The Siren Waterhouse Analysis Essay

Literary Analysis And Comparison Of Ulysses And The Sirens And “Siren Song”

Throughout modern history the ancient Greeks and their stories have influenced our culture and way of life. Many of the ancient Greek myths are those of caution that teach us moral lessons. For example, the myth of Odysseus and the sirens, told by Homer in The Odyssey, teaches us to resist the urge to indulge in temptations. Odysseus and his crew are travelling near the island of the sirens when Odysseus plugs the ears of his crewmates with beeswax and has them tie him to the mast so that he can listen to the sirens’ song and not crash their ship onto the rocks as they pass the island. Odysseus and his crew safely pass the island of the sirens without any casualties and continue on their journey home. Author Margaret Atwood and artist John William Waterhouse both display their brilliant ideas about the myth of Odysseus and the sirens using poetry and painting. Both Ulysses and the Sirens by John William Waterhouse and “Siren Song” by Margaret Atwood use the myth of the sirens to show that during their lives, people often encounter bad temptations that can lead to their demise and should pay no attention to such temptations.
Margaret Atwood wrote and published “Siren Song” in 1974. The poem vividly describes a siren singing a song about a different song, which is irresistible to men. The siren narrating the poem cunningly pretends to sing a harmless song that is actually the irresistible song that she sings about (Nada). The siren wishes to tempt the reader into coming closer to her and feigns helplessness and distress in order to lure the reader onto her island. The siren also compliments the reader in order to coerce them to come closer. Despite the siren’s clearly dark intentions the poem has a somewhat lighter undertone created when the siren comically asks, “will you get me out of this bird suit?” and further supported when she calls her two companion sirens, “feathery maniacs” (Atwood 16, Atwood 11-12). The poem drops occasional hints about the true purpose of the siren’s song, such as the mentioning of beached skulls (Atwood 6) and, “the song nobody knows because anyone who had heard it is dead” (Atwood7-9).
Margaret Atwood was born on November 18, 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario and grew up in Northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from Victoria College, Toronto University in 1961 and her Masters of Art Degree from Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1962. She continued her studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; however she never finished her dissertation, “The English Metaphysical Romance”. She has taught in universities all over the United States and Canada, including the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. She has lived all over the world including the United Kingdom, Italy, France, and Germany. She has written over forty works of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and novels, which have been translated into over forty different languages. Margaret...

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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.

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.

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.


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