Sunday, November 22, 2009

Waterhouse Expedition: Impressions

We spent the whole day at the Montreal Museum of Art, which has a large retrospective of J.W. Waterhouse's historical and mythological paintings. Instead of trying to do a big biography or thorough analysis or anything, here are a few notes and random impressions for people who are thinking of going. This is the last stop of the show, and it won't go to the U.S. It closes February 7.


Visitor Notes:
The show is dramatically set against black walls throughout, with a special room for drawings, sketchbooks and preliminary studies. It got pretty crowded on a Saturday, but everyone was really polite, and you could spend as long as you wanted. The audio tour has music from Faure, Debussy, and Wagner rather than a bunch of talk. Plan on taking at least a full day. We ran into an art friend who made the pilgrimage and was allowing three full days for seeing everything a few times. We drove up and stayed at the Holiday Inn midtown, which is in walking distance and not too expensive.

Impressions of the Show

--Many of the paintings are a revelation to see in the original. They're not only big (the figure of Mariamne above is life size), but they have a tremendous emotional presence, and they can be absorbed on so many levels: story, paint technique, color.
--Even though Waterhouse was methodical in his planning, the paintings show a lot of improvisation. There are passages painted over or heavily worked, scraped out--more like a manuscript by Beethoven than by Mozart.
--In his best works, such as Lady of Shalott, there's a tremendous feeling of dream and reality perfectly interwoven, with every element of the picture adding to the mood and the story. Not a single thing could be added or taken away.
--There's a lot of color interest that doesn't reproduce well, especially warm and cool passages in the darks, and pale tints and gradations in the lights. In particular I had read contemporary accounts of Ulysses and the Sirens that praised it for its color, but I've never found it very impressive in reproduction. It truly deserves its praise, as it has deep, rich blue-greens played off against warm passages.
--Because of the lack of letters, journals, or other biographical source material, there's a lot of speculation about his personal life. One of the captions suggested the theory that he may have burned all his papers because he was dabbling in spiritualism. Who knows?
--Pretty much all the heavy hitters are there, with the exception of Hylas and the Nymphs, Ophelia, Gather Ye Rosebuds, and Pandora.

For more about Waterhouse, check out the link-rich overview on Lines and Colors and William Stout's impressions of the show.

There's a full-color exhibition catalog called "J.W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite."
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Addendum:
Videos of Peter Trippi talking about several paintings by Waterhouse (Thanks SVSART)

9 comments:

lilly piri said...

Oh you are so lucky! I wish I could go to that. About 7 years ago, I was fortunate enough to see Ophelia and a few of his others. You're right when you say that they don't reproduce well. They're really breathtaking in person.

SVSART said...

WOW....I have to GO! Checking flights to Montréal! Too bad it's winter.

Norman Boyd said...

The thing I noticed when we went to see it in London was that frogs (or toads)appear almost like a hidden motif - presumably to represent the dark arts in some way.

SVSART said...

Some interesting videos of Peter Trippi talking about several paintings by Waterhouse I just came across.

http://vimeo.com/user2374551/videos/sort:oldest

DavidStill said...

I should have gone when it was in London.. But I was all out of money then, and a trip to the UK was not my top priority...

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Gordon Napier said...

I went to see this twice in London. Awefully good. I love Waterhouse, especially his Mermaid. By the way I've just bought 'Imaginative Realism'. You have a rather beautifully done Mermaid in there, too, and I liked the idea of her riding a marine dinosaur. Your advice on rendering underwater lighting will be very useful in my future efforts, I'm sure.

Adrian Tysoe said...

I just discovered this blog. I always loved Waterhouse. As a London art student I'd spend a lot of time drawing and painting at the various london museums and galleries. Since moving the California I really appreciate how lucky I was to have so much fantastic history within an hour of my home, or 20 mins from college.

Lady of Shallot was my favourite, I was amazed at how big the paintings were too, and dismayed that art and design schools largely shun these old works and only care for modern works done after WW1.