04 September 2009

Mermaids, Nymphs, and Lamiae

On Wednesday I went to London to see Arcadia for the second time, but before I saw it, I went to the exhibit of J.W. Waterhouse paintings at the Royal Academy.  This exhibit reminded
me how little I like seeing major exhibits (there are masses of attendees, and you're either squashed, or unable to see over people's heads, or both. I like to view art with lots of space, so I'm unhappy - on the other hand, it's quite like representations of 19th-century RA exhibitions, so I suppose I'm having le vrai experience).  I do, however, like Waterhouse very much, and I didn't know how crowded it was going to be before I went, so I was eager to go.

It was...interesting.  Yes, that sentence is never a whole-hearted endorsement, and it isn't one here, either. Waterhouse is a Pre-Raphaelite, but he seems to be a Pre-Raphaelite of a certain stripe:  where most of the others portray powerful women, or at least women who give the sense that they are powerful presences,

Waterhouse specialises in what I'd call supplicating maidens. Often they're not actually supplicating, but whether in positions of power, 

or caught in intra-painting actions, 

or actual supplication, 

they all appear somehow vulnerable - or sweet-faced in a way that suggest vulnerability. Needless to say, there are exceptions to this broad generalisation. 

But fewer than you might suppose.

One of the most curious things about Waterhouse, as you may have noticed from looking at the pictures above, is that gradually the women in all his paintings come to have the same face.  This is most disturbing in a painting like Hylas and the Nymphs, where all the women have the identical face,

but it's also disturbing via progressive accumulation.  No one knows who this woman is, and there is a suggestion that she's a product of Waterhouse's imagination.  The thing I noticed about her increasingly as I walked through the exhibition, though, is that she's not very interesting.  That doll-like face, with its great soft eyes, slightly over-indented straight nose, and strangely vacant pleading expression, is ultimately rather tedious:  there's no variation in mood or movement, and you get the feeling that there couldn't be, that this face is only capable of that single expression.  Since the expression is permanently and repeatedly that of a confused and not terribly intelligent or capable Barbie, and since it's also represented as resolutely non-sexy (which it need not be, supplication often being a sexually arousing attitude in women), I increasingly began to think, God, I hope this wasn't his ideal woman.  How off-putting!

Waterhouse's most famous painting is The Lady of Shalott, and that was in the exhibit.  

I've never cared for this picture, not least because she's dragged the whole tapestry into the boat with her, which is utterly out of keeping with the personality of both the Lady and the poem, so I didn't bother to spend much time on it.  I did spend some time on La Belle Dame Sans Merci (up at the top there), since I've written an article on it.  I was pleased to see that
her hair really is brown, and that the photographs I saw seem to have been true in detail and colour to the original representation. I also spent some time in front of Lamia, a painting I still find very clever because of the way he captures her change from snake to woman in her dress's progressive upward alteration from a pattern of scales to a simple rose colour - and, less effectively for me, in the discarded wrap that lies across her legs and the forest floor (incidentally, this very pretty Lycius is also repeated in other paintings, most obviously Hylas and the Nymphs, above - apparently Waterhouse had only one face for men, too).  Finally, I both spent a lot of time in front of and went back to The Mermaid, perhaps my favourite Waterhouse painting, for reasons I think you'll be able to guess:

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