Laugh out Loud – you might have read about how the painting below was taken down from the walls of the Manchester gallery as “exploitive of women”. The official excuse given by curator Clare Gallaway was that the act of taking it down was in itself a work of art designed to start a conversation. About what – whether the picture exploits women or not? Missed completely is the fact the painting if anything is dismissive of women and certainly not exploitive because the artist does obviously not consider women worth exploiting.
OK – let’s start from the beginning. What we have is a young male been drawn into a pond full of little trollops. Notice how all the females appear stamped out of the same mould with very little variation between them and that they are at an age where they are visibly becoming women but are not quiet there and so are representative of the feminine that is neither mother nor wife and barely sexual partner. Feminine stripped of individuality, seductive maybe but mostly useless because any meaningful relationship is impossible.
Now, the male, Hylas is depicted as a beautiful youth on the cusp of full manhood, a strong individual he is clad in a clinging robe that describes his body near as well as would nakedness and were that not enough indication of his potential as a sexual partner, the robe is held in place by a bright red sash – so you the viewer can’t miss it. One good tug and the gymnastics are on. Sex is present in this painting but it’s sex that does not involve the Nymphs. Hylas’ lover and sexual partner is absent from this picture.
The back-story tells us Hylas was ‘a servant’ of Heracles and I think it safe to say ‘servant’ in this context means younger lover. The poet Theocritus wrote about the love between Hylas and Heracles in the 3rd century BC. Hylas was so beautiful the Nymphs collectively fell in love with him and devised a plan to get him for their own immoral purposes. They seduce him, kidnap him, Heracles looks for him but eventually gives up. The painting shows the silly boy been drawn into the trollop pond and his destruction.
Morality? Young beautiful men should stay with their man lovers until ready to marry and not allow themselves to be seduced by loose little trollops.
1898 the year this painting was created was the time of Oscar Wilde’s trial and incarceration and this painting fits well into that era of what we call gay rights now but then was more social movement seeking acceptance of relationships between same-gender youth and adults. What they called Greek love. The debate was widespread throughout Europe between the elite, artists and writers and other intellectuals. This painting could easily be seen as part of that debate and have nothing at all to do with ‘exploitation of women’ as understood today. I find it incomprehensible that a woman who is curator of a major public gallery could misread a painting to the point of giving it a completely false interpretation. Or did she? By taking the painting down and framing the debate as one about the alleged past exploitation of women she draws public attention away from the actual meaning of Waterhouse’s work.