British Art Museum Banishes a Famed Pre-Raphaelite Fantasy Over Its Depiction of ‘Femme Fatale’ Nymphs

Naomi Rea

The gesture, part of a project by artist Sonia Boyce, has inspired fierce debateScreen Shot 2018-02-02 at 11.39.47 AM

On Friday night, a JW Waterhouse painting of naked nymphs was removed from the walls of Manchester Art Gallery in northern England. The move, according to the museum, was a bid to “challenge a Victorian fantasy” and prompt conversation about how the public gallery displays and interprets artworks.

On the night of January 26, the gallery team and invited collaborators took over the gallery and removed the pre-Raphaelite painting Hylas and the Nymphs (1869) from the wall, as well as postcards of the painting from the shop.Screen Shot 2018-02-02 at 11.40.23 AM

The offending image depicts a mythical scene of bare-chested nymphs tempting Hylas to his death, and is not the only one of its kind in a room devoted to 19th century art that is titled “In Pursuit of Beauty.”

The stunt was filmed as part of a new artwork by Sonia Boyce, who is exploring “gender trouble” in the paintings and wider culture of the 19th century. The full film of the action will be shown in her upcoming retrospective at the gallery, which runs March 23 through September 2.

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A blog on the museum website claims the “In Pursuit of Beauty” gallery “presents the female body as either a ‘passive decorative form’ or a ‘femme fatale’” and asks “How could artworks speak in more contemporary, relevant ways?”

Members of the public have left post-it note comments in the empty space left by the banished painting, where there is now a notice of explanation.

Screen Shot 2018-02-02 at 11.45.24 AMThe debate online over the removal is raging. Writer Annas Eskander has launched a petition calling for the return of the painting. Describing how much Waterhouse’s Pre-Raphaelite work meant to her following the death of her husband, she writes:
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Eskander goes on to call the action “feminist extremism at its worst,” adding “I am truly ashamed to call myself a feminist.”

In a tweet, artist Michael Browne asked, “Is artists’ freedom in danger?

Screen Shot 2018-02-02 at 11.49.41 AM Others propose alternative images that might be shown in the gallery, like this Victorian era painting of the same scene, but by a woman.

View image on Twitter
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The museum’s contemporary art curator, Clare Gannaway, told the Guardianshe was embarrassed about art presented in the “In Pursuit of Beauty” gallery, and admitted recent debates around #MeToo and Time’s Up influenced her thought process. “We’ve collectively forgotten to look at this space and think about it properly,” she said. “We want to do something about it now because we have forgotten about it for so long.”

As for whether the popular painting will return, Gannaway said, “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.”