Victorian nymphs painting back on display after censorship row

Hylas and the Nymphs by JW WaterhouseImage copyrightMANCHESTER ART GALLERY
Image captionHylas and the Nymphs by JW Waterhouse dates from 1896

A gallery is to put a Victorian painting of naked adolescent girls back on display after a row over censorship.

Manchester Art Gallery said it took down Hylas and the Nymphs by JW Waterhouse to “encourage debate” about how such images should be displayed.

But critics accused curators of being puritanical and politically correct. The painting will return on Saturday.

“It’s been clear that many people feel very strongly about the issues raised,” Manchester City Council said.

The 1896 painting was removed a week ago in an attempt to rethink the “very old-fashioned” way images of women’s bodies were exhibited as “either as passive beautiful objects or femmes fatales”.

Curator Clare Gannaway said: “It’s not about saying these things can’t exist in a public gallery – it’s about saying, maybe we just need to challenge the way these paintings have been read and enable them to speak in a different way.”

Visitors were invited to write their views about the decision on sticky notes and post them in the vacant space.

Manchester Art Gallery
Manchester Art Gallery
Image captionVisitors can stick notes to the wall where the painting hung

But after a backlash, the city council, which runs the gallery, announced that the painting would return to the wall.

The gallery’s interim director Amanda Wallace said: “We were hoping the experiment would stimulate discussion, and it’s fair to say we’ve had that in spades – and not just from local people but from art-lovers around the world.

“Throughout the painting’s seven day absence, it’s been clear that many people feel very strongly about the issues raised, and we now plan to harness this strength of feeling for some further debate on these wider issues.”

The gallery is now planning a series of public events “to encourage further debate”.

‘Killing any debate’

Speaking on Thursday, Clare Gannaway denied that the gallery was censoring the picture, but there were strong reactions on social media and in the art world.

“Removing art due to political concerns is exactly censorship,” wrote Gary Brooks on Twitter.

“I think you can spark a debate without removing the painting,” said Ben Perkins.

Professor Liz Prettejohn, who curated a Waterhouse exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 2009, told BBC News: “Taking it off display is killing any kind of debate that you might be able to have about it in relation to some of the really interesting issues that it might raise about sexuality and gender relationships.

“The Victorians are always getting criticised because they’re supposed to be prudish. But here it would seem it’s us who are taking the roles of what we think of as the very moralistic Victorians.”

The painting’s initial removal was filmed to be made into a new piece of video art for artist Sonia Boyce’s exhibition at the gallery in March.

Postcards of the painting were also taken out of the gallery shop.

The furore came two months after two sisters started a petition asking the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to remove, or at least reimagine the way it presented, a painting by Balthus of a neighbour’s daughter in an erotic pose.

The sisters said the Met was “romanticising voyeurism and the objectification of children”.

The museum refused to remove it, saying it wanted to encourage “the continuing evolution of existing culture through informed discussion and respect for creative expression”.

BBC News

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