Friday, 2 February 2018

Oh, Manchester...

Unless you have been blissfully disconnected from social media over the last few days you will have no doubt heard the outrage over the absence of a certain painting...

Hylas and the Nymphs
This week Manchester Art Gallery removed Hylas and the Nymphs from its walls and left a note in its place asking questions about what is displayed and how on the walls of our galleries.  The Museum's website held the following questions:
This gallery presents the female body as either a ‘passive decorative form’ or a ‘femme fatale’. Let’s challenge this Victorian fantasy!The gallery exists in a world full of intertwined issues of gender, race, sexuality and class which affect us all. How could artworks speak in more contemporary, relevant ways?What other stories could these artworks and their characters tell? What other themes would be interesting to explore in the gallery?
What followed was a hell-fire storm of public fury.  From censorship to the rise of out-of-control feminism, much has been said online, so I just wanted to talk about what went wrong and what they could have done differently...

Cards on the table first - I am a card carrying feminist.  I believe men and women of all races and whatnot are equal and think that life would be splendid if everyone could make it through a day without repressing anyone else.  As such I'm not blind to the fact that some Victorian art raises questions about the ideals we hold in society, for example...

Syrinx Arthur Hacker
I love a bit of Arthur Hacker but for a moment consider that someone paid to have this pubescent, hairless girl on their wall. She's really beautiful and the interplay between the reeds and the slender figure of the girl and that dark waterfall of fabric is stunning, but taken in a sober and unromantic light, it's an odd image to pop on your dining room wall. Why do we love art like this? It can't be the subject matter because I doubt any of us would rush to put a photograph of a nude teenage girl by a pond on our wall, yet the delicate magic of time and our acceptance and love of the style of art overcomes us.  It's not just a Victorian fantasy, it's our fantasy.  I don't know why, and it certainly isn't a universal thing.  My mother-in-law hates Victorian art as much as she loves telling me so.  It just isn't her taste.  Doesn't make her more feminist than me, doesn't make the art she likes more modern or 'appropriate'.  She likes the Impressionists and Chardin and abstract stuff.  Ugh. Sorry I'm rambling, but it's not about the naughty Victorians versus the modern feminist art killjoys but that is how it's come across.

Dead Hector Briton Riviere
For an awful lot of people it all smelt like censorship and censorship smells really bad.  Even though the Gallery said it was about a conversation about how we read the cultural attitudes of past generations through the presentation of women, they started the conversation by taking the artwork away.  Its absence was actually only a temporary one as it is being used in an exhibition opening in March.  It would have to be moved, it would have vanished for a few weeks during set up anyway but the Gallery have used its transit as an opportunity to have this 'conversation'.  However, that isn't on the website.  That came out in a newspaper article about it. Think about that for a moment: Manchester haven't censored anything, they have merely moved a painting for an exhibition, which happens all the time in galleries everywhere.  Nothing controversial there.  However, the curator Clare Gannaway's explanation was not clearly expressed and the newspapers launched into a howl of HOW MANCHESTER HATES LOVELY NUDEY LADY ART.  I'm going to be kind to poor Clare as I'm sure she's had a terrible week and probably in no way did she intended to massively offend the Victorian art loving public and cause feminist-loathing ranting and no doubt cannibalism. I think they just made a mistake in the way it was handled. It could have been handled better, no doubt about that, but they weren't the first to have the conversation...

In 1989, the Guerrilla Girls raised the issue of how women artists and subjects are approached in our galleries.  Their witty and honest statements drew attention to the inequality and added to conversations about the lives of models and the brilliance of women artists.  I have been working for over two decades to fight for the reputation of Fanny Cornforth which I see as part of the reassessment of how we accept or challenge Victorian art, but in no way, shape or form would I ever have images of her removed, even if they contributed to biographers seeing her as a saucy baggage.  I digress but think about Jane Morris - would we have a different view of her if Evelyn de Morgan's portrait of her was as well known and displayed as Rossetti's?  The answer seems for more display of art, not less.  More Victorian art, more glorious female artists showing us an alternative Victorian vision to compare and contrast with more famous pieces. That is a conversation.

The Rokeby Venus after a suffragette attack
Over a hundred years ago suffragette Mary Richardson slashed up Diego Velazquez's Venus in the National Gallery in response to the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst.  The imbalance of the mistreatment and imprisonment of women asking for the vote and the reverence given to the painted female form was too much and a cleaver was taken to it causing substantial damage.  More slashing followed, including to Pre-Raphaelite art, but the act wasn't so much about the art as the attitude in society that values two-dimensional women above three-dimensional.  The problem is that the moment you destroy or indeed remove items of cultural value your argument is lost.  You look like a history-rewriter, a philistine, too stupid to understand the work and therefore destroys it.  Book burning is next, mark my words etc etc.

On the Balcony John William Godward
Part of the problem with Manchester's move is that they linked it to #MeToo and #TimesUp in a rather diaphanous manner.  The image they took down was a group of nymphs in the act of tempting a hot young man to his doom. Everyone is semi-naked, mythological and hot, it's an equal opportunity picture, not in any way symbolic of male abuse of women.  There are plenty of those sort of pictures, don't worry.  How about this one?

The Embrace of Fra Filippo Lippi and Lucrezia Buti (1871) Gabriele Castagnola
This is a blantant image of a bloke attempting to snog a lady who doesn't really want to and the whole thing being framed as romantic. 

Ajax and Cassandra Solomon J Solomon
Or this one?  I love this one and it is just appalling if you think about the subject matter. Ugh.  There are many and varied abductions, rapes, slave markets and all sorts of abominations gorgeously rendered by the Victorians which would make a thought provoking exhibition about how things are acceptable in paint that we contemn in real life.  Hylas and his nipple-free temptresses just don't fit that bill, so by hanging an important cause on moving a painting smells like bandwagon-chasing and cheapens both the most important feminist moment of my adult life and what could be a thought-provoking and discomforting exploration of gender attitudes in art.

Fear not, Hylas has not gone for long, has not been destroyed or censored in the proper sense of the word.  He will return and we will all have learnt an important lesson which is don't get between the public and the art they love.  Actually, that's a really lovely lesson, however painfully learnt, and Manchester should no doubt take some consolation from the fact that no-one can touch their art, which in the climate of funding crisis and pressure to sell pieces should fortify them.  

Also, put the postcards back in the gift shop.  For heavens sake, think of your revenue streams!


  1. Dear Kirsty

    your mention of patrons buying naked women pics 'to pop on [their] dining room wall' prompts me to articulate a thought about just how and why such paintings were purchased - which I think were not for dining or drawing rooms but for male smoking / billiard / study rooms.
    In one of the side bars at an old-style hotel in central London there's great example of a collection of titillating 19th cent pics like this and worse. Here it's not a private room, but probably in a wealthy home or club it would have been for men only. when the Forbes collection was displayed at Old Battersea House, these more risqué pics were gathered together on an upper floor and clustered in bathrooms, so as to be segregated from the rest of the Victorian art -this was a modern display, not a historic one, but informed by something of the same attitudes. Naked females in art were not intended for domestic display, but men liked them and paid for them, so artists produced them....

    1. Thanks Jan, I was being a tad flippant, you are right. The Russell-Cotes in Bournemouth has a gorgeous Jezebel that Merton Russell-Cotes insisted had a blouse painted on her to make her decent. There is a discussion to be had certainly, it's just about how we have it.
      Thanks for your comments (and for being marvellous, generally).

    2. It was the Manchester Collection and my copy of PreRaphaelite Sisterhood bought in the book shop that sparked my interest in the PreRaphaelites. Cannot recall that naked females played much of a role but perhaps I deceive myself?

    3. I'm saying nothing, especially as I'm sure the rather dashing (but dead) Chatterton had nothing to do with my interest in Pre-Raphaelite art. Let's not open that can of worms...

  2. Dear Kirsty
    Art has always provoked controversy and discussion and hoorah for that. A world without art would be a bleak place indeed.
    Manchester, for goodness' sake, get a grip!
    Best wishes

    1. Poor old Manchester, but at least they know how much we love their art (to a really scary level, apparently). Splendid!

  3. Thanks. Perfect example of the deficiency and danger of Twitter. Good to get the real story behind the 140 character headline. But is the action of the museum just another example of our decent into a world of meaningless #soundbites? Heavens bless the blog.

  4. I thought i'd add this to the debate. It's from a letter written by Kate Greenaway to John Ruskin, published in A & C Black's biography of Greenaway, 1905 -

    ""I went to the R.A. yesterday ... There is one picture I think beautiful. It is Hylas and the Water Nymphs - the water is covered in water-lilies and the girls' heads above the water suggest larger water-lilies somehow. They are beautiful and so is Hylas, so is the green water shaded with green trees - it is a beautiful picture - I forget the legend."

    Doesn't Greenaway articulate perfectly why it's so popular? I know I love the painting because of the nymphs and the greenness. As for poor Hylas,well, my eyes do occasionally wander towards him but they soon slip off him, as if he was a wet pebble, back towards the nymphs in the water with a plop!

    Nick ElfGoblin

  5. I must admit that I did feel uncomfortable when I saw the painting in the Waterhouse exhibition back at the RA in 2009 not the fact that they are nude but that they look so young. Having said that, I do agree with Mr Elfgoblin's Greenaway comments. What I find annoying is that it is typical that the gallery singles out a piece of victorian art for criticism. These are the people who would love to clear out the victorians and old masters and replace them with more modernist rubbish (often literally). The sort of people who appoint people who can barely draw as Royal Academicians

  6. Hello Kirsty! Thank you for writing a sensible piece about this, I find I agree with absolutely everything you say. Good for MAG for wanting to encourage conversation about this, but a totally cack-handed and, yes, bandwagon-hitching way of going about it.

    (And I too feel sorry for the curator - you only have to be slightly idiotic in public life these days for the righteous howls to echo on and on across the internet.)

  7. Your post is well balanced. I could not agree more.

  8. Thank you everyone. Now that Hylas has been returned let's hope we can have a decent discussion about our attraction to this art without people getting shouty and dragging their own personal agenda into it...


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx