MICHAEL WOOD’S VIEW

BBC History Magazine - - Contents -

When our daugh­ters were lit­tle we took them to Paris and did all the usual things: a boat ride on the Seine, the Eif­fel Tower, a trip to Dis­ney­land. But we also took them to the Lou­vre. We walked to the Mona Lisa down a huge gallery cov­ered with 15th-cen­tury Re­nais­sance paint­ings: Adam and Eve ashamed by their naked­ness; holy vir­gins in ecstasy; and then tor­tured saints and mar­tyrs – cru­ci­fix­ions, flag­el­la­tions, be­head­ings – an­gels and long-haired, bearded men float­ing be­at­if­i­cally in the sky above. Our younger daugh­ter, who was seven at the time, was shocked. But she was also con­fused: “What is this all about?” she asked. “What’s in their heads?”

It’s the ques­tion all his­to­ri­ans must ask: a re­minder, as if we needed one, that even in our global age, cul­tural pro­duc­tions are al­ways spe­cific to their civil­i­sa­tion. The deeply trou­bling psy­cho­log­i­cal as­pects of the world view of those pic­tures arose in late an­tiq­uity. For ex­am­ple, the idea of orig­i­nal sin (the doc­trine that says that every­one is born sin­ful) was the prod­uct more than any­thing of the tor­tured psy­chol­ogy of the early Chris­tian philoso­pher St Au­gus­tine, and it has done un­told dam­age to peo­ple’s lives ever since. It was un­der­writ­ten by gen­er­a­tions of bril­liant me­dieval the­olo­gians, who con­structed a vast ed­i­fice of religious ide­ol­ogy that un­der­pinned sec­u­lar power and so­cial moral­ity in the west for well over a mil­len­nium.

But sud­denly, stand­ing there in the Lou­vre with a seven-year-old, it all seemed to me not only a thing of the past, which truly was an­other coun­try, but a very per­verse path for a civil­i­sa­tion to have taken.

The canon, the body of thought and art forms ac­cepted as the most im­por­tant in shap­ing a par­tic­u­lar cul­ture, is al­ways the cre­ation of the rich and pow­er­ful. They are the ones who con­trol ide­ol­ogy and re­li­gion, and so­ci­ety’s views of sex­u­al­ity, gender and iden­tity. And, as the canon has been his­tor­i­cally cre­ated, it is al­ways the his­to­rian’s job to ask ques­tions.

I was re­minded of this re­cently at the Manch­ester Art Gallery. There Hy­las and the Nymphs – the 1896 de­pic­tion of the Greek myth by neo-clas­si­cal painter JW Water­house, which shows naked nymphs tempt­ing Hy­las into the wa­ter – had been taken off the wall be­cause of the artist’s ap­pro­pri­a­tion of the sex­u­alised young fe­male body.

Vis­i­tors were in­vited to fill the empty space on the wall with sticky notes giv­ing their re­ac­tions. The idea was to “prompt a con­ver­sa­tion”, which it cer­tainly did. “Good sub­ject for debate,” some­one wrote, “but please put it back – and an­a­lyse the paint­ing in con­text.”

It was soon put back. But was it of­fen­sive? Vic­to­rian erotic fan­tasy taken too far? Well, I must con­fess that as a 14-year-old school­boy when I first saw it, I found it a dis­turbingly ex­cit­ing portkey (to use a Harry Pot­ter phrase) into the world of Greek myths. That Water­house’s male gaze and his de­pic­tion of women’s bod­ies might be prob­lem­at­i­cal, I only saw later.

The con­tro­versy over Water­house’s paint­ing was a mi­nor gust in the huge gale now blow­ing around the Time’s Up and #Me Too move­ments against sex­ual ha­rass­ment. But his de­pic­tion, seen as a metaphor for dan­ger­ous fe­male sex­u­al­ity, re­minds us that the dom­i­nant modes of western art are male cen­tred, and in a so­ci­ety where men ruled and shaped so­ci­ety’s ways of see­ing, much of our ‘great art’ is framed by that his­tory.

The canon was cre­ated by men for men, and the role of women has, all too of­ten, been ex­cised from our his­tory. The works of fe­male thinkers, writ­ers and po­ets, the fe­male Lev­ellers, the women at Peter­loo who marched for the vote long be­fore the suf­fragettes – all were over­writ­ten.

Six hun­dred years ago. Chris­tine de Pizan wrote her Book of the City of Ladies to her “com­mu­nity of women”. In it ‘Lady Rea­son’ pointed out that the stereo­types of women cre­ated by men could only be sus­tained if women are pre­vented from be­ing part of the con­ver­sa­tion. Since that time the at­tack on the canon has slowly gath­ered pace.

Now, in our time, we can see clearly that the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive needs to be over­turned, and re­con­sti­tuted. And that, in part of course, is the his­to­rian’s job.

Michael Wood is pro­fes­sor of pub­lic his­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Manch­ester. He has pre­sented nu­mer­ous BBC se­ries and his books in­clude The Story of Eng­land (Vik­ing, 2010)

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