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Newly-imposed censorship at Manchester Art Gallery

The following is a guest post by the Rev Dr Peter Mullen, Hon. Chaplain of The Freedom Association. 

Peter_Mullen_(2).pngManchester Art Gallery has removed a pre-Raphaelite painting which depicts naked water nymphs seducing a man. Hylas and the Nymphs, painted by John William Waterhouse in 1896 is a famous Victorian painting, but its erotic content - combined with the rise of the #Metoo movement and the recent expose of the President's Club - has prompted curators to take the artwork down.

A statement on the gallery's website said they removed the painting, "To prompt conversation about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection."

"This gallery presents the female body as either a ‘passive decorative form’ or a ‘femme fatale.’ Let’s challenge this Victorian fantasy!"

Members of the public – who were not consulted before this iconoclasm was perpetrated – have answered back. One said, "A dangerous precedent is set for other artworks," Another lampooned the "Po-faced, politically-correct virtue-signalling."

Now just brace yourself because what I am about to write is not pretty. It is political jargon at its ugliest. Clare Gannaway, contemporary art curator, uses English as a foreign language. She claims the removal of Waterhouse’s painting was not about censorship, but about, "outdated and damaging stories this whole part of the gallery is still telling through the contextualising and interpretation of collection displays. The area of the gallery which included Hylas and the Nymphs hasn’t changed for a VERY long time and still tells a very particular story about the bodies on display.

"We think that we can do better than this and the taking down of the painting is a playful way to open up a discussion about this whole gallery, the collection and the way that artworks speak to us through the way they are interpreted and put into context. We’d like this gallery to tell a different story in 2018, rather than being about the ‘Pursuit of Beauty’ with a binary tale about how women are either femmes fatale or passive bodies for male consumption. Shouldn’t we be challenging this instead of perpetuating views which result in things like the President’s Club being able to exist? The gallery doesn’t exist in a bubble and these things are connected, surely? The gallery’s themes need addressing and challenging. That’s kind of the point and it’s amazing it hasn’t been done sooner, really."

Get you breath back for a minute, then I’ll try to comment. We have noticed that what Ms Gannaway writes is not English. It is certainly not art criticism. It is not even joined up thinking – for jargon is not a medium receptive of thought. Her apology is ideological prejudice of the most narrow-minded and mean-spirited sort.

But I have a question: if we are to remove all depictions of girls and women as temptresses and sex objects, what havoc we shall have wreak throughout all the great European galleries?

Goya’s The Nude Maia will have to go. We can’t tolerate a juicy picture of a comely lass lying naked on the couch and giving us the glad eye.

Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights has kinky nymphets all over the pace – some standing on their heads. Get rid of that too.

Titian’s nude Venus of Urbino has her hand placed provocatively over her – shall we say? – mons veneris

You don’t need to be able to read German to understand what the flagrant flasheress in Klimt’s Frau Bei Der Selbstbetfriedi is doing with her hand: it’s all in the picture.

Rubens’ Leda and the Swan features the creature with his long neck lying between Leda’s thighs. Lucky old swan – but don’t let Clare catch you!

I could point you to hundreds more, but it’s tiring work for an old man like me.

It’s not only the pictures that will have to go. get rid of Wagner’s Ring for a start. Das Rheingold kicks off with water-sports as Rhine maidens frolick and tease a dwarf

Lolita, one of the finest of all 20thC novels must be for the burning, along with The Odyssey, featuring as it does Circe and the sirens. The Bible will have to be scrapped on account of its presentation of Samson and Delilah – to say nothing of Eve and her apple

Nymphs actually exist. They are part of the human psyche. Are we to refuse then to portray those bits of human experience that our resurgent academic Puritanism disapproves? If The Iliad and Rheingold must go, then Snow White will have to go too because it shows us a sweet little girl, no doubt underage, living with seven dirty old men. What’s the policy at the Manchester art gallery then: get rid of all paintings except those depicting middle aged women in dungarees working at the lathe?  

Look, Clare, you warped and twisted reincarnation of all the bowdlerisers and Missis Grundy’s there have ever been, the British public does not appreciate your censorious political prejudice

Why don’t you just climb back up on to your feminist witch waggon and drive off – a bloody long way?


All views expressed in contributions by named authors are their own and may not reflect the views of The Freedom Association.

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