Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

Using Arthur Hacker’s Syrinx to Explore Sexual Violence and the Male Gaze

By Milly Coogan

Content warning: Rape and Sexual Violence

Arthur Hacker’s painting of Syrinx – based on the Roman story by Ovid – depicts a woman who has fled from an attempted rape against her. The painting portrays Syrinx as a naked, visibly upset girl, who is attempting to cover her naked body with reeds. But who is she trying to cover herself from? In this blog, the relevance of Syrinx’s attack will be explored along with Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze, in which women in art, are depicted for the heterosexual male’s pleasure. The museum label for the painting says “Syrinx was the daughter of a Greek river god. In order to escape rape by the god Pan she was turned into a reed. The moment of her transformation is shown here. Experiencing the girl’s terror can be uncomfortable: she is desperately trying to hide but her body is exposed for the viewer’s pleasure.”[1]

Arthur Hacker, Syrinx. 1892. Oil on canvas, 193.4 x 61.4 cm. Photo Credit: Manchester Art Gallery.

The nude painting is unique in Western art, as the naked body is hypersexualised in comparison to non-western paintings.[2] Syrinx hangs in a room dedicated to Victorian art. Victorian art is often characterised for its hyper-realisation, biblical or classical themes and passive, female nudes. Like Syrinx, the majority of the paintings hanging in the same room feature female nudes. The prevalence of female nudity in art is centre to this exploration of the male gaze in art because, as Laura Mulvey states, the pleasure of looking in the art world is divided between the active male and the passive female.[3] Hacker’s painting is interesting when exploring this topic, because the male gaze is set upon a visibly young woman who has experienced trauma. Moreover, the trauma is continuous as the painting captures Syrinx attempting to hide from the viewer’s gaze. The position of the woman in the painting shows explicit discomfort. The museum label highlights the paradox between Syrinx’s position; her arms are raised in attempt to cover herself, yet the same position exposes her to the viewer.  According to Nichols, this tension is crucial for feminist analysis of the visual representations of rape and sexual violence.[4] This is even more relevant when observing that in the original story, Syrinx is fully clothed.

Therefore, it must be questioned why Arthur Hacker painted this subject, in a way that exposed Syrinx at her most vulnerable. In the Victorian era, it was commonly agreed that respectable women did not have sexual drives, moreover, female sexuality fell into two categories: the pure and the fallen.[5] Nichols emphasises this by arguing that Hacker’s Syrinx depicted the “vision of the ‘ideal’ ‘victim.’”[6] In Victorian culture, Syrinx was attractive because she escaped. By fleeing from the attacker, Syrinx had maintained her ‘purity.’ Yet despite the ordeal that Syrinx had fled from, she is captured in an eternal state of the receiving end of voyeurism. The viewer gains pleasure by viewing Syrinx’s body. This highlights further Mulvey’s statement that the female is passive. John Berger explains this slightly by arguing that “The protagonist is never painted… it is for him that the figures have assumed their nudity.”[7]  However, by stating that the figures “assumed their nudity” places more agency on the model than the painting grants them; “assumed” suggests that the female model chooses to be in such a position, rather than the male artist demands it for his art, for the male gaze.

Mieke Bal claims that rape cannot be visualised because “rape makes the victim invisible.”[8] This is evident in Hacker’s work even though the attack is not evident in the painting itself and could only be identified by the museum label.  The attack on Syrinx is still relevant as it is the precursor for Syrinx’s vulnerable position, which is depicted for the viewer’s pleasure.  This is supported further by Robin Sheets who claimed that women are featured in art only to be silenced and objectified in order for a man to project his fantasies.[9] In this situation, it can be argued that Hacker’s depiction of Syrinx was not an exploration of Syrinx’s experience or feelings. Rather it is possible that Syrinx’s vulnerability was a fantasy of Hacker’s, or at least, her situation was worth sexualising for the male gaze.

A personal photo taken of Syrinx in Manchester Art Gallery, 6th June 2019.

Thus, it seems that the next question is how do galleries address this problem? In recent years, Manchester Art Gallery came under fire for temporarily removing a painting. John Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs was taken off the walls to stir debate about how art is displayed and interpreted in galleries. The backlash was quite immense; members of the public were invited to leave their opinion on post-it notes, on the space where the painting once hung. Many members of the public and considered the removal and act of censorship, whilst others praised the gallery for removing a painting that depicted visibly young, naked women. The act revealed the division in the art world surrounding nudity and the position of women in art, both on canvas and behind the paintbrush. Arthur Hacker’s Syrinx epitomises both the sexual views and gender roles of the Victorian era, as well as the issue of the male gaze in art. The depiction of a woman fleeing rape in a position of vulnerability for the viewer’s pleasure, highlights a fundamental problem in the art world: if the purpose of art is for pleasure, yet the male gaze removes the woman’s agency (especially a woman fleeing sexual violence), should it hang in a public gallery?

[1] Kate Nichols, ‘Arthur Hacker’s Syrinx (1892): Paint, Classics and the Culture of Rape’, Feminist Theory (2016), 17:1, pp. 107-108. Kate Nichols, ‘Arthur Hacker’s Syrinx (1892): Paint, Classics and the Culture of Rape’, Feminist Theory (2016), 17:1, pp. 107-108.

[2] John Berger, Ways of Seeing, (London: Penguin, 1972) p. 53.

[3] Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1 October 1975), Screen, 16:3, pp. 6–18.

[4] Nichols, ‘Arthur Hacker’s Syrinx’, p. 108.

[5] Lynn Nead, ‘The Magdalen in Modern Times: The Mythology of the Fallen Woman in Pre-Raphaelite Painting’, Oxford Art Journal (1984), 7:1, pp. 26-37.

[6] Nichols, ‘Arthur Hacker’s Syrinx’, p. 17.

[7] Berger, Ways of Seeing, p. 54.

[8] Mieke Bal, Reading ‘Rembrandt’: Beyond the World-Image Opposition, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) in Nichols, ‘Arthur Hacker’s Syrinx’, p. 109.

[9] Robin Sheets, ‘Pornography and Art: The Case of Jenny’, Critical Enquiry (1988), 14:2, pp. 315-334 in Merve Sari, ‘Remembering Jenny: Representation of the Fallen Woman Through Male Gaze in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Jenny’’, Beşeri Bilimler Sayısı (2018), 16:3, p. 365.