John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896. Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Sex Scenes: What’s the Role of a 122-Year-Old Painting in a #MeToo World?

On Politicizing the Nymph.

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Sep 14 2018, 4:00pm

John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896. Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896, is an oil painting by John William Waterhouse in the classic school under the influence of Lawrence Alma-Tadema. In it, we witness Hylas surrounded by silvery-voiced Naiads, nymphs of the river who gaze longingly, calling him into their waters.

According to Greek myth, Hylas was a youth of unsurpassed beauty with hair that hung down in curls. He was so beautiful that when Heracles killed Hylas’s father in battle, the warrior spared the youth, despite the possibility that he could enact revenge, and took Hylas in as his own, training him as a warrior and keeping him as companion and lover.

That is, until one night, when Hylas leaves Hercules and the Argonauts to fetch water for their camp. It was here by the water that Hylas saw the nymphs, moon-lit and resplendent, their bodies long and slender like the roots of the water lilies in which swimmers get caught. It’s a scene of entrapment, where the nymphs capture both Hylas and our gaze. And in the myth, Hylas was never seen again.

The painting was a center of controversy this year when the Manchester Art Gallery decided to remove it from its show. The curator left the space of the painting empty to encourage discussion on how to receive artworks in a post #MeToo world—works like Hylas and the Nymphs, which, according to the curator, use the female body as passive, simply decoration, or as an expression of female desire as deadly. The curators wanted to bring the work of art in a different political context where its gender politics could be discussed but it’s hard not to see #MeToo being wielded here as a PR stunt, using the sheen of a celebrity hashtag without having to really address questions of power structures and sexism in the arts.

Despite the nudity, the atmosphere is barely erotic; it’s instead more akin to a horror movie. With a modern gesture, Waterhouse interrupts the scene at its climax, creating the feeling of a movie score with a suspended violin note. Hylas is surrounded by the nymphs, about to trip into the waters, but we do not know for certain what his end will be. In the 1990 book The Philosophy of Horror, Noel Carroll defines suspense as the property of a situation in which the negative outcome is more likely than the positive one. The ancient greek poet Theocritus says that Hylas became a god and went on to be a sort of sex slave to the nymphs for eternity; many others, including Waterhouse, don’t think so.

The nymphs point to the discomforting question of encountering naturing (and by pagan extension, the divine) not in its rage, nor in lovingness, but in its horniness. Lust is a force that every living thing is subject to and controlled by—yet the the nymphs are more than living, they are immortal; they are a representation of the river and what it means for a river to lust after us, to embrace us. The 19th century art critic John Ruskin says of sirens that “they promise pleasure but never give it.” It’s like a desire that goes beyond our needs, wellness, and even pleasure. Like when we keep eating despite being full, have one more shot while wasted, or stay up another hour even if we are exhausted. The siren calls and we answer, even if we know that nothing good will come out of it. The supernaturality of the nymphs is heightened by the fact that all of them have the same features. Waterhouse based them only two models, and their stare is empty; they are not real persons; and they are expressions of a deeper, alien reality.

The irony in using #MeToo as a way to politicize Waterhouse’s work is that he came to fame among similar discussions. In 1885, the Royal Academy was the center of debate because of the great number of nudes it exhibited. And the discussion in 2018 isn’t all that different from the ones at the end of the 19th century. In his 2011 book Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity, reception theorist Simon Goldhill sums the arguments up as: mothers concerned for the children, those claiming a pure mind finds nothing impure in nudity, and purely misogynistic reads of “female jealousy” in the face of female nudes.

It’s also key to note what “nymph” conjured in Waterhouse’s era. It became a sort of bougie slang popularized through the medical term “nymphomania,” a term aimed at “loose” women. This was also a time of bourgeois panic around female promiscuity in general—a British journalist started a mass hysteria around “sex trafficking” when published sensationalistic accounts of prostitution, leading to UK laws that strengthened legislation against sex work and re-criminalized male homosexuality; many of these laws remain on the books today. It’s almost eerie that the 2018 controversy around the painting arises during another peak of criminalization. Trump signed this year SESTA/FOSTA, a set of Internet censorship laws supposedly aimed at curbing sex trafficking, which in reality, trafficking survivors and sex workers say, only limit autonomy and create more unsafe working environments.

The 2018 decision to remove Hylas and the Nymphs quickly attracted criticism both from intellectuals and the public, who were invited to fill the empty space with comments on sticky notes. Most of the responses, while sharing sympathy with the politics, rejected the simplistic interpretation, relating how they found the work empowering, how the nymphs are anything but passive; or by contextualizing the work in light of the myth. One visitor wrote that they had waited for years to visit the gallery just to see the painting, and how disappointed they were to find it removed.

This sentiment puts the attention on other powers at play: the power of curators to decide what the public can or cannot see, and how powerless it can feel to be on the receiving end of those decisions with no way to appeal them, especially if they are made on flimsy grounds or a misreading of the work.

Perhaps the way to transform the myth of “dangerous female sexuality” is not by taking down the painting of the nymphs but adjusting our way of seeing it. Today the term “nymph” in literary use is synonymous with the ingenue. But what if we reclaimed the darker meaning from Waterhouse’s day, and embraced the nymph as the woman with sexual agency? After all, as the myth goes, the nymphs wanted Hylas and they took him.