J.W. Waterhouse? You mean, like, the investment firm? Or is that the crystal? It is a fair guess that fewer than five percent of the millions who recognize instantly the Lady of Shalott – the dreamy aquatic canvas that functions as the official highlight of the Waterhouse exhibition currently showing at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts – would successfully identify its creator.
This late pre-Raphaelite, popular in his day as well as ours, shares the sub-iconic status of many non-revolutionaries active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His paintings are not much projected in undergraduate surveys, not much discussed in graduate seminars. They are, however, widely reproduced on greeting cards (the Lady of Shalott is the top-selling image of the Tate Gallery in London) and adored by the great unwashed. Which leads to interesting questions.
One is whether an assemblage of 80 Waterhouses (subtitled “Garden of Enchantment”) can stand up as a major show. However lovely and accomplished each painting might seem, to process such an inventory is to be made aware of weaknesses as well as strengths. Principal among the weaknesses, it seems to me, is the very Waterhouse Woman who has made the artist so posthumously profitable. Even when identified with famous mythic figures, these auburn-tressed lassies are oddly vacant and bland.
The familiar Lady of Shalott is artfully distressed on her boat amid the rushes, but Miranda (from Shakespeare’s The Tempest) seems to have nothing much on her mind, in either Waterhouse rendition of the subject, as she gazes outward to the sea. Of Shakespeare’s restlessly curious heroine there is no trace. Unattainable is one word sometimes applied to these doe-eyed women. Another might be bland. Even at the centre of a painting, they are stripped of autonomy, supernumeraries in a luminous dreamscape. They suggest themselves as erotic objects but have no erotic appeal.
There are exceptions. Cleopatra, no great beauty, stares firmly forward, weighing the prospects of rule. The group compositions are memorable. The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius is a masterpiece of Victorian storytelling, the feckless and self-centred Caesar feeding his beloved fowl while obsequious retainers draw back and younger Romans in the rear ponder the fate of the world. Another great success is Ulysses and the Sirens, in which the hero, dressed in a chaste classical toga and bound to the mast in a roiling sea, is circled by sirens conceived as terrifying female-faced vultures. Here the artist acknowledges, rather than denies, the unique power of women over men. In Consulting the Oracle, the male presence is reduced to a shrunken head, from which a circle of early Semitic women listen in rapture for words of wisdom. The posted commentary asks whether Waterhouse was an occultist. I think not: The extended hand of the chief priestess is suspended in front of a window and the brilliant sunshine outside. Reason will overcome this darkness, in a millennium or two.
While pondering the depths of the best Waterhouse paintings, it is possible even in the run of the mill to relish the exact technique, the sure sense of proportion and the exquisite palette, said to be influenced by the French Impressionists. The MMFA has taken care not only to supply reams of lucid wall commentary but to decorate the galleries with black roses and draperies, even some Victorian chairs, these easily misinterpreted as public seating. (The guards undeceive you.)
There is New Age-y audio, vaguely watery, rumbling in the background. Why not? Usually the dominant audio components of an art exhibition are the shuffling of feet and the coughing of tourists. The concentration on atmosphere in this show considerably enhances the experience. Whatever conclusion you reach about Waterhouse, you will feel confident that he has been given every opportunity to succeed.
John William Waterhouse: Garden of Enchantment runs at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts through Feb. 7, 2010. For more information, check the MMFA site.