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.