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07 November 2019

ACE Tour Director Stella Lyons scrutinises John William Waterhouse’s 1896 painting, Hylas and the Nymphs, ahead of a visit to Manchester Art Gallery.


When Does Art Become Obscenity?

By Stella Lyons


Guests will have the opportunity to wrestle with this question during ACE’s Artists of the North tour in July 2020. As part of our visit to Manchester Art Gallery, we will be scrutinising John William Waterhouse’s 1896 painting, Hylas and the Nymphs, pictured above.

Waterhouse’s celebrated work illustrates the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, in which Hylas is tempted to his death by beautiful and sensuous water nymphs. Waterhouse’s painting depicts olive-skinned Hylas leaning towards his doom, encircled by topless nymphs whose glistening bodies we glimpse through the translucent water. It’s one of the gallery’s most recognisable paintings, renowned for its beauty and links to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and has been an inspirational work for both artists and gallery-goers alike. Why then did Manchester decide to remove the work from its walls in 2018?

The painting was replaced with a notice, explaining that its absence was designed “to prompt conversations about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection”.

Manchester Art Gallery (c) David Dixon (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The curator responsible, Clare Gannaway, explained that the decision was informed by the #MeToo campaign and said that “the stories that are being told within that gallery are quite old-fashioned and actually perpetuate a lot of ideas about women’s bodies which are not very positive”. The removal of the work sparked controversy and a flurry of incensed complaints; within a week it had been re-hung.
Manchester Art Gallery’s approach indicates a slippery slope.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Gannaway’s decision to provoke discussion. But removing the work entirely stifles debate. It treads a fine line that could easily tip into the murky world of censorship. And historically this never ends well. It brings to mind the most famous example of art censorship; the Nazis’ decision to remove and destroy the work of artists they deemed ‘degenerate’. If we follow Gannaway’s line of thinking – that Waterhouse’s painting is offensive, even obscene to modern eyes – and remove the artworks that perpetuated an objectification of women, we’d be left with very little on the gallery walls.

There is no denying that this work was aimed at Victorian men who could happily gaze at soft pornography through the lens of education, so justifying their desire to view such an image because of its classical links. But its eroticism was deemed perfectly appropriate for its time. So appropriate in fact that it wasn’t simply a man’s prerogative to paint nudes frolicking; female artist Henrietta Rae, a contemporary of Waterhouse, illustrated the exact same scene but with far more flesh on show. Gannaway failed to mention this in her argument.

Hylas and the Water Nymphs, Henrietta Rae (1909)

Times change, and so do fashions. Does that mean that we should remove evidence of our past? Is there ever a case for this kind of censorship? Is it not a museum’s job to hold a mirror up to society’s earlier cultural values, whether we like them or not?  These are some of the questions that will be raised next July when we confront the work in the flesh.  

Stella Lyons will lead our Artists of the North tour in July 2020, as well as our tour focused on The Pre-Raphaelites in Oxford in June 2020.

Artists of the North - More Information

The Pre-Raphaelites in Oxford - More Information

Header Image: Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse (1896)