The painting, despite (or maybe because of) its masterful handling of light and texture, exemplifies the “male gaze.” The nymphs are not just sexual, they’re available. Waterhouse makes their skin so smooth it’s luminescent; exposes their breasts; and averts their gaze from the viewer. We are invited to study their nude bodies without fear of their reprisal. Therefore, the viewer has visual power over the nymphs, unlike the condemned Hylas. This parallels the societal power men have historically had over women, creating a field of vision that is inherently gendered. The image of a woman or women, in this painting and many others like it, is owned by men.
The second issue arises from art institutions historically privileging this objectification. The study of art and the founding of galleries and museums has long been dictated by those who had the time and resources to engage with and determine what was deemed as “high culture.” As such, they were mainly rich, white, and male, and their specific worldview—including their historically biased perception of women—became fundamental to how art should operate. This is so ingrained in how we see Western art history, it can sometimes be invisible. Yet, despite the continuing reassessment of the canon, Hylas
is still a work that I (and many others) find irresistible.
As Boyce stated
in the Guardian
, “what is beautiful to some people may appear to others to represent a problematic and pejorative system.”
Boyce wasn’t the first to protest women’s depictions in the very same room Hylas
occupies at the Manchester Art Gallery. In 1913, three Suffragettes attacked
paintings, including works by
, damaging the canvases. In her entirely distinct approach, Boyce wanted to stoke discussion around why galleries are so averse to changing problematic works in their permanent collections.
I tried to explain this all to my dad over our spaghetti dinner. “I get that, George,” he said, reaching for the parmesan. “I know why it’s been done. I would just like to see the painting—I don’t grasp how censorship helps us talk about issues in art.”
My father had a point. I’ve often learned more about culture from paintings with dubious moral messages than preachy ones I begrudgingly agree with. Many criticisms of Boyce’s intervention state that instead of “creating debate,” the gallery had dangerously censored art. But I can’t recall another time when a painting dominated headline news so incessantly; when the public came together to express love and hate for an artwork so passionately; or certainly, when curation was a nationwide discussion. The work’s temporary removal had achieved exactly what Boyce wanted—she sparked a widespread conversation about women’s representation in art history, which many likely engaged with as I did, over an otherwise average midweek meal.
We’re at a point where galleries and institutions rightfully host symposiums on colonialism and attempt to balance temporary exhibitions according to race, sexuality, and gender. But this can be performative. These spaces are keen to appear engaged in social justice without exploring the problematic aspects of their permanent collections. Boyce cut through this by temporarily removing an essential work that had for so long been closely tied to the gallery’s popularity.
So in a sense, Hylas and the Nymphs changed my life twice. The first visit to the gallery with my dad awoke my obsession with art’s romance, its sex, its horror, and its stories. But Boyce’s “take-down” solidified my interest in what art means, how it reflects the society it was produced in, and how much further we have to go.