Thursday, January 7, 2010

Imaginus Redux? Q&A on JW Waterhouse

I'm dating myself a bit with this one, but during my first early-90s stint in university it was a yearly rite of passage to visit the Imaginus poster sale at the campus centre. (Or maybe I'm not dating myself... it seems Imaginus still turns up a few hits on the Interwebs.) In any case, one of the posters I remember selling well there was The Lady of Shallot by JW Waterhouse and related romantick images for the ladies.

In the last few years, a group of curators has tried to revamp Waterhouse's pop-slummin' image, creating an exhibition for the Royal Academy of Arts in London that travelled to the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands and is currently on at the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal. Recently, I got to chat on the phone with one of the show curators, New York's Peter Trippi, about the aim of the exhibition. And today the interview was published in the National Post with some of those poster-sale-classic images. Here's an excerpt:

Q When this exhibition was showing in England last year, critics complained that all of Waterhouse's women look the same, and simply blur the line between art and erotica. What's your response?

A Well, I thought these critics were reading the work through the eyes of 2009, which is not fair. What a picture means to you today tells you little about what it meant in the past. And we argue in this exhibition that Waterhouse was very aware of women's power in many forms -- artistic, sexual and intellectual.

Also, this idea of Waterhouse's women looking too much the same is ludicrous when you look at other Victorian artists. Look at Rossetti, who is undisputed as a master by these same critics. He was always painting the same type of women. Granted, they're different in some ways from Waterhouse's models. But Waterhouse's women coincide greatly with our current ideal of feminine beauty. If we look at Kate Moss or others marching down the runways, Waterhouse pops up in a way that Rossetti doesn't. He was modern, and we see that reflected in fashion magazines and television today.

Q This exhibition includes a film by rock star Melissa Auf Der Maur, who carried a picture of Lady of Shalott during years of touring as a good luck charm. What circles do you think Waterhouse would move in if he was around today?

A I think Waterhouse today would run in filmmaking circles, and possibly musical ones. We see the presence of music in a lot of his pictures, and it's interesting that musicians like Rod Stewart and Andrew Lloyd Webber have bought Waterhouses.

To me each Waterhouse picture is a movie still of sorts -- some, with their dynamic angles, could easily feature George Clooney or Russell Crowe. And it's no coincidence that these types of paintings died as movies became popular. One of Waterhouse's favourite galleries was actually converted into a movie theatre when that happened.

I also think Waterhouse today, as back then, would be interested in beauty with a capital B. We see a lot of ugliness in Hollywood today --and in Chelsea galleries, for that matter. But Waterhouse was interested in people, in this other world of beauty. And I think that's still part of what draws people to him now.

Image of the Lady of Shallot from Art Blog

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