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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

Manchester Art Gallery courts controversy over removal of famous pre-Raphaelite painting

I have watched bemused and at times with annoyance as public galleries rush to remove artworks from display in response to community outrage over any alleged villainous behaviour of the artist at some point in his or her past, regardless of the times, norms or circumstances in which they lived.  It is a perilous and nonsensical practice, particularly where the artist is later exonerated.

This past month John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, one of the most revered of the pre-Raphaelite paintings showing naked pubescent nymphs fatefully tempting a handsome young man, was taken down by the Manchester Art Gallery. 

This obviously erotic painting was replaced with a notice explaining that a space had been left “to prompt conversations about how we display and interpret artworks … that may be considered unsuitable and offensive to modern audiences”.

John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs (1896)

The gallery’s curator of contemporary art, Clare Gannaway, told The Guardian that the aim of the removal was to provoke debate, not to censor.  “It wasn’t about denying the existence of particular artworks.”  

But while clearly looking to exploit recent controversies arising from the #MeToo and #TimesUp ‘movements’, the gallery’s actions appear to be imbued with the very contemporary value judgement it has, like many others, long guarded against.

The work usually hangs in a room titled In Pursuit of Beauty, which contains late 19th century paintings showing mostly female nudes.  Gannaway said the title was a bad one (a bit of a give-away), as it was about male artists pursuing women’s bodies, and paintings that “presented the female body as a passive decorative art form or a femme fatale”.

“For me personally, there is a sense of embarrassment that we haven’t dealt with 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.”

In Pursuit of Beauty at Manchester Art Gallery

The removal itself is intended at least on its face as an artistic act and its filming will feature in a solo show by the artist Sonia Boyce in the months ahead.  Still, the removal of the painting in this context to me can only be viewed as an arbitration on what is right and what is wrong.

Although Gannaway says the removal is not about censorship it remains unclear as to whether the work will return to public display or perhaps discarded in favour of more fashionable ones.

“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.”

After howls of protest the painting was shortly thereafter returned to the Gallery's wall, but the damage to its reputation will take longer to repair. 

In my view, removing the painting in these circumstances is self-evidently crass censorship under the guise of promoting debate.  It remains unclear just what its proponents ultimately have in mind.  Surely, the great freedoms of our modernity include, whether one enjoys it or not, freedom of sexual expression, and they are hopefully not suggesting we revert to the purism of another time.

Manchester Art Gallery

One does not have to stray far to find artists that behaved badly and works that carry more confronting sexual imagery than Hylas and the Nymphs - although none presently attracting controversy of the type manufactured in Manchester.

Titian’s turbulent personality and sexuality penetrates his masterpiece Diana and Actaeon.  Frida Kahlo's torn personal life imbues her portraits.  Caravaggio, a revolutionary artist with a criminal reputation who is thought to have murdered a man in a botched castration incited by a dispute over a favoured prostitute created the brutish Judith beheading Holofernes.  Pablo Picasso’s volatile relationships clearly influence his work, Les femmes d'Alger.  Mark Rothko's palette is borne from his life of hardship and anguish.

 Pablo Picasso and Lee Miller (1944)

It increasingly appears that a number of prominent curators and in turn their galleries today appear to be consciously making value judgments on art based on their knowledge of the artist's personality, beliefs, and lifestyles – instead of focusing on the art itself.

This led me to focus on whether my thinking about these great artists, who undoubtedly possessed much intelligence and skill should be reduced by their worst behaviours and their works banished.  A very different proposition to one that focuses on the viewers view of the subject matter as initially posed by the Manchester Gallery, but that no doubt lies at the root of this stunt.

The paradoxes of today are the prejudices of tomorrow, since the most benighted and the most deplorable prejudices have had their moment of novelty when fashion lent them its fragile grace.

Marcel Proust

So what does this mean for works undertaken today?  Will future generations come to look upon this era with an intolerance for our moral or social failings?

 Frida Kahlo, Without Hope (1945)

 Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Judith beheading Holofernes

Certainly in today’s inflamed moral new age there is every reason to be outraged.  The arrogant way many men have systemically abused their power over women in and around the workplace warrants corrective action.  But a more relevant question to my mind has emerged: What to do with the works of artists - in film, television or the fine arts - whose conduct has been abhorrent?

To me the answer is simple.  Artists’ achievements should not be seen as contingent on the specific circumstances of their life.  An artist’s creative capacity as Proust observed transcends the limitations, and imperfections of the artist and is separate from the qualities that distinguish a person in society.

History is the ultimate arbiter of what endures.  Moral verdicts on the artists, the raison d'être of many artworks, is a secondary layer that can colour the reception of an artist's oeuvre but cannot nullify work that retains its expressive power.  If the contrary was true, there would be many more empty spaces on the walls of our public galleries. 

Titian's Diana and Actaeon

Working artists who have fouled their reputations by grotesquely taking advantage of their position and abused others will have to fend for themselves of course and deserve to have the rug pulled out from under them. If the work they have done lives on, it will do so apart from the memory of their shameful deeds.  

Some of the disquiet we are experiencing now stems from a belief that our heroes are to be exemplary, yet as Proust points out human fallibility may be a necessary ingredient in creativity.  Heinous crimes are another matter entirely, but as any student of history can attest, genius and pathology are not exactly strangers.

 Mark Rothko

The Manchester Gallery would be well advised not to rush to judgement on enduring artworks and seek to right historical wrongs in light of present day values.  Certainly there is a shift in our society’s values occurring and a more egalitarian era beckons, but we must continue to stand guard against the rigidity of thinking that breeds intolerance.  

Art will continue no doubt to trace our unsteady progress.  And if evidence emerges that any of our great artists were good-for-nothings, I trust their great works will not be seen as less meritorious.  And the same should hold for the work of our less eminent contemporary artists, whose virtue may fall well short of the gifts they have bestowed.

Pablo Picasso, Les femmes d'Alger


Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist living and working in Melbourne, Australia

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