Sexism or Art? Museum takes down a painting of naked women


“Hylas and the Nymphs” (1896) by John William Waterhouse, shows a scene from the ancient Greek mythology, in which a young man is lured by nymphs into the pond and ultimately into death.

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“Hylas and the Nymphs” is the name of the artwork that has caused a heated debate among museum visitors, artists, and critics: A museum in Manchester took down a painting of naked women. Many people are outraged by this.

The painting of the English artist John William Waterhouse depicts the Greek fighter Hylas: The handsome young man is encircled by seven naked women, who show their affection for him. What is going to happen on the painting is only implied by the scene; but, the name of it speaks for itself.

With the women’s depiction on the painting, the Manchester Art Gallery decided to temporarily remove it from the exhibition, in order to provoke a debate about sexism in art. How are we supposed to treat pictures, in which women are portrayed as possible sexobjects for men? Taking down the artwork was part of an independent art performance, and partially inspired by the #MeToo debate, stated the museum. “This museum presents the female body as either ‘passive-decorative’ or ‘femme fatale’. Let us challenge this victorian fantasy!”, said curator Clare Gannaway.

However, not everybody is delighted about the museum’s action. Critics accuse the Manchester Art Gallery for conducting censorship. Artist Michael Browne claims that this action may cause negative consequences for other artworks in the future. On Twitter, under the hashtag #MAGSoniaBoyce, a discussion regarding censorship in art and the content of a picture emerged.

The spot in which the painting used to hang is now for the time being a place where visitors can post notes on and express their opinions. The museum also gives the opportunity for online discussion on their homepage. There, many critical voices have accumulated. “I am afraid about us starting to only show what is considered acceptable”, were the thoughts of a visitor. “These paintings depict outdated viewpoints from the past; however, one would expect that this is pretty obvious to today’s viewers”, wrote another visitor.

Museum visitors are free to express their opinion on this by posting notes onto the wall where the painting used to hang.

The painting is supposed to be displayed again in September. Until then, visitors have to content themselves with pictures of “Hylas and the Nymphs” from the internet because even the postcards with the painting on in the museum shop have been put away.


(Translated from the German weekly news magazine Stern)