An art gallery in England turned a 19th-century painting into a commentary on contemporary culture last month by removing it altogether.
The Pre-Raphaelite painting, “Hylas and the Nymphs,” by the Victorian artist John William Waterhouse, is now back on display at the Manchester Art Gallery. It shows Hylas, a companion of the mythological hero Heracles, being lured into a lily pond by seven naked young women.
(The women were nymphs and Hylas did not make it out alive, according to the Greek myth on which the painting is based.)
In a statement, the gallery said the removal was meant “to prompt conversation about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection.” It encouraged visitors to leave sticky notes at the spot where the painting had hung. And it posed questions, including: “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?”
It was, apparently, an irresistible prompt. Commentary poured in via dozens of sticky notes, hundreds of online comments and widespread news coverage. Many decried the painting’s removal, calling it an example of censorship.
“To remove this work art from view is not an interesting critique but a crass gesture that will end up on the wrong side of history,” the art critic Jonathan Jones wrote in The Guardian.
“A dangerous precedent is set for other artworks,” wrote Michael Browne, an artist, in a comment online. “The emergence of P.C. censorship, blurred into Law.”
“Good subject for debate — but please put it back!” a sticky note read. “And analyse the painting in context.”
The removal was part of a Jan. 26 performance initiated by the artist Sonia Boyce, who said that the decision to take down “Hylas and the Nymphs” came from museum staff members and that the painting’s absence was always meant to be temporary. It was replaced on Saturday.
“Museums hold a very quiet but authoritative position,” Ms. Boyce said, adding that curators are usually far from the public eye when they make decisions about which pieces go on display and which stay in storage.
“To interrupt that is seen as an act of vandalism somehow, or as something that is challenging those power structures,” she said.
Curators and staff members at the museum did not respond to requests for comment this weekend. But Clare Gannaway, the contemporary art curator there, told BBC Radio 4 that the decision arose from staff conversations about gender representation and that it was meant to set off debate.
“We’ve picked this painting quite provocatively because it is quite a popular one,” she added.
As movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp prompt new conversations about harassment and abuse, gender inequality, and the representation of women in art, the removal of “Hylas and the Nymphs” seems to have struck a nerve. Ms. Boyce said that in discussions about which piece of art to remove, museum volunteers had shared stories of guests making inappropriate comments, sometimes in reference to the Victorian paintings of naked women.
“Having heard the effects that it’s having on the people who have to work with it all the time, I think we need to have a conversation about it,” she said.
This is not the first time Ms. Boyce has experimented with how art and observers interact. In 1995, she staged an exhibition in which people had to use peepholes to see ethnographic artifacts at the Brighton Museum.
Her planned exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery, which she referred to as a “mini-retrospective” of work that has often encouraged observer interaction, will open on March 23. It will include video from the night “Hylas and the Nymphs” was removed.
“I’ve been getting requests from all over the world to talk about this, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, O.K., it’s tapping into something,’” she said. “Something about power, and what people feel they’re entitled to in relation to art.”
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