An overdose of Waterhouse

Earlier this week I popped into the RA to see their current Waterhouse exhibition (subtitled “The Modern Pre-Raphaelite”). Already I have an issue: was he really a Pre-Raphaelite? Really? I notice that the Telegraph reviewer waterhouse_st_ceciliacalls him “the youngest and most literary of the Pre-Raphaelites”: well, literally speaking, he wasn’t a Pre-Raphaelite, nor even part of the second wave of PR-ism which included Burne-Jones and Morris. Moreover, there is much about his style that isn’t particularly Pre-Raphaelite. Finally, the most literary? Hardly. Ok, so he painted some literary subjects, from classical myths to the Lady of Shalott, but that doesn’t make him any more literary than the others, who mostly did all that and wrote poetry, too.

I have more sympathy with Waldemar Januszczack, writing in The Times that “Waterhouse’s art is fixated to a disquieting degree on young girls. He liked them fresh from puberty, and would invariably dress them in flimsy pseudo-Greek tunics that slip readily off the shoulder and come apart at the chest”. These young girls, sometimes actually dead, like the disturbing St Eulalia, but usually just looking dead, with greyish-green flesh and a stony lack of emotion, are repeated on every wall in the exhibition. I have never left a major retrospective feeling sick to death of an artist’s work, but this time, I did.

At first, the Dolce far Niente languor is appealing, dream-Mariamne-Llike and precise enough, if not exactly Pre-Raphaelite “truth to nature”. In the interiors, the space is tightly controlled and the figures well-placed to present a drama; the informative exhibition notes refer repeatedly to his ability as a “pictorial dramatist”, but I dispute this – the drama is diminished by the remarkable inertia of the figures; what he presents seem to be unconvincing tableaux. Pygmalion might have been a good subject for him, but paintings such as Mariamne (right), impressive though they are, do not convey any sense of life to me. Perhaps the most visually appealing painting to me was St Cecilia (above left), in which all senses are used as the musicians play, but even the players show no signs of movement. These pale, emaciated women apparently have no energy to do anything except simply exist in luxuriant colour and texture.

I went to the exhibition determined to be seduced by Waterhouse’s skill, and not to be put off by the suggestion that his art is misogynistic; I left certain that he had a rather unappealing view of women, and that I can’t face any more of it for a very long time! The unhealthy flesh and bored provocation of these endless nymphs were just too much for me. If you would like an overdose of Waterhouse too, the exhibition is on until September 13th, or you can peruse the Waterhouse website here.

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