Visiting the Sonia Boyce exhibition at Manchester’s City Gallery left me reflecting, which I guess is what all art is meant to do. Removal of John William Waterhouse’s 1896 painting of Hylas and the Nymphs – albeit temporarily – also left me ambiguous as to the meaning of the action. Yes to some degree I get it; visitors were asked to ‘post-it’ their comments on the space where the work had rested for many decades.
Boyce likes to provoke joint action and conversation as part of her work. I’m still not sure whether removal of this painting was spontaneous or planned. The art-heist was filmed by Boyce and she has included this within her film installation. The literature says, ‘A group of gallery staff initially came together with Boyce to explore their own responses to outdated interpretation and contextualisation of collection displays at the gallery.’
The temporary poster replacing Hylas and the Nymphs said, ‘This gallery presents the female body as either a passive decorative form or a femme fatale. Let’s challenge this Victorian fantasy. 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?’ I’m really not quite sure whether that was a criticism or not. I just know that the poster and post-its weren’t as timeless and beautiful as Hylas and the Nymphs. And I’m glad that it’s back in place for visitors to enjoy the beauty of the painting.
But if the team who removed the Nymphs had looked directly behind them they might have picked on Sappho, painted by Charles-August Mengin in 1877. Sappho was a Greek poet who lived around 600BC. She wrote about love, yearning and reflection. Painted for the Paris Salon exhibition the intense sexual charge was justified by choosing a classical subject…and by Sappho holding a lyre. Discuss…