Censored Art in times of #MeToo

by María Magdalena Ziegler

Facebook censoring famous artwork because they contain nudity? Art galleries taking down paintings because they feature topless women? Welcome to a new era of censorship in the art world!

When Facebook censored the controversial painting The Origin of the World (1866) by Gustave Courbet and deactivated Frédéric Durand’s account for posting it in his wall on February 2011, we knew that “a new day was on the horizon”. Yes, we were way ahead of Oprah, but we never image the turn of the clouds over the sky.  Durand is still legally fighting against Facebook about it and will go to court soon.

censorship art manchester gallery
Gustave Courbet painting “The Origin of the World” (1866) has been censored by Facebook in 2011.

Censorship has taken a new turn in recent times. It is not only about Facebook (doubtful) criteria to consider this or that a form of pornography and acting in consequence. Today it is about what public museums are showing (or not) to their visitors in the name of  certain groups or movements. This could get things ugly.

The Nymphs and their right to be seen.

censorship art manchester gallery Hylas-and-the-Nymphs-1896
John William Waterhouse, “Hylas and the Nymphs”, 1896 (Manchester Art Gallery)

Hylas and the Nymphs (1896), a painting by the English artist John William Waterhouse, shows a great deal of feminine nudity. It was necessary for the artist to display seven beautiful girls in the nude from their waists up, because they are nymphs. Simple. Referring to ancient Greek mythology, Waterhouse understood these creatures were chaste, graceful, and delicate. Such were by him represented.

Victorian culture highlighted this feminine type of the nymph and Waterhouse was one of the most solicited artists of the Victorian Era. His logic choice when depicting Hylas -the young Hercules sidekick- was to also depict the moment of his abduction by the Mysian Nymphs. Thus, Waterhouse played homage to the Victorian ideal of young women who would attract men in a irresistible way.

A delicate and defenseless type of women is not very popular today. I agree. But it haven’t always been like this in the past. In spite of those powerful women in ancient civilization, we still think the Victorian ideal has been the only one for women. It have not. But taking down a work of art from an exhibition because it offends women today is a total insult to art history (and women!).

art censorship metoo timesup
Detail of the Nymphs from Waterhouse’s painting.

The Nymphs as guinea pigs.

Manchester Art Gallery curator of contemporary art, Clare Gannaway, has expressed that Time’s Up and #MeToo cultural movements stimulated the decision to take down Waterhouse’s painting. She said the intention was not to censor, but to provoke a debate, a conversation around a room in the gallery called “In Pursuit of Beauty”.

To Gannaway the choice of words to name that room was bad, because it mainly contains works by male artists pursuing naked women. She even explained that:

“For me personally, there is a sense of embarrassment that we haven’t dealt with it sooner. Our attention has been elsewhere … we’ve collectively forgotten to look at this space and think about it properly. We want to do something about it now because we have forgotten about it for so long.”

MAG is asking to the public through its blog to answer to the question: «How can we talk about the collection in ways which are relevant in the 21st century?» That alone, would have been a great conversation starter in the midst of art history, but not outside it. In fact, the blog entry continues stating:

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

When MAG starts a conversation (as was its intention) lapidary sentencing how the female body is presented in its exhibition room dedicated to Victorian art, it is also sentencing Victorian art itself. It does not give the public the chance to think beyond the beauty of the masterpieces hanging in MAG’s walls. It conducts the public to talk about an issue that is alien to the Victorian Era blaming Victorian art for it.

To us today, women in Victorian art could have been no less than a ‘passive decorative form’. But that is a remarkable misunderstanding of art history. When it comes from an art institution it is not only outrageous, but also baffling. It stimulates a certain bias in the public, which is unacceptable.

censorship art manchester gallery
Manchester Art Gallery is encouraging visitors to leave a note on the wall where Waterhouse’s painting should have been.

What is the public saying?

Fortunately, the public’s reaction has been much more mature than the gesture of the MAG itself. As responses to the mentioned blog post and the disappearance of Waterhouse painting, here are some interesting opinions:

I am worried we don’t start to only display “acceptable”.

A dangerous precedent is set for other artworks. The emergence of P.C. censorship, blurred into Law. Deciding what history to hide, and what people should know, and what artist’s can create. Even games have rules, of exclusion and inclusion.

I know this move is to promote discussion, but if we impose censorship in the arts, I would find that world truly terrifying. The role of art is to encourage debate.

Well it is indeed a provocation. An unnecessary one. You could have solicited public comments without removing this excellent art work. The fact that you have removed it indicates that you are fine with censorship. That you are fine with deciding what others may or may not see.

Correct me if I am wrong but do we not live in a liberal and civilised society where the job of the curator is to enlighten, not to impose their own personal beliefs on others and censor art at their will? Why would you impose your own beliefs on others?

You say this was intended to start a discussion, not as censorship, and I accept that that was the intent. But how could you think it was a good idea to start that discussion by doing something so very similar to censorship? The same act by which you’ve started the discussion has poisoned the discussion too, by inviting comparisons with those groups, universally condemned by history, who have attempted to prohibit “immoral” art.

MAG has allowed visitors to post their opinions on the wall where the painting were supposed to be hanging. And the responses have been of great help to understand how wrong has been to take the painting down.

censorship art manchester gallery
One of the notes visitor are sticking to the wall where Waterhouse’s painting should be.

The Nymphs: #MeToo

If Waterhouse’s Nymphs could speak, they would scream out loud: “Me Too!”. They would take the stand and accuse Gannaway and MAG of abuse. They have been secluded out of sight, preventing visitors to enjoy their beauty and to freely reflect about women types and stereotypes in the past.

Public museums has no right to present our cultural heritage varnished with prejudices. They should help visitors to understand each work of art among the cultural values each one encloses.

Therefore, the Nymphs would invite Botticelli’s Venus and Titian’s Danae to join them to tell everyone that art needs context and be taken serious and respectfully. They would express, without a doubt, that time’s up ’cause #ArtHistoryMatters.

Final note:

After this article was published, the city council of Manchester (which runs the gallery), publicly announced that the painting would return to its original exhibition room at MAG. The public pressure had been strong enough against this act of censorship (intended or not).

Liz Prettejohn, who curated a Waterhouse exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2009, has expressed:

“Taking it off display is killing any kind of debate that you might be able to have about it in relation to some of the really interesting issues that it might raise about sexuality and gender relationships.

The Victorians are always getting criticised because they’re supposed to be prudish. But here it would seem it’s us who are taking the roles of what we think of as the very moralistic Victorians.”


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