Manchester Art Gallery’s decision to temporarily remove John William Waterhouse’s 1896 work, Hylas and the Nymphs, has undeniably succeeded in its stated aim to “prompt conversation about how we display and interpret artwork”.

The painting, which usually hangs in a gallery full of 19th-century works entitled In Pursuit of Beauty, has been temporarily removed, according to the gallery’s curator of contemporary art, Clare Gannaway. The painting was replaced by a notice telling visitors that the decision to take down the painting is itself an artistic act which will feature in a solo show by the artist Sonia Boyce which opens in March. Post-it notes were provided for people to leave their reactions.

Given the recent deplorable revelations that have fuelled the #MeToo movement, this action is very timely. But it’s debatable whether such a curatorial exercise is the most effective way of producing meaningful discussion. How does it affect the way we evaluate the past?

Museums are important for establishing a society’s identity and values. Understanding the way art was collected and displayed in the past – and how public audiences interacted with it – offers invaluable insights into the development of culture. It also helps us to see how our values have changed over time.

The fact that the Manchester Corporation bought Hylas and the Nymphs in the very year it was painted reveals Waterhouse’s high reputation at the time and also the acceptability of the subject in the past. It surely fulfilled the gallery’s civic mission of encouraging culture and learning.

The gallery invites us now to “challenge this Victorian fantasy” of the femmes fatales, but we need to avoid stereotyping. Yes, it was produced in the Victorian age, but it wasn’t just a titillating indulgence for “gentlemen”.

Like the Manchester Art Gallery, Victorian galleries also wanted to provoke their audiences, which included both men and women. In their desire to start conversations, the Victorians and the Manchester Art Gallery’s current curators thus share more than they perhaps realise.

Alison Smith’s book The Victorian Nude: Sexuality, Morality and Art and the 2001 Tate Britain exhibition Exposed: The Victorian Nude, have shown that the nude was also contentious in the Victorian period. The Victorian critic Robert Buchanan attacked Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “fleshly” art forms (poetic and painterly), while the Royal Academician John Calcott Horsley famously wrote to The Times in 1885, masquerading as “The British Matron”, to oppose nakedness in contemporary artworks.

Gender and power

Writers since the 1960s have been raising issues of gender and power in art. Griselda Pollock’s essay Beholding Art History: Vision, Place and Power (1995) argued that there had been a “dominant masculine Western ideology” in art history that needed to be addressed. Academic research can help reconstruct the art galleries of the past – and bring them back to life in journal articles and books – but the modern museum must engage, educate and entertain its public.

Publicly funded art galleries have an indisputable duty to address the urgent needs of their audience, and questions of gender have never been more vital. Removing Hylas arguably does little to further this debate. How can the value of the work be judged in absentia? Postcards of Hylas have also been removed from the shop – if this is part of their intention to provoke debate they ought to have said so.

Ulysses and the Sirens by John Waterhouse (1891). Photo credit: National Gallery of Victoria

Provoking a reaction

Is Waterhouse’s work a fitting subject for these exclusionary tactics? His Ulysses and the Sirens (1891) shows that he did not always indulge in nude forms. A vase in the British Museum inspired him to present the sirens as birds with the heads of women. Even his nudes were not mere voyeurism, but thoughtful and considered. His St Eulalia (1885) used the nudity of the young female saint to broach questions of Christianity.

Knight Errant by Sir John Everett Millais (1870). The Tate

Should perhaps a different work have been chosen by the artist activist, say Millais’ Knight Errant due to its “outdated” ideals of chivalry and the contrast between the fully armoured knight and the naked women he is rescuing? Would a more meaningful conversation have been started by comparing two images of women, or images by male and female artists? Just editing out objects from the public sphere is surely not a desirable function of either curators or contemporary artists.

If the comments on the Manchester Art Gallery webpage and on social media are anything to go by, it has certainly fulfilled their intent to provoke. The removal of Hylas has created a platform for opinions, but it hasn’t actually enabled a conversation.

Thankfully, the temporary absence of Hylas is just that – temporary – and conversations will soon be able to resume in the presence of the work. As one person commented on the art gallery’s website:

I’ve discussed these issues in the past, prompted in part by viewing this particular painting. I’m hoping we’ll get a chance to debate this off-line, at an open event.

The recent removal has had the important effect of revitalising interest in Waterhouse’s work, but we still need to find better ways of getting wider audiences to engage meaningfully with historic artworks that can be related to issues important for us today.

Matthew Potter, Reader in Art and Design History, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.