Painting censorship (PC for short)

At last there’s someone who shares my aesthetic evaluation of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Every painting produced by the Brotherhood is a sugary, pseudo-Classical, pantheistic, cloyingly sentimental exercise in artistic demagoguery as vacuous spiritually as it’s mediocre technically.

Hence it’s from the bottom of my heart that I congratulate the curators of Manchester Art Gallery for their bold decision to remove John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs from its walls, and postcards of the painting from its shop.

That way they declare their unwillingness to pander to English tastes starved of true native greatness and therefore ready to embrace and  overrate third-rate art. This serves as yet another reminder that the English genius finds its sublime expression in literature, not in…

Hold on a second. My wife has just indulged her rotten habit of looking over my shoulder, and she’s saying I got it all wrong. “Why don’t you read the bloody article to the end before jumping to conclusions?” she asked archly and ever so contemptuously.

My male pride badly hurt, I’ve obediently read the article to the end. And I’ve found begrudgingly she was right. So right, in fact, that I must reconsider my hastily proffered congratulations.

Curator Clare Gannaway explained that the reasons for the banishment weren’t aesthetic at all. The problem – and not just with this painting, but with the whole In Pursuit of Beauty room where it hung – isn’t artistic but existential.

She then manfully, or rather non-gender-specifically, admitted her mistake in not having done something about it sooner: “Our attention has been elsewhere… we’ve collectively forgotten to look at this space and think about it properly. We want to do something about it now because we have forgotten about it for so long.”

Now that Miss Gannaway has got around to pondering the pernicious image properly, she’s shocked by everything it shows and, above all, implies.

This and many other such paintings interpret beauty as nude female form used to entice innocent youths to their fall. That means that Waterhouse and his Victorian contemporaries committed the egregious oversight of failing to anticipate our brittle modern sensibilities.

Modern viewers are offended, or rather presumed by Miss Gannaway to be offended, by any pictorial hint at the very possibility of women shedding their clothes and trying to seduce men.

They know that every man is a crypto-raping, bum-pinching, breast-squeezing aggressor out to humiliate and dominate female victim-persons in a brazen show of sexism (accompanied by fascism, racism and homophobia).

No woman having, or about to have, sex with a man may under any circumstances be depicted as a seductress. No woman will ever display her nudity voluntarily or, God forbid, playfully. Thus any depiction of a naked woman is a violent fantasy, an extension of rape by artistic means.

This simply won’t do, will it? Of course it won’t, and, as a lifelong champion of every new-fangled moral imperative, I agree wholeheartedly. My only regret is that Miss Gannaway displayed her righteous indignation so timidly.

I have images flashing through my head of her as a present-day Girolamo Savonarola, tossing Botticelli’s paintings into his bonfire of the vanities. Even though Miss Gannaway isn’t a Dominican, and Waterhouse isn’t exactly Botticelli, his canvases would have been as vulnerable to fire.

However, as a sop to our soft liberalism, the offensive painting wasn’t destroyed. It was only exiled, and even then temporarily.

“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,” explained Miss Gannaway, displaying an enviable knack for converting nouns into verbs and misusing ‘hopefully’.

If I weren’t so unreservedly on her side, I’d opine that no one who uses English that way is fit to pass judgement on, well, anything and certainly not on art. But as an admirer of her cause, I’d like to help with a few modest suggestions.

By way of hopefully re-contexualising, re-backdropping and re-frameworking the painting, its title should be changed. I propose Hylas Spying on Bathing Nymph Persons to Indulge His Rape Fantasies And Risk Being Dragged Before Courts. What this title loses in brevity, it gains in sensitivity to the modern ethos and Miss Gannaway’s innermost convictions.

In parallel, the room should be renamed In Pursuit of Criminal Male Dreams of Chauvinist Domination. That way, Manchester Art Gallery won’t have to hire an artist who could touch the painting up by clothing all the nymphs in sensible trouser suits, complete with ties and men’s watches.

These measures would provide a short-term solution only. Over the long haul, our museums should hopefully re-contextualise – ideally burn – all paintings depicting female nudes. All those Botticellis, Rubenses, Velazquezes, Modiglianis et al proceeded from a chauvinist male perspective that has no place in Miss Gannaway’s world, or mine.

We ought to follow the lead of American educators who’ve rid school libraries of the toxic presence of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, out of which, according to Hemingway, all American literature came.

American literature can no longer be allowed to have come from a book featuring a character called Nigger Jim. Never mind that the novel is manifestly anti-slavery – Twain should have anticipated the advent of new morality by naming his character African American Person Jim.

(Huck saying ‘Hey, African American Person Jim’ really rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?)

I’d suggest that copies of this offensive tome should be not only expunged but publicly tossed in the fire. Though perhaps not yet: this would evoke images more recent than Savonarola’s bonfire.

Anyway, Godspeed to Miss Gannaway and her Mancunian colleagues. Call me if you need someone to strike that match.

11 thoughts on “Painting censorship (PC for short)”

  1. “mediocre technically…aesthetic evaluation of the Pre-Raphaelites.”??? Ok, I grant the storyline is sort of New-Age mystical emotional, but they could at least render objects better than practically anyone attending an art faculty at university today.
    “What kind of judgment does one apply, then, to a work of art? I believe that there are four basic standards: (1) technical excellence, (2) validity, (3) intellectual content, the world view which comes through and (4) the integration of content and vehicle.”
    ― Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible, 1973.
    They score 3 out of 4 I reckon!

    1. I agree they were technically superior to today’s art students. But you’ll forgive me if I use a slightly higher frame of reference, roughly demarcated by Duccio at one end and Rembrandt at the other. And within that frame of reference they score 0 out of 4.

  2. That notable art critic, Dudley Moore, said that you could always recognise a great painting because the bosoms always followed you around the room.

  3. The Pre-Raphaelites certainly would not have rendered a baby Christ like Duccio did with the tiny shrunken forms. But as for Rembrandt, well he is certainly in a class above practically any school of painters.

  4. And, reading all the way to the end of the story:

    Press release

    Following a fantastic response to its temporary removal – both at the gallery itself and on-line – Waterhouse’s Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece Hylas and the Nymphs will be back on public display at Manchester Art Gallery from tomorrow, Saturday 3 February.

    The painting – part of the gallery’s highly prized collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings – was temporarily removed from display as part of a project the gallery is working on with the contemporary artist Sonia Boyce, in the build-up to a solo exhibition of her work at the gallery opening on 23 March 2018.

    Boyce’s artwork is all about bringing people together in different situations to see what happens. The painting’s short term removal from public view was the result of a ‘take-over’ of some of the gallery’s public spaces by gallery users and performance artists last Friday January 26th.

    Since its filmed removal as part of the Boyce project a week ago, the painting and its temporary absence from the gallery has captured the attention of people everywhere, and in so doing has opened up a wider global debate about representation in art and how works of art are interpreted and displayed.

    Given the sheer volume and breadth of discussion that has been sparked by the act of removing the painting, the gallery is now planning a series of public events to encourage further debate about these wider issues.

    Amanda Wallace, Interim Director Manchester Art Gallery, said: “We’ve been inundated with responses to our temporary removal of Hylas and the Nymphs as part of the forthcoming Sonia Boyce exhibition, and it’s been amazing to see the depth and range of feelings expressed.

    “The painting is rightly acknowledged as one of the highlights of our Pre-Raphaelite collection, and over the years has been enjoyed by millions of visitors to the gallery.

    “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.”

    We have left a temporary space in Gallery 10 in place of Hylas and the Nymphs by JW Waterhouse to prompt conversation about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection.

    ie, removing the painting was art, not for art, just art.

    1. Sonia Boyce, “She Ain’t Holding Them Up”…etc may be interesting in its story telling; however, I would still state that the Pre-Raphaelites are technically superior and their myth telling is not too different from Boyce’s work.

    1. Boyce’s reworking of photographs does not reflect the technical skill of the Pre-Raphaelites. Students at colleges world-wide are doing the post-modern appropriation of images and being graded for the concept only. Few, and in fact few of their lecturers, would possess the know how or technical ability to render forms convincingly.

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