Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Waterhouse at the Royal Academy

Been to London for a couple of days to see some exhibitions that are due to end soon. Firstly, the JW Waterhouse at the Royal Academy, which was a good show. He's not really my cup of tea, to be honest, but it's a very good exhibition and you can certainly admire his ability. As ever, seeing the paintings in the flesh makes an enormous difference. No matter how good the reproductions, they can never quite get the colours right and you miss the depth of the work; they always seem flat, somehow. This picture, for example, Circe offering the cup to Ulysses, is just remarkable. There is a sense of power - sexual, physical, mental - emanating from this woman that is quite palpable in the real painting. An extraordinary work.

But what really struck me with the exhibition was how, although he was a superb painter, Waterhouse changed so little in his career. With most retrospectives you can go through the work and see a progression in the artist, either stylistically or thematically or both. This isn't the case with Waterhouse, who was still painting the same material, in much the same way, at the end of his career as he was at the start. And even at the start, one has to say he was already somewhat anachronistic. He was a Pre-Raphaelite born too late. And so, by the time he died in 1917, his work seems distinctly odd. This was three years into the horror of World War One, remember. Modernism had begun. Picasso was already painting, changing the art world for ever, and yet Waterhouse was still painting the Lady of Shalott. It's difficult to say whether such remarkable single-mindedness is to be admired for its focus on the artist's vision, or criticised for a lack of ambition. Probably a bit of both.

The exhibition finishes this weekend, so if you're in London and have an hour or so to spare, it's worth going to have a look.

Secondly, we went to the National for its exhibition of nineteenth century landscapes, From Corot to Monet. This was fascinating. It uses materials almost exclusively in the National's own collection, but including works which rarely get seen. There were some wonderful pieces, including several by artists I've never heard of. It does make you wonder how much of art appreciation is down to fad and favour and fashion: possibly an art expert could say why Simon Denis, for example, is not as well known as Corot or others, but I wouldn't be able to discern any difference in quality. The exhibition shows the development of landscape painting in the open air, as it slowly developed through the early and mid-nineteenth century until it was taken on by Monet and his ilk and the impressionist movement began. You can certainly see the range of influences at work on the impressionists, even from the likes of John Constable, who we now think of as staid (another victim of fashion) and particularly Boudin, but ultimately their work exploded into a new style entirely of its own, taking elements of the works of previous painters but making it unique. Again, this show ends soon, but you still have a chance to see it until September 20th.

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