Manchester gallery removal of naked nymphs painting sparks ′publicity stunt′ cries | Arts | DW | 02.02.2018
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Manchester gallery removal of naked nymphs painting sparks 'publicity stunt' cries

The gallery has stirred some hot debate after it uninstalled a well-known 19th-century work featuring nude adolescent girls from its permanent exhibition. But that was always the Manchester Art Gallery's intention.

The 1896 painting "Hylas and the Nymphs" (pictured above) by English artist John William Waterhouse depicts a scene from ancient mythology in which a group of floating naked nymphs seduce a young man to his death. 

And now the painting is the subject of fierce public debate after it was removed from the permanent collection of the Manchester Art Gallery last week. According to an official post on the museum's blog, the painting was taken down because the work "presents the female body as either a 'passive decorative form' or a 'femme fatale'."

"Let's challenge this Victorian fantasy!" it added. 

Prompting conversation

The painting was taken down as "part of a group gallery takeover" that occurred on January 26. The takeover was filmed and will feature in an exhibition by Sonia Boyce that will run between March and September 2018. 

"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," the online announcement read.

In a nod to current debates about sexism and gender inequality that have been driven by the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, the museum's blog post noted that 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?" she asked.

In the spirit of encouraging debate, the blank wall space left after the painting was removed has become a notice board where visitors can continue a discussion on post-it notes.

On February 3 the painting was re-hung on the wall of the Manchester gallery.

Publicity stunt?

In the debate that broke out underneath the blog post, some of the over 700 comments accused the museum of "censorship." But the gallery's contemporary art curator, Clare Gannaway, added her personal opinion to the user responses under the blog post, writing that "this is not about ‘censorship’. It’s about challenging the outdated and damaging stories this whole part of the gallery is still telling..."

"Shouldn’t we be challenging ... instead of perpetuating views which result in things like the President’s Club being able to exist?" she added, referring to the recent scandal that all-male attendees at a British charity dinner had sexually harassed female staff.

The gallery also encouraged further debate on social media via the #MAGSoniaBoyce hashtag, where many more criticized the painting's removal.

Some called the action a publicity stunt that did not serve its intended purpose.

Others criticized that the gallery for trivializing the Me Too movement by relating the removal of the painting to the movement focused on ongoing sexual violence against women.

One person took to Twitter to point out that a woman, Henrietta R. Rae, had painted the same scene, and further commented that, "Perhaps artists find inspiration in beauty, sensuality and the human form irrespective of their gender."

"I don't like the replacement and removal of art and being told ‘that's wrong and this is right'. They are using their power to veto art in a public collection," the artist Michael Browne told British newspaper The Guardian after witnessing the painting being taken down on January 26.

But fears that the Waterson work will never be returned were dispelled by Gannaway, who told The Guardian. "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.”

sb/cmb (with dpa)

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