Manchester Art Gallery Removes Nymphs Painting, Replaces It With Live Drag Queens

Chris Menahan
Feb. 04, 2018

The Manchester Art Gallery removed John William Waterhouse's famous "Hylas and the Nymphs" painting to allow a British Afro-Caribbean artist to "takeover" the public space with naked drag queens.

They said this was done to "prompt conversation."

"This gallery presents the female body as either a 'passive decorative form' or a 'femme fatale'," the Gallery wrote in a press release. "Let's challenge this Victorian fantasy!"

"The act of taking down this painting was part of a group gallery takeover that took place during the evening of 26 January 2018," they said. "People from the gallery team and people associated with the gallery took part. The takeover was filmed and is part of an exhibition by Sonia Boyce, 23 March to 2 September 2018."

Here's a sampling of Boyce's work:

And here's the type of work she's chosen to share:

Here's what the "takeover" looked like:

Naked girls are grotesque -- but naked drag queens are just fine.

Here's their full rational from their initial press release:
We have left a temporary space in Gallery 10 in place of Hylas and the Nymphs by JW Waterhouse to prompt conversation about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection.

How can we talk about the collection in ways which are relevant in the 21st century?
Here are some of the ideas we have been talking about so far. What do you think?

This gallery presents 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?

What other stories could these artworks and their characters tell? What other themes would be interesting to explore in the gallery?
Translation: let's talk about erasing your history and replacing it with degenerate filth!

Shockingly, the move succeeded in "prompting conversation" and was met with widespread outrage.

Their post got over 800 comments, nearly all of them negative.

One poster by the name of Nick wrote:
Isn’t it interesting how people who censor art always say “this isn’t about censorship”?

The curators complains that “it was male artists pursuing women’s bodies.” In the picture’s own terms, it is quite obvious that it is the opposite–the women are pulling the hunky man into the pool. But even if we accept that the artist intended to display female flesh in a titillating fashion, that is part of art history. We can discuss it, contextualize it, dislike it. But it should not be erased from museums because of contemporary moralism.

Indeed, this curator’s attempt to “start a conversation” reeks of disingenuousness. Who decides what topics are “up for conversation”, anyway? Some think removing art from museums makes for productive conversation. Why don’t we try some other “conversation starters” too, like “temporarily” taking votes away from women, or not recognizing gay rights? Not because of bias of course! Just to “start a conversation…”

Classical galleries are full of representations of the luscious flesh of young men. Interestingly, we don’t see this kind of “not-censorship” when it comes to homosexual eroticism. It seems only heterosexual desire, on the part of men, is up for interrogation.
Another anonymous user wrote:
The gallery is being condemned based on [gallery curator] Clare Gannaway’s own comments. She said she found the Pre-Raph room “embarrassing” and “very old-fashioned”, that it was devoted to “male artists pursuing women’s bodies, and paintings that presented the female body as a passive decorative art form or a femme fatale” (it’s a bad teacher who tells their students what to think). She claimed maintaining the gallery as it is equals “perpetuating views which result in things like the President’s Club being able to exist”: the implicit conclusion being that anyone who likes the gallery as it is (or who thinks one can pursue “beauty” in art without ulterior motive) bears a share of the blame for the Presidents Club scandal. She said “Views of history, views of art history and views about representation have moved on and the gallery probably hasn’t in the way that it should have done.” She said Hylas would “probably” return, but in the context of sweeping changes she threatened “as soon as possible ” to make the room tell “different, relevant stories…acknowledging that views of history change” (i.e. her view, which as Contemporary Art Curator she has no right to impose on the gallery’s Fine Art collection).

And you wonder why people were angry, having had their views and tastes trampled on in such a high-handed manner by Gannaway?

As for the ‘temporary’ removal, and the other nudes still on display – I, and I suspect many others, feared a thin end of the wedge approach. It’s an old tactic. Many’s the bus or train service “temporarily” suspended, only to become permanent; the pub or shop closure “for refurbishment”, before it gets sold for redevelopment; the “driver-only operation” in exceptional circumstances, which becomes the norm. A temporary cut in services becomes permanent. Austerity is “temporary”, and has been so for the past 7 years, with no sign of ending.

Gannaway’s “probably” said it all. If people hadn’t complained, that “temporary” absence would have become indefinite, and other paintings that didn’t fit her narrative would have started disappearing.
After widespread backlash, they put the painting back up and said their experiment was a success.

The Manchester Art Gallery wrote in a press release:
Well, there’s no denying it’s been an interesting week. We anticipated a heated debate but were amazed by the huge response to the temporary removal of Waterhouse’s Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece. As of this morning, following seven days in our art store, this important painting is back on display.

The comments section on this post has received well over 700 posts, we’re working through them and all aside from the merely abusive will be published. Please feel free to continue the debate here, we genuinely value your input.

Thank you.

The full press release is copied below.

Press release

Following a fantastic response to its temporary removal – both at the gallery itself and on-line – Waterhouse’s Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece Hylas and the Nymphs will be back on public display at Manchester Art Gallery from tomorrow, Saturday 3 February.

The painting – part of the gallery’s highly prized collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings – was temporarily removed from display as part of a project the gallery is working on with the contemporary artist Sonia Boyce, in the build-up to a solo exhibition of her work at the gallery opening on 23 March 2018.

Boyce’s artwork is all about bringing people together in different situations to see what happens. The painting’s short term removal from public view was the result of a ‘take-over’ of some of the gallery’s public spaces by gallery users and performance artists last Friday January 26th.

Since its filmed removal as part of the Boyce project a week ago, the painting and its temporary absence from the gallery has captured the attention of people everywhere, and in so doing has opened up a wider global debate about representation in art and how works of art are interpreted and displayed.

Given the sheer volume and breadth of discussion that has been sparked by the act of removing the painting, the gallery is now planning a series of public events to encourage further debate about these wider issues.

Amanda Wallace, Interim Director Manchester Art Gallery, said: “We’ve been inundated with responses to our temporary removal of Hylas and the Nymphs as part of the forthcoming Sonia Boyce exhibition, and it’s been amazing to see the depth and range of feelings expressed.

“The painting is rightly acknowledged as one of the highlights of our Pre-Raphaelite collection, and over the years has been enjoyed by millions of visitors to the gallery.

“We were hoping the experiment would stimulate discussion, and it’s fair to say we’ve had that in spades – and not just from local people but from art-lovers around the world.

“Throughout the painting’s seven day absence, it’s been clear that many people feel very strongly about the issues raised, and we now plan to harness this strength of feeling for some further debate on these wider issues.”
Curator Clare Gannaway should be fired immediately and state prosecutors should consider charging her for public indecency.

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