When does nudity in art become inappropriate?

John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs

It is nice to see John Waterhouse back in the news, though not quite in the way you would expect. Waterhouse was once one of Britain’s most famous and well-regarded artists, and his pictures are still famous, subjects of endless reproductions, even if he has been dead for these last 101 years. His Wikipedia article provides one with a full catalogue of his pictures, many of which will be immediately recognisable.

Now, as the Guardian reports, the Manchester Art Gallery has removed one of his most well-known works, in order to prompt some sort of debate about the way female flesh is depicted in art. The report says:

Some of his paintings leave people uncomfortable and he has been accused of being one step away from a pornographer. Reviewing the 2009 Royal Academy of Arts show devoted to Waterhouse, the critic Waldemar Januszczak wrote of a painting showing the death of St Eulalia, a 12-year-old girl: “I did not know whether to laugh, cry or call the police.”

Actually, the Gallery is onto something, and people should not raise the cry against censorship just yet, in my opinion. Is Waterhouse’s work, specifically Hylas and the Nymphs, one step away from pornography? What marks the difference between nudity in art and nudity in porn? This is a rather important question, and we should be grateful to the Manchester Art Gallery for raising it.

The Victorians did like their female flesh in art, and they also liked a fair amount of male flesh as well. One thinks of Lord Leighton’s Icarus and, across the Channel, Hypolyte Flandrin’s endlessly reproduced naked young man. Are these images pornographic?

I think the answer is no. (If it were yes, one would not be providing links to the works in question.) Nudity per se is not pornographic – though it can be. The real test is what response the work in question is trying to elicit? Is it asking us to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation, which is seen in the human form, or is it designed to arouse, and to awaken our lowest instincts? The beauty test is key. Art is beautiful, and pornography is essentially ugly.

Of course perceptions change, and thus some works, once considered art, can become pornographic, and vice versa. A good example of the is the Capitoline Venus, a statue which may once have decorated the hallway of an upscale courtesan in ancient Rome, and which was designed, perhaps, to draw in clients. But things have changed and there is no question now that it is simply a beautiful work of art, and that the gesture of the Goddess of Love, covering her breasts and her nether regions as she emerges from her bath, is completely innocent.

By contrast, Waterhouse’s Saint Eulalia, subject of Waldemar Januszczak’s comment above, may well have been acceptable as beautiful art once, but now crosses a line and makes us, to use that awful phrase, “uncomfortable”. Would you want your daughter modelling for Waterhouse? Perhaps not. Would you want your son modelling for Lord Leighton or Flandrin – a different question.

It was that dreadful old pseud Heidegger who said that “Art manifests being”, and I am sure he was right about that. He also said: “The human body is essentially something other than an animal organism”, and that is the truth that comes to you when you see nudity in art; and that is also the truth that is denied by pornography. The beauty of the human form is something that is taught by Christianity, and it is an important teaching that we should never forget. Pornography attempts to efface this truth, and to reduce the human form to something mechanical, animal and undignified.

In this context let us remember Milton’s description of Adam and Eve in the Garden, from Paradise Lost Book IV:

Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,
Godlike erect, with native honour clad
In naked majesty seemed lords of all…….

Adam the goodliest man of men since born
His sons, the fairest of her daughters Eve.

And to think we call Milton a Puritan! Is there a similar evocation of the pure and lovely in Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs? On that, I am not so sure, and I am glad the Manchester Art Gallery has called that particular picture into question.