conversation piece
February 1, 2018 2:43 AM   Subscribe

As a work of art by Sonia Boyce the painting 'Hylas and the Nymphs' by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse has been removed from the 'In Pursuit of Beauty' room - featuring many paintings of female nudes - of the Manchester Art Gallery. It has been replaced by a notice explaining why: to prompt conversation how artworks are displayed and interpreted in the gallery. (Some links possibly nsfw)
posted by fearfulsymmetry (62 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Eh, my kid could have removed that painting.

Nah, it's an interesting concept for a conversation that does need to happen, or keep happening rather. I myself have mixed feelings about the intersection between the history of art, how we see and think about any given artwork, and the reality of the world we will in and the forces in play.

By mixed feelings I mean the history of art is an important subject for me, but so is the reality of lived experience for others, so my interests aren't the only ones that matter. This is a fascinating way to ape the method of censorship while encouraging it's opposite. It isn't destroying or condemning the removed work, just asking for people to reflect on art and representation. I have to approve since even the mention of the concept puts that issue in focus for me as hoped for by the artist.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:19 AM on February 1 [4 favorites]


I would add that one of the first ideas the work raises in in hoping it makes the Manchester Art Gallery think more about their practices too since the blithe innocuousness of labeling the room "In Pursuit of Beauty" shows some adherence to standards of appreciation that might be profitably left behind for a more considered evaluation of what is shown and how it might be received.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:29 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


It isn't destroying or condemning the removed work, just asking for people to reflect on art and representation.

yes but they removed it, they didn't ask the question should we remove it, they removed it and then asked the question, which is completely different for me.
I think this is really bad, and this is exactly the same move as the Rijkmuseum renaming painting it deemed offensive. It's rewriting history to make it more palatable, it's like removing cigarettes digitally in old movies, it's a form of censorship that is really disturbing.
I think we need to understand where this painting comes from, what was this era, what does the nymphs myth refers to. You need to educate people about that stuff not hiding it away like it never happened.
posted by SageLeVoid at 3:53 AM on February 1 [14 favorites]


yes but they removed it, they didn't ask the question should we remove it, they removed it and then asked the question, which is completely different for me.
I think this is really bad, and this is exactly the same move as the Rijkmuseum renaming painting it deemed offensive. It's rewriting history to make it more palatable, it's like removing cigarettes digitally in old movies, it's a form of censorship that is really disturbing.


are you fucking kidding me

museums remove pieces from active display all the fucking time for a variety of reasons, *including* to make commentary on previous display practices and to make room for other pieces of art, sometimes pieces in reaction to the piece formerly in that spot, so the idea that to do so is some kind of censorship is ludicrous

furthermore this is a temporary piece, and will be replaced by something else --- in fact, per the guardian article, most likely the piece previously displayed there

your argument is invalid and you have goofy ideas about art and dangerous ideas about what censorship is

(the content of the post-it notes pretty much serve to validate the concept of boyce's piece as a valuable one unless there's some ludicrous cherry-picking going on)
posted by PMdixon at 4:03 AM on February 1 [36 favorites]


are you fucking kidding me

The whole comment is so word for word the arguments against confederate monument removal that I assumed satire/hamburgers.
posted by CheeseLouise at 4:23 AM on February 1 [23 favorites]


You know, I remember when I was fourteen or so and realized that, like, 50% of the art at the Art Institute was basically cheesecake - sure, talented cheesecake painted or sculpted by talented people, but basically "let's look at naked ladies while being very respectable, after all, everyone loves naked ladies" and how incredibly betrayed I felt because I'd been brought up to feel that the predominant thing in play was Very Serious Artistic Concerns, not "let's get the model starkers". The trigger was the room that they had at the time which was basically "topless Victorian imitations of classical sculpture with all the strength removed and lots more breasts".

It was super, super estranging to realize that you were supposed to go through the museum in a mixed-gender crowd of strangers and, like, half of it was cheesecake. Being around a bunch of strangers as an AFAB person with breasts and a lot of trauma around body stuff while everyone parades past sexualized female nudity, and it's culturally unacceptable to mention how weird this is - well, it's a head trip.

Even now we totally take for granted that "let's look at eroticized naked ladies" is both an important underpinning of artistic value and something that one cannot mention or object to.
posted by Frowner at 4:39 AM on February 1 [61 favorites]


I find this particular work is more likely to be annoying than illuminating. The action is framed as a removal or taking away of a piece rather than the addition of a space for commentary or a switch out for an alternative piece challenging the dominant aesthetic. The recovered space itself, with a printed note (twitter hashtag included) and some post-it notes, looks trite and lame.
posted by Svejk at 5:43 AM on February 1 [6 favorites]


Some dude posted Henrietta Rae's version on Twitter in an "see ladies paint n00dz too" attempt, but I think the guy unintentionally owned himself because when you look at them side-by-side it is staggeringly clear what a difference gender made in how each artist viewed the scene.

Rae was a feminist and promoter of female artistry; her painting was made about 13 years after Waterhouse's and she'd surely have seen it. I wonder if that had any influence on the clear dividing lines between them. I'm not an art historian but would love to hear from one.
posted by schroedinger at 5:43 AM on February 1 [26 favorites]


I have to admit feeling a little sad about this, because I've always liked Waterhouse's work, but looking through a gallery of his stuff: yeah, it's... that. (Although it should be pointed out that Waterhouse did some pretty cheesecakey dudes, too.)
posted by phooky at 5:45 AM on February 1


The problem is that this isn't provoking interesting conversations about what should and shouldn't be shown, or about priorities, or about public expectations, it's eliciting the same old RAR IT IS PEECEE GORN MAD WHURS MA BOOBIES (and in some cases: THIS IS SHARIA!!!!!!!) comments that you would expect in comment sections or on twitter. Which is about the most depressing thing that could possibly fill that space, and I say that as someone who hated that whole room of pre-raphs and skipped through it regularly to look at the more interesting stuff.
posted by AFII at 5:58 AM on February 1 [9 favorites]


I see The World's Worst Art Critic (In Fact World's Worse Critic Of Any Type)™ has his usual wrong-headed opinion
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:00 AM on February 1 [4 favorites]


it's eliciting the same old RAR IT IS PEECEE GORN MAD WHURS MA BOOBIES (and in some cases: THIS IS SHARIA!!!!!!!) comments that you would expect in comment sections or on twitter

Except now they're in a setting marked as high status. I think that is at least potentially interesting in and of itself.
posted by PMdixon at 6:00 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


I think the problem is that the notice, if I’m reading it right from the twitter photo, is just...really vague? And that’s probably what’s provoking shitty responses. Like, I think that a notice could have been interesting and thought provoking, but this does not seem to have been it.
posted by corb at 6:01 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


Except now they're in a setting marked as high status. I think that is at least potentially interesting in and of itself.

Not really, in either case. Firstly the MAG has a genuine and long-standing history of doing actual cross-demographic outreach & inclusion work - its audiences have long been inclusive if not bang on the % representative. And secondly 'it's PC GORN MAD' is as firmly entrenched in the elite, rich, white, arts and culture world as it is any other slice of the population you care to point at.
posted by AFII at 6:05 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


It’s an interesting way to engage the audience. Maybe they might have left the painting in place, behind glass, with the announcement and post-its attached to that?
posted by notyou at 6:13 AM on February 1


"What! Removing art? This is an outrage! Wait, 19th century Pre-Raphaelite Romanticist treacle you say? Never mind..."
posted by jim in austin at 6:16 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


And secondly 'it's PC GORN MAD' is as firmly entrenched in the elite, rich, white, arts and culture world as it is any other slice of the population you care to point at.

I'm well aware - usually however this is expressed in a more filtered format than has been shown.

(and I would say in any anglophone culture I'm aware of, art museums default to being marked as high status regardless of their guiding philosophies and aims)
posted by PMdixon at 6:17 AM on February 1


I strongly suspect that the only intervention in the usual museum process which would be widely acceptable would be to put some tiny text next to the painting which read something like "it has been pointed out that some people view this painting as problematic; we acknowledge this fact". Anything else would get the same old criticisms. I've been to this particular rodeo before.

Also, if there's one thing I've realized over the past couple of years, it's that a lot of us tend to assume that the world basically operates on good will and that things that go wrong are the result of misunderstanding or minor selfishness, not the active desire for injustice, and therefore we're deeply uncomfortable with political interventions that cause a commotion or make someone unhappy. But we were all wrong - the things that are deeply, structurally wrong in society are not because we are all just a little bit lazy and ignorant about racism or misogyny; they're wrong because many, many people actively want the benefits of an unequal society. "I'd like to be able to enjoy white supremacist* misogynist art without feeling uncomfortable, preferably while also being assured that looking at is the feminist, anti-racist, empowerful thing to do" is a pretty trivial expression of the commitment to injustice, but it's just as active a preference as anything else.

I mean, what does one do with all the art? I don't even know; I was pretty excited to see The Blessed Damozel the other year. But I strongly suspect that actually changing society in lasting ways is going to require afflicting the comfortable, not assuring us that we can go on exactly as we have before except with tiny text explaining that some people sometimes think problematic things.


*A lot of Victorian cheesecake is, in various ways, about race as expressed through gender, and god knows you don't have to look very far to see the eroticization of imperialism.
posted by Frowner at 6:27 AM on February 1 [19 favorites]


I think the problem is that the notice, if I’m reading it right from the twitter photo, is just...really vague?

Yes, there's nothing wrong with any of this; it's just the whole idea seems vague. The conversations the museum wants to invite are all worth having—21st century viewers aren't the first to deride Pre-Raphaelite/Academic paintings as kitsch or "cheesecake"—and the museum can certainly display their own collections in any manner they choose. It's just that "let's do this thing and pretend it's controversial and invite a 'conversation'" looks as much like a PR stunt as anything. I mean, here I am, and I'm sure it'll roil the internet for a bit, so kudos to them, I guess.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:29 AM on February 1 [5 favorites]


Although I have a soft spot for the Pre-Raphaelites, I like Henrietta Rae's version far more than Waterhouse's. The composition is better, but it's also more modern, in that the nymphs have far more agency. They're swarming the boy, who looked alarmed, which seems like an appropriate reaction to meeting some supernatural beings.
posted by zompist at 6:32 AM on February 1 [4 favorites]


> about race as expressed through gender,

Can I get an expansion on that, please? As-is it I can't parse it.
posted by Leon at 6:33 AM on February 1


I knew nothing about this piece before I looked it up a few minutes ago. I was expecting something more explicitly problematic -- a rapey backstory, or gratuitously posed naked women.

I can see how the story is all about several femmes fatales abducting and probably drowning a dude, and thus the subject matter may be considered objectionable, but I have to say that I like the painting itself.

The women are topless, but there's a sensible reason for that, and their nudity doesn't seem particularly titillating. Their faces are expressive. They look like interesting people having an interesting conversation (with a dude they're admittedly probably about to drown). The dude isn't naked, but he is showing enough skin for there to be something in this painting for people who like dudes to appreciate.

Maybe it's all a bit cheesy, but it's the kind of cheese I can get behind. 8/10; would put on wall.
posted by confluency at 6:37 AM on February 1 [4 favorites]


And an exhibit on the ways Pre-Raphaelite and/or Academic paintings reflect 19th/20th century constructions of class, race, and gender would be excellent. No doubt there's a lot of fine work done on that topic already. But "we're trying to provoke a conversation!" is tiresome and will produce nothing but more heat than light. It's the kind of trolling to which an institution shouldn't stoop.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:44 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


Note: I am not calling this piece pornography.

Waterhouse's painting using some of the same techniques that porn films use to elicit the viewer to imagine themselves in the man's position - we are looking over Hylas' shoulder, the focal point of the painting is the same focal point of Hylas. Which character is seeing roughly the same thing we as the viewer are seeing? This comparison makes it pretty clear, IMO. In the context of our modern society lots and lots and lots of people are really really sick of how often we are expected to just accept that men are the default subject, whether it is in novels, video games, movies, art, music, etc. etc. If this painting were just one of many pre-raphaelite paintings exhibited in the museum from a variety of perspectives, there would be no conversation to have, but that's really not the case.
posted by muddgirl at 6:49 AM on February 1 [12 favorites]


when you look at them side-by-side it is staggeringly clear what a difference gender made in how each artist viewed the scene.

Not to me. In both of them the women appear to be in control of the situation and appear to have agency. I guess in the Waterhouse version the women are using a demure coquettishness to entice Hylas where as in Rae's version the women are a bit more aggressive.

That seems like a difference without a distinction to me, but maybe it's because I have boy parts and don't understand that women are super tired of the idea that they should be flirty to entice a guy and would rather just go get him.
posted by willnot at 6:55 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


Dangit I hate it when a museum provokes self-examination that questions my enjoyment of art.

Have I liked nudity that made others uncomfortable? Because it made other uncomfortable? Did the artwork provide me sexual energy or imagery -- so subtle -- that shaped my sexual archetypes or perhaps my dreams? If that happened, is it wrong? Were the models respected or ever abused? How long can i look before it's too long?

I liked it when art and nudity challenged my sons when they were minors. And now once again I am challenged too.
posted by surplus at 6:56 AM on February 1 [4 favorites]


Can I get an expansion on that, please? As-is it I can't parse it.

Orientalism and exoticism and their many tropes - pictures in which women from colonized regions are depicted as lighter-skinned and intensely sexualized, surrounded by darker-skinned men; pictures which contrast white women to women of color, or lighter-skinned women to darker-skinned women, equating more beauty and femininity with lightness; eroticized pictures of women of color held captive in colonized societies. All tropes which simultaneously elevate white womanhood as "pure", eroticize women of color and women from colonized regions, create a racialized hierarchy of beauty and frame women of color as in need of saving from men of color. Eroticized images of women of color which create a feeling of "go out and...colonize all these loose-moraled foreign ladies". Art predicated on the core of white Europe as the center of the world (there's some treatments of white women from the periphery of Europe that share some of the exoticize/eroticize elements) and the remainder of the world existing in a hierarchy of beauty and value, all inferior to white Europe, all available at least for the gaze, probably for aggressive trade and possibly for military conquest.

Pre-Raphaelite images of extremely white women are about the value of whiteness, in particular the value of white women as the cultural and artistic (even if not literal) "possessions" of white men.

You can't be neutral on a moving train, as the fellow said.

And honestly, my issue with all the various cheesecake paintings is less with any individual painting than that there's so many of them, and that it's considered some kind of PC thuggery to say "hey, I feel a little frustrated that 25% of my museum-going experience is a reminder that women are only interesting when they are sexually desirable and painted as sexually available".
posted by Frowner at 6:59 AM on February 1 [26 favorites]


In both of them the women appear to be in control of the situation and appear to have agency.

What part of Waterhouse's painting implies that any viewer should identify with the nymphs at all? We don't see what the central nymphs are seeing. They nymph's charms are very obvious - what are Hylas' charms?
posted by muddgirl at 7:00 AM on February 1 [7 favorites]


I’ll confess to having a long-time appreciation for Waterhouse, although Hylas and the Nymphs doesn’t rank as high for me as La Belle Dame Sans Merci or the Lady of Shallot. There may be problematic aspects of his works, but I think they have their place. (And I don’t think Confederate moments—placed years after the war to lionize villains and contribute to ongoing oppression—are remotely comparable to pre-Raphaelite art, whatever the cultural blind spots of that art may have been.) If there’s a problem with the display of Hylas, I think it’s this:

The work usually hangs in a room titled In Pursuit of Beauty, which contains late 19th century paintings showing lots of female flesh.

The museum chose to contextualize it as a depiction of female beauty, not—as it might have—as a retelling of an oft-told myth, or as an examplar of Romantic era pseudo-nostalgia for a lost golden age. It seems to me that the museum curators bear some culpability for putting it in a room full of paintings of other bare breasted women and encouraging patrons to read only the erotic themes. I’m not sure what to make of the museum creating this room and then sponsoring this “Is Waterhouse too focused on sexualizing young women?” exhibit. It’s basically “We have boobies! Look at the boobies!” followed by “Why are you so focused on boobies?”
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:01 AM on February 1 [15 favorites]


putting it in a room full of paintings of other bare breasted women

somehow a lot of museums have a lot of rooms like that whether or not they're named something like "Pursuit of Beauty"
posted by PMdixon at 7:05 AM on February 1


What part of Waterhouse's painting implies that any viewer should identify with the nymphs at all? We don't see what the central nymphs are seeing. They nymph's charms are very obvious - what are Hylas' charms?

The Waterhouse version doesn't feel POV to me. You're viewing the scene from the water, not the land. You're behind one of the nymphs, so the feeling to me is that you are one of the nymphs. I will say that the center of focus in the scene is the nymph with the flower in her hair, and maybe it seems weird that as a nymph you'd be looking at one of your sisters as opposed to the object of your intention, but she is the one taking action here so it seems natural that's where your attention would go. That said, when you mention it I do see a male gaze kind of issue, but that's generally hard for me to recognize because that's just naturally the way I see the world.
posted by willnot at 7:08 AM on February 1


From my perspective, the big difference between the Waterhouse painting and the Rae, is that the Waterhouse adopts a faux-distanced perspective, where Hylas is engaged with the nymphs without seeming regard for their sexual desirability, while the viewer is allowed/invited to take that in for themselves while being able to simultaneously maintain a spectatorly remove from the events depicted.

The Rae painting suggests much greater involvement from Hylas and the nymphs in terms of their respective desires, removing the buffer between viewer and subject matter tying the viewer to Hylas' fate or the nymph's actions.
posted by gusottertrout at 7:08 AM on February 1


In the Rae version the nymphs have managed to surround Hylas and get that sweet +2 flanking bonus, although I think the two left-most nymphs in the Waterhouse are about to get there.

I understand that there are actual formal techniques for determining the intended POV of a piece of art, but as a complete layperson, when I look at the Waterhouse, I see it from the POV of the nymphs, and see Hylas as the focal point of the painting, even though he's off-centre. All the nymphs are looking at him, and turned towards him with their entire bodies.
posted by confluency at 7:22 AM on February 1 [3 favorites]


In the Rae version, the nymphs aren't even looking at Hylas. They're looking past him. Their gaze, as with his, is focused on the one standing just over his shoulder, yet their gaze is softer than his. Unlike the Waterhouse version where the nymphs are quite directly starting at him (to say gaze understates the intensity quite a bit). That's quite a different take.
posted by kokaku at 7:29 AM on February 1


Wouldn't it have been great if the gallery could have hung the Rae next to the Waterhouse?
posted by srednivashtar at 7:34 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


Just to complicate this a bit, to contemporary viewers reared on the classics Hylas would have been understood as the “beautiful object” in this painting, pursued both by Nymphs and by his lover/mentor Heracles.
posted by notyou at 7:35 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


Maybe it's all a bit cheesy, but it's the kind of cheese I can get behind. 8/10; would put on wall.

Unless the museum has prints and postcards of this painting in their gift-shop they're really failing to sell out. Heck, why not have a 3 foot sample on the wall to provoke another 'conversation' about the exploitation of controversy blahblah...
posted by tirutiru at 7:41 AM on February 1


So the printed notice is the new work of art?
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 7:59 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


The notice doesn't stand alone and isn't meant to, the art is specific and contextual, it reveals a conflict between values for the various curators. It's as if someone made a song consisting of a protest chant to be performed in the middle of a specific program of choral pieces.
posted by idiopath at 8:18 AM on February 1 [4 favorites]


I'd say the act of removing the painting and posting the printed notice is the new work of art. Or, depending on how you want to look at it, the act of conceiving the idea of removing the painting and posting the printed notice is the new work of art, and the act of executing that idea is an implementation or realization of what was already a conceptual art work at the moment it was conceived.

So the printed notice is just a printed notice. The concept and execution of the removal/replacement is the work.
The video footage of the process that the notice mentions is documentation of the process of implementing the work, or depending on what they shot and what they're doing with it part of the work itself. The notes from the public are arguably also part of the work. It's not a work in the visual plane; it's not primarily about the aesthetic impact of that stretch of wall, of the lettering on the notice (though I do appreciate that it's nicely hand-lettered) or the arrangement of the post it notes (as much as I personally have a soft spot for people arranging squares for visual impact).

I agree to some extent with the notes that the notice seems a bit vague, though not as vague as I had expected it to be from reading the thread first. It does get specific about some of the ideas folks have been hashing out in here, if in a relatively gentle way vs. some of the really pointed 70s era conceptual art criticism stuff I've been laboring through in my free time lately (which boy is this where my head is at right now as a result). Asking questions feels soggier than unfurling a declarative manifesto in the same space, but then again I think this approach is likely to get a more interesting aggregation of public reaction content in the post-it responses than something more assertive and less apparently inviting of response would.
posted by cortex at 8:21 AM on February 1 [3 favorites]


And what idiopath said, faster and shorter.
posted by cortex at 8:22 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


It’s kind of interesting seeing other people’s reactions to the naked female form in museums: I know that personally, for me, as someone with breasts that do not conform to the current mode, I had an unambiguously positive reaction to it - of being able to see, over a 2000-year-old swath of history, how much these preferences were just of their times, rather than constant and immutable.

I would love an exhibit that made that more explicit, or that included that context alongside the art, or on the audio tour, though, because Frowner is definitely correct that you can see a lot of the preferences of the time in the Waterhouses and similar paintings. The nymphs, despite being outside and spending much of their time in the sunlight, have the complexion of white women of the aristocracy whose value was considered diminished if they allowed their faces to be exposed to sun. There is so much tension there! But the sticky notes are not getting at it.
posted by corb at 8:25 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


and realized that, like, 50% of the art at the Art Institute was basically cheesecake - sure, talented cheesecake painted or sculpted by talented people, but basically "let's look at naked ladies while being very respectable, after all, everyone loves naked ladies"

Y'know...there used to be a whole bunch more art around from earlier eras, but a lot of it got destroyed in wars and whatnot and most of what's survived has survived mostly because of looting. Is it really a surprise that the majority of what's left tends towards the 'porny'?
posted by sexyrobot at 10:00 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


I am talking mostly from things like The Prado, but we have inventories from the royal collections that ended up centuries later as the Prado or the Louvre and no, there was a damn lot of cheesecake from the 1400s onwards.

Titian in particular painted half a dozen of near identical Danaës under golden showers because rich people couldn't get enough of ample expanses of pink flesh in recumbent positions with parted legs.
posted by sukeban at 10:32 AM on February 1


The essay by Waldemar Januszczak mentioned at the end of the Guardian article is a thing of beauty which may be read here. It was published in 2009, well before any #MeToo activity. First two paragraphs:

'Late Pre-Raphaelite's' suggestive sexy paintings of teenage girls like his St Eulalia disturb in Royal Academy exhibition.
As you survey the achievements of an artist laid out before you, a question that sometimes elbows its way into your mind is: how did he get away with it? In the case of JW Waterhouse, the absurdly belated pre-Raphaelite, this first question stayed with me through the Royal Academy’s new show and became my final question, too.

Waterhouse’s art is fixated to a disquieting degree on young girls. He liked them fresh from puberty, and would invariably dress them in flimsy pseudo-Greek tunics that slip readily off the shoulder and come apart at the chest. If he were alive today, he’d be creeping around the perimeter walls of schools with an HD camera. Not in the Gary Glitter league, perhaps, but he was certainly a flaunter of regrettable urges. And how his epoch ended up celebrating him and making him a leading Royal Academician, only his epoch knows.


I don't think Ive ever read a more elegant skewering, which continues over 600 crisp, well-chosen words. Of Waterhouse's qualities he disputes not only his taste and morals but his rather out-of-time claim to be a Pre-Raphaelite also. Really, as far as criticism goes, anyone in the profession might wish to have written anything this polished and concise.


The painting will be absent for the duration of Sonia Boyce's show and the removal is a part of it. The show is from 23 March to 2 September 2018, therefore the absence and the soliciting of comments and subsequent discussion won't be completed until at least this September.

Asking questions feels soggier than unfurling a declarative manifesto in the same space
Even if the space from which one had unfurled them happened to be one's own person?
posted by glasseyes at 11:33 AM on February 1 [3 favorites]


I don't know, Waterhouse was tasteless, but Bouguereau really liked painting prepubescent girls dressed in rags a lot.
posted by sukeban at 12:14 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]


Instead of the printed notice, the museum should have put this up (one of the greatest works of art of the 1980s).
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:40 PM on February 1


Removing a painting seems a strange way to provoke debate - but it kind of seems to be working, so there is that.

To me, this is not an obvious target for feminist criticism, in that it depicts a gay man being seduced/kidnapped (not necessarily drowned) by powerful female entities. I’m not sure that was a typical trope of Victorian sexism. On the other hand, that complexity might also lead to a more enlightening debate.

To me the best thing about it is the disorientating collision between myth/fantasy and the realism of the treatment, a collision that probably was not intended. These are relatively real Victorian girls standing in a pond. They do not have enormous tits or erect nipples.
posted by Segundus at 12:41 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]


Waterhouse’s art is fixated to a disquieting degree on young girls ...

I went to a women's college where you couldn't throw a rock in a dorm room without hitting somebody's Pre-Raphaelite poster. But as many times as I've seen that Waterhouse painting, I never noticed the girl at the far right. She looks all of thirteen years old, and now that I see it, it creeps the hell out of me. So this action on the museum's behalf has created a new perspective for me, at least.

The soft doughy whiteness of paintings of subjects from antiquity always left me cold. It's mannered and stylized and based on ideas about the ancient world that the ancient world did not always have. I was always disappointed, as a kid, in painted mermaids, who looked way too nakey and cold and didn't have enough tail or teeth or claws to live in the actual sea. Eventually, I was to learn that that was not the point.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:41 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]


I had a print of this painting in my room as a teenage girl. At a time in my life when I was first really experiencing what it’s like for people to care much more about your perceived sexual attractiveness than the contents of your mind, I found the image of the nymphs about to drown this stupid young man somewhat soothing.

Art means different things to different people, and good curation and description can challenge and change its meaning yet again. The Manchester Art Gallery used to have alternative descriptive cards for rooms in its collection, written by local feminist scholars or trade unionists. I’m glad they’re still provoking debate but I prefer to debate art I can see.
posted by Concordia at 3:14 PM on February 1 [4 favorites]


This is my local art gallery, and one of my favourite paintings there, although mostly because I'd like to make life-size cardboard cutouts of the nymphs and then position them in a Manchester canal. And yes, I've bought the postcard from the gallery shop.

I'm not happy with this stunt - it's a deliberately manufactured controversy, what we'd call trolling if it was on the internet. And like a lot of trolling it's fanning the flames of racial/religious hatred. Some of the people reading about this clever bit of performance art are leaving with one strong impression: "Muslims are destroying Britain", and it will be woven into the racist mythology of a war of civilisations. I think the artist and gallery are being naive about how this will be perceived, and how this will be portrayed by people with unpleasant agendas.

I wouldn't be surprised if this ends up being the subject of a Snopes article in the near future.
posted by BinaryApe at 12:58 AM on February 2 [1 favorite]


So the printed notice is the new work of art?

I wish she'd commanded people's attention with a bold painting, and upstaged Waterhouse, or somehow slighted, commented on, or upstaged his piece in a way that didn't involve censorship.

My problem with Waterhouse and Bouguereau is that their paintings don't really say anything - and greco-roman cheesecake seems less interesting than honest cheesecake.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:15 AM on February 2


My larger problem with Bougereau is how sketchy all his paintings of young girls feel when interspersed in a web gallery of cheesecake, and not being able to tell if they're sketchy in isolation.
posted by sebastienbailard at 3:06 AM on February 2


I went to see it this morning, from being 50/50 on the idea, and actually I think it's doing something really interesting- fairly disparate people were actually having a conversation about art, censorship, female bodies, talking about #metoo, and the non-present painting - I bet most of the people in the gallery this morning know far more about it than they did yesterday, that's certainly true for me (even though I didn't have time to linger long).

Some of the people reading about this clever bit of performance art are leaving with one strong impression: "Muslims are destroying Britain"

The Britain First crew turn absolutely everything into Sharia Law!!!1!1! and are best vocally countered, not pandered to. And in the week Makram Ali's killer has been sentenced for their vile ideology they can STFU.
posted by threetwentytwo at 6:23 AM on February 2


or upstaged his piece in a way that didn't involve censorship

But the gallery, and any museum, generally owns/holds a great deal of art that is not on display for lack of space to present it; all of that is no less or more "censored" than this Waterhouse and most of it won't get to spend nearly the time off the bench that the Waterhouse has. This isn't censorship unless curation in general is censorship, a claim that would have to apply as much to the gallery's failure to have chosen to display every other bit of their holdings instead of the Waterhouse in the first place as it would to them choosing to allow the Waterhouse into storage in this work.

This is motivated guest curation; it's someone outside the typical invisible-to-most structure of the gallery's normal decision-making making the kind of decision the gallery itself is expected to make, and has been making, as a matter of course as long as it has existed. An argument that curation is ipso facto censorship is an interesting one but not the one basically anyone who has commented with disappointment about the Waterhouse going to storage has been making.
posted by cortex at 7:12 AM on February 2 [2 favorites]


Strictly speaking there are no women in the painting. There are nymphs, supernatural beings that are about to kill Hylas. We don't even really know his state of mind as he could have thrown himself at the mercy of the nymphs and seen death as preferable to the continued abuse at the hands of Heracles.

I think the museum missed a trick here. They should have taken away everything in the entire gallery and replaced it with mirrors captioned with: this is beauty. Cover all of the space in mirrors. This "performance "art"" seems more of a stunt riding on the coattails of #MeToo and #TimesUp and #EvilMaleGaze etc. etc.
posted by koolkat at 8:16 AM on February 2


After reading some more about the artist, here's some background on her to add some context to the discussion that goes beyond the Waterhouse painting alone.

Professor Boyce has been dedicated to revealing the absent history of black artists and their influence on modern art as well as examining gender roles and the act of looking. The removal of the Waterhouse creates an absence that will be noted and reacted to by viewers, where like absence of black artists goes unnoted.

The claim "The Pursuit of Beauty" suggests a hunt for a concrete quality that can be recognized in something like universal terms, beauty in this sense is transcendental, something unobjectionable to pursue, yet the representation of beauty in famous works of art is narrowly confined to that which most clearly speaks to the desires of white men. Beauty as seen by women and people of color or represented by people of color is almost entirely absent from in depictions of this "noble pursuit'. Those perspectives can't be removed from the walls since they weren't there to begin with.

Professor Boyce's more recent work has involved extensive collaborations with other artists and audiences in ways that avoid trying to control and define outcomes:

Boyce has a participatory art practice where she invites others to engage performatively with improvisation. In this process, she encourages contributors to exercise their own responses to the situations she enables, where she steps back from any directorial position to observe the activities and dynamics of exchange as they unfold. Once the performance is played out and documented, Boyce reshapes the material generated, in what she calls “recouping the remains”, to create the artwork as a multi-media installation.


With this piece my impression is that Professor Boyce is using the removal of the Waterhouse painting to get the audience to respond to what is no longer there, what never was there and how we respond to the actions of the removal as opposed to the kind of erasure the paintings existence represents as an iconic image of "beauty". The framing of the concept in such benign abstract terms of transcendental values hides the more specific individual perspective that is defining beauty in this particular way and does so without much notice of the ideals involved. Boyce's art in this way is seeking to create a deeper context for the painting and the larger concepts by invoking audience response. It isn't confrontational art in the agitprop sense, but a collaborative effort that enacts the difference it proposes rather than simply supplying an alternative absolute value as that would be a contradiction in values.

There are a number of articles, interviews and other works by Boyce online for anyone looking to find out more about her rather than Waterhouse. Interestingly, one of her pieces uses a film clip from a movie recently linked in a post about the Nicolas Brothers. They aren't in the clip, it's a different part of the short film, but it touches on some of the same ideas that animated discussions of the Nicolas Brothers regarding the gulf between their talent and their presence in our shared history of the arts.

The video:Oh Adelaide! and some background on it.

posted by gusottertrout at 8:22 AM on February 2 [5 favorites]


Oh, and I don't think the scenario of the Waterhouse, such an apt name in this circumstance, and Hylas' ultimate fate, being drowned by beautiful nymphs, was lost on the Professor either. There's a metaphor there.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:40 AM on February 2


My favorite choice around destabilizing female nudity in the museum setting: The Cleveland Museum of Art exhibited Blind Man's Bluff by Louise Bourgeois next to a sculpture of a female nude, I forget the exact statue. Maybe 1800s, maybe earlier? Later than classical, earlier than modern. It was part of a broader exhibition strategy they were using at the time I visited of placing one or two modern works in rooms otherwise themed around a historical period or art movement, to show later reactions and developments.

Blind Man's Bluff is gloriously weird: shining white classical marble used for a pile of ambiguous forms suggesting breasts but also other biological forms. I could imagine them pulsing, probing, squirming. It's alienating and a little gross, I loved it. Given the contextualization given it by the museum it felt like the artist saying, "You want boobs? Here's boobs!" and then maybe cackling.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 12:12 PM on February 2 [4 favorites]


Boyce is using her position to take down a piece that's an expression of sexuality and celebration of craft by someone who has little power and influence in Boyce's sphere.

Various justifications:

- The piece has flaws.

- Old-fashioned representational art is fundamentally less important than modern, artist's-statment-driven non-representational art.

- It is turnabout, as he's a white male of the old guard and she's a black woman of the new guard, it's punching up, not down, and so on.

- The eternal refuge of a prank hinging on an expression of contempt, that the prank successfully elicited a reaction and this made it a teachable moment or something and this justifies the expression of contempt which happens to aggrandize the museum and the artist. Trolling, basically. And marketing.

I agree with her points re. historical power relationships, gender, race, gatekeeping, and so on, I just wish she could have made said points without shitting on another artist.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:11 AM on February 3


Boyce is using her position to take down a piece that's an expression of sexuality and celebration of craft by someone who has little power and influence in Boyce's sphere.

Waterhouse, though long dead himself and thus beyond care of where the shit may fall, is certainly not less influential than Boyce either in regards to the relative fame of each artist or as a representative figure or work for an ideal that still has far more hold on popular ideals than that which offers an alternative to the white male gaze.

I have to differ over the idea that this is either a prank or that Boyce isn't aware of the larger meaning of removal of an artwork, any artwork, over conflicts around ideology given most of art history has seen the more progressive art condemned for the sake of "traditional" values. That itself can be understood as an element of Boyce's piece as the Waterhouse painting isn't suffering neglect for its removal, but added attention.

As the painting will be returned at the end of the piece, the concept can be thought of as more about processing how ideals might change over time, how ideas of "beauty" and representation are contextual, linked to the world of their time for good or bad, with the suggestion that now isn't then and what once was seen as reflecting an ideal may not look the same from an alternative perspective despite not actually changing at all. That may seem banal to some, but there's little in the world today to suggest it's a lesson society has taken on in any meaningful way.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:10 AM on February 3 [2 favorites]




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