene of temptation and sexual desire from the gallery shop.

The following day the gallery’s press department issued a statement stating that they had removed the picture from their Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite gallery to “prompt conversation about how we display and interpret artworks”.

One of the Victorian rooms at Manchester Art Gallery. Photo: Manchester Art GalleryOne of the Victorian rooms at Manchester Art Gallery. Photo: Manchester Art Gallery

Sonia Boyce said that the action was prompted by the #Me Too and Time’s Up movement and wanted to challenge the exhibition hall’s theme “In Pursuit of Beauty”. The Manchester Art Gallery curator Clare Gannaway, who actually carried out the act of removal, then felt the need to justify her actions in the national press, saying that the removal of the painting was itself an artistic act, designed to provoke a debate into objectification of women.

If they wanted to start a conversation, they certainly got one as the gallery was swamped with protests from art lovers – many of them women – wanting the painting returned; now.

To give the gallery their due, they filled the empty space where the painting once hung, with a sea of angry yellow post-notes demanding the return of this much-loved work.

Artist Sonia Boyce who staged the gallery take-over which removed the painting Hylas and the Nymphs from public view. Photo: Manchester Art GalleryArtist Sonia Boyce who staged the gallery take-over which removed the painting Hylas and the Nymphs from public view. Photo: Manchester Art Gallery

The theme of many of the notes from women was: ‘not in my name’. Many took exception to the implied suggestion that ideas about sex, desire, arousal, temptation, complex human interactions can no longer be discussed or even acknowledged.

Many viewed the removal of the painting as censorship and that it would be replaced with something more politically correct. This view seemed to be given credence when curator Clare Gannaway added to her previous statement calling into question the whole future of their Victorian galleries saying: “This gallery presents the female body as either a passive decorative form or a femme fatale. Let’s challenge this Victorian fantasy!”

In some ways that seems fair enough. But, I would argue the way to challenge something is to present a different view point, to display an alternative collection of work demonstrating a different aesthetic. You can’t provoke a debate by removing the original work from the discussion.

Also, by referring to the Time’s Up movement, you can’t help but wonder if there is an element of band-wagon jumping going on. I may even go so far to suggest that the band-wagon may have been hijacked.

The #Me Too and Time’s Up are necessary and long overdue campaigns bringing to an end sexual harassment, assault, rape and other unacceptable practices in our daily lives. They shouldn’t concern themselves with the way that we legitimately discuss and explore desire.

Hylas and the Nymphs is a fantasy. It is a Victorian fantasy. It is a male fantasy but as the responses to its removal point out, it may not be exclusively a male fantasy. It shows Hylas, a virile youth, being lured into a pool by a band of irresistible young women. It has been suggested that Hylas inability to control his lust means that he will be drowned by the objects of his desire but in the Roman version of the story Hylas fell in love with the nymphs and remained “to share their power and their love”.

Some female viewers have said that they feel that the work acknowledges the power that women have over men and aesthetically beautiful works like this can help them take ownership of their sexuality.

They feel empowered and active explorers of their desires rather than passive recipients of male attention. While, it is true that in the past much of the art has been heterosexual and male-led, it is also true that the art world has always been at the forefront of breaking down barriers and giving a voice to those with a different view on the world.

The art world has always embraced and explored sexuality as an important element of what makes us human and what drives our relationships. By removing work from public view you are stifling a conversation rather than provoking it.

It is good to note that the much missed Hylas and the Nymphs was returned to its spot on the wall, four days after it was removed. We can allow the gallery the face-saving proclamation that the intervention was a success because it provoked discussion and they learned that the public really likes Victorian erotic art.

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