An End to Victorian Eroticism?

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The Manchester Art Gallery has removed a painting by the Pre-Raphaelite John William Waterhouse to create a debate on objectifying femininity in historic works.

The artistic statement was inspired by the dialogue opened up by the #MeToo campaign that has called upon sexually harassed women to speak out against abuse. The work Hylas and the Nymphs shows a young man tempted to his doom by a group of naked women. Even postcards in the gallery shop of the work have been removed.

Clare Gannaway, curator of contemporary art at the gallery, said the aim of the removal was not to censor but to create a discussion. “It wasn’t about denying the existence of particular artworks,” she said. But she criticised the name of the room ‘The Pursuit of Beauty’ as an embarrassingly outdated concept filled with female flesh painted by men. “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.”

Passive decorative form

ways of seeing John Berger art historyThe gallery commented in a statement on its website that the work showed “the female body as either a ‘passive decorative form’ or a ‘femme fatale’. Let’s challenge this Victorian fantasy! 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?”

While many readers may be as quick as visiting members of the public who left post-it notes on the empty space on the gallery wall to condemn the gallery for censorship, this is certainly a relevant debate. Fortunately it seems unlikely that the work shall be absent longer than this planned artistic statement. But how should we respond to such a call to think about what is a timeless issue?  As The Costume Rag we are just as concerned about lack of clothes as excessive clothes when the overriding theme is identity and representation. Indeed it seems interesting that in a world dominated by prudery and covering up the Pre-Raphaelite breast was free to flourish through high society, although led by a tightly-knit circle of male patrons.

In this argument we can hardly avoid John Berger’s powerful words in the landmark work Ways of Seeing, “The female nude in Western painting was there to feed an appetite of male sexual desire. She existed to be looked at, posed in such a way that her body was displayed to the eye of the viewer.”

Nip of the iceberg?

Fragonard swing rococo 18th century painting Where does this debate leave Fragonard and his bawdy works like The Swing that depicts a hidden man looking up a lady’s skirt as her lover pushes her unaware? It is a work so amoral that the intended artist turned down the commission and yet now it is considered a gem of the Rococo and the pride of the Wallace Collection.

In stark paradox to predominantly female school classes in art and art history the history of the production and consumption of art has long been almost exclusively male. Thankfully progress has finally been made and discussions like this are driving forward a new way of looking at art and culture that has grown over the last few decades when out went old ideas of connoisseurship and in came new angles like queer theory. These are ultimately our only ways of processing historic works that don’t conform to our modern day values when our museums and galleries carry the scars and spoils of colonialism, prejudice and exploitation in all its forms. But if anyone is left worried by a very literal whitewashing of past works and beautiful depictions of the female form however it should be viewed, be assured that there are far more exposed bodies where those came from.

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