Closet Anorak & The Water Nymphs

Isn’t it funny how life comes in little clumps. You haven’t seen a friend for month and then you bump into them three days in a row. You discover a new favourite Instagram account, and a week later it becomes the next big thing online. Sometimes it’s just because you start noticing something more because you’re looking for it – like when a friend is having a baby, and suddenly you see pregnant women everywhere – but sometimes it really is the peculiar coincidence of a clumpy universe. Last month I gave a talk about the renaissance reception of the story of Echo and Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Because talks are always better with pictures, I illustrated mine with an image of JW Waterhouse’s Echo and Narcissus on the big screen. The choice was anachronistic of course )I was talking about the 17th C, and Waterhouse’s painting was executed in the early 20th C ) and whimsical; I chose it because I like it. In the Q and A after my talk the subject shifted to the painting itself and why I had chosen it. I explained that the painting, like renaissance poetry, was full of literary allusions. I also admitted that the choice had also been down to my long-standing love affair with Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Waterhouse has been one of my favourite painters since I was a child, because of his darkly languid ladies and chiselled knights, and I can’t resist a good literary reference. I remember being taken to the Tate gallery as a child and looking forward to seeing Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott (because I loved the poem). Disastrously, the room that housed the painting was closed for some reason. I was incredibly disappointed, until I found that the door to the closed room had a glass window in it, so I spent rather a long time with my nose pressed up against it until it was time to leave and I had to be dragged away. That huge painting in a darkened room, glimpsed through a window, is a stronger visual memory for me than the many subsequent times I have seen it full frontal in proper lighting. My love of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and Waterhouse in particular, has continued for a lot longer than it perhaps should. It's a bit of a guilty secret. I did my A-Level art history project about a Waterhouse painting, and have invested many hours since painting and sketching 'after' his distinctive style. I didn’t admit to all of this anorak behaviour in my Q and A, and I did mutter something non-committal about Waterhouse’s depiction of women being problematic from a feminist perspective. A week later, several of the people who had attended the talk emailed me news articles about Machester Art Gallery’s decision to remove a Waterhouse painting (Hylas and the Water Nymphs) from display.

Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals

Manchester Art Gallery removed the painting from display in order, its curator told the BBC, to start a conversation about whether it was appropriate to display this “uncomfortable” painting in the age of the #timesup and #metoo campaigns, which seek to raise awareness of the endemic objectification, sexual harassment, and sexual assault of women in our society. Gallery owner Rupert Maas countered this argument, saying "we should debate the content of the picture, not remove it in a censorship sort of way - it's the new fascism". So was this just a publicity stunt? Was this censorship? Does this painting objectify women? Should we remove paintings that objectify women? Does hitching this debate on to the coat tails of the #timesup and #metoo movements belittle the experiences of victims of sexual assault? Is this refusal to view or hear anything that doesn’t tow the PC line the “new fascism”? Are we missing the point? The painting has since been replaced, but I worry that rather than prompting a discussion of how we should interact with a canon of art and literature that promotes a cultural objectification of women (if it does), the removal of the painting just reinforced the all too common idea that feminism is the stuff of silly prudery.  Who knows? Publicity stunt it may have been, but it certainly got my friends and me talking. One of these conversations was particularly enjoyable. “Well I think it was about time. I can’t believe it’s taken this long to be honest.” This firm statement was accompanied by a sip of beer and a return to perusing a social media newsfeed. My friend and I looked on, slightly stunned, as her husband scrolled his thumb across his phone. “I don’t think it’s that simple!” she said angrily. “Call yourself a feminist?” he laughed. At that point the gloves were off, and the whole thing got a little heated and began to stray into unrelated domestic matters. That is, until it became clear that while she and I were talking about the removal of Hylas and the Water Nymphs from the Manchester Art Gallery, he was talking about getting rid of grid girls. We all laughed at this mix up, because they’re such different things. But why are they different things? What makes using beautiful and very young women to ornament a race track different from using beautiful and very young women to ornament the walls of an art gallery? Both promote the objectification of women, but the obvious difference is that in the case of grid girls, real people are being used as decoration, and a painting is in fact an object. It could be argued that while the grid girls were only female, Waterhouse’s representations of male beauty are similarly examples of objectification. But where tautly muscled males stretch forward in two of the Waterhouse paintings I have mentioned (Hylas and the Water Nymphs and Echo and Narcissus), it has to be owned that Pre-Raphaelite paintings are largely of women, presented placidly to the viewer. Going back to my mumbled caveat about Waterhouse’s “problematic” depiction of women, I can’t deny that I see these paintings as inherently sexist. To my eye, Waterhouse’s mesmerically passive femmes fatales embody the chauvinist and misogynist society which produced them. They reinforce the hegemony that passive – and in some cases, well nigh dead – women are most desirable, while simultaneously perpetuating that old misogynist cherry: that women’s sexual wiles are a constant danger, luring men into sin and death.

Given all of this, do I think that these paintings should be taken down, and hidden away? Of course not. For starters, to reduce a painting to its contents is bizarre. It is also a material object, produced with great care. Whatever the subject there are other things to appreciate, the beauty of line, for example, or the delicate play of colour. I think we can appreciate these things in the same way that we appreciate Shakespeare’s beautiful verse despite its often misogynist and racist contents. I often comment in this blog on the sexism rife in Shakespeare, and worry about the ways in which these plays can be a Trojan Horse of pigheadedness, transporting misogyny into the modern day, excused and disguised by the word “art”. However, I don’t think that means that the plays lack value. Think of the moment in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Aegeus tells Duke Theseus about Lysander and his daughter, Hermia.
This man hath bewitch'd the bosom of my child;
Thou, thou, Lysander, thou hast given her rhymes,
And interchanged love-tokens with my child:
Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung,
With feigning voice verses of feigning love,
And stolen the impression of her fantasy
With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gawds, conceits,
Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats, messengers
Of strong prevailment in unharden'd youth:
With cunning hast thou filch'd my daughter's heart,
Turn'd her obedience, which is due to me,
To stubborn harshness (Act 1, Scene 1)
Aegeus wants his daughter to marry Demetrius, but she wants to marry Lysander. Despite the mutual love of Lysander and Hermia, Aegeus has forbidden their marriage and has come to ask the Duke to support him by enforcing the law that if Hermia disobeys her father, she must either face death or a convent. While Shakespeare presents Aegeus as a harsh father, the text does not undermine the idea that a daughter is a father’s possession whom he may bestow as he wishes. The words “stolen” and “filch’d” indicate that Hermia is a possession of her father’s. Ultimately the play concludes in a series of marriages, and one marital reunion, that bolster the idea that women should be controlled by men. In the extract above, although Hermia is being defiant, she is still portrayed as passive. She is disobedient because she is “bewitch’d” and bribed. Aegeus claims that Lysander has “stolen the impression of her fantasy”. Similar to the image of women’s “waxen hearts” from Twelfth Night, after which this blog is named, this line suggests that women are mouldable and their minds can literally be impressed by male ideas, like wax being stamped. But on the other hand, isn’t the phrase “stolen the impression of her fantasy” beautiful? There’s a whispering sibilance to it, which, combined with the abstract nature of this image, captures something of the mystery of falling in love. We can enjoy moonlit scene, and our ears tingle at the effect of the chiastic line “With feigning voice verses of feigning love”. The literary among us might be tickled by Shakespeare’s list of gifts, reminded of The Amorous Shepherd to his Love, and all the replies it provoked. We might also admire the way the enjambment at the end of that line emphasises the father’s rage. Few would deny the artistry of Shakespeare’s writing, but even the most determined would find it difficult to defend the works from all charges of misogyny and racism.

If we hide all the Waterhouses, we will have to hide almost all of Western art, and then, by the same logic, throw Shakespeare and vast stores of literature into the dungeon too. And I don’t just mean the dead white males! Think of the implicit racism in Jane Eyre. It would all have to go. We would lose a lot if we denied our cultural heritage. Instead we should question and contextualize it. We should certainly value art, but that doesn’t mean we can’t interrogate it. And even if you find nothing of value in Shakespeare or Waterhouse (you wouldn’t be alone on the Waterhouse, people are a bit sniffy about my beloved Pre-Raphaelites), acknowledging a past we don’t like can help us learn, but hiding it never can.


  1. I love this -- but perhaps I would, because I agree!

    I often comment in this blog on the sexism rife in Shakespeare, and worry about the ways in which these plays can be a Trojan Horse of pigheadedness, transporting misogyny into the modern day, excused and disguised by the word “art”.

    And a great exit line: 'acknowledging a past we don’t like can help us learn, but hiding it never can.'


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