MICHAEL WOOD’S VIEW
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)