One of Britain’s most renowned art museums, London’s Courtauld Gallery, added new labels to some of its finest paintings on display, including Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère and Paul Gauguin’s Nevermore. The labels warn viewers against forms of misogyny and sexism supposedly exhibited in the works.
According to the new label, the barmaid’s expression in Manet’s painting is “unsettling, especially as she appears to be interacting with a male customer.” The description also opts to interpret the barmaid “as just another item in the enticing array on offer in the foreground: wine, champagne, peppermint liqueur and British Bass beer.”
In the famous painting, the barmaid is the centerpiece of a portrait in which most of the contextual details are depicted in a large mirror in the background. The male customer approaching the barmaid can be seen in the right corner of the painting in a reflection. Past interpretations suggested that the image might hint at the barmaid’s “availability,” since the Folies-Bergère was frequented by prostitutes.
In an interview with The Telegraph, art historian Ruth Millington rejected the relabeling, calling it a “woke attempt to call out misogyny” which “unwittingly centers the male gaze” by shifting the viewer’s attention to the man and framing the woman as “a passive victim.” Millington added that “in a painting of multiple gazes, it’s unfair and misogynistic to emphasize the male perspective.” She suggested instead that she’d “rather read a fresh new label which invites viewers to imagine what the woman is thinking.”
For the painting Nevermore, the new label accuses Gauguin of “taking advantage of his position as a European colonizer.” The depicted young girl is speculated to be “one of several teenagers that he took on as ‘wives’,” her presumably young age being “the most unsettling aspect” of the painting. Rather than putting the title Nevermore, a clear reference to the Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven, into context with what Gauguin wrote to a friend about “a certain savage luxuriousness of a bygone age” that he suggested in the painting—to represent Gauguin’s disillusionment with colonialism—the new label concludes with a focus on “the widespread racist fantasy of Tahitian girls as sexually precocious” which “led to their unabashed exploitation.”
This relabeling by the Courtauld Gallery is only the latest example of woke censorship in the arts world of the past few years, a trend that ultimately limits the aesthetic experience of viewers by interpreting the works in question almost exclusively through the lens of contemporary identity politics.
Previously works by William Hogarth had been canceled amidst accusations of “sexual violence, anti-Semitism and racism;” John William Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the Nymphs was taken down by the Manchester Art Gallery to “prompt conversation.” Even collections of historical instruments made from ivory, possibly related to slave trade, such as harpsichords formerly owned by Georg Friedrich Händel, have fallen in the crosshairs of the “decolonisation” efforts conducted by the Royal Academy of Music.
David Boos is an organist, documentary filmmaker, and writer for The European Conservative and other publications.