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JW Waterhouse

October 6, 2009

My first exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts was the JW Waterhouse exhibition which seemed to have been highly publicised all over London, and considering the lacklustre line-up this summer at the otherwise more interesting National Gallery, this seemed hard to miss. That I got free entry to the exhibition from my employers made it absolutely imperative that I catch the exhibition while I could, even with the knowledge that I was probably not going to like it.

And why such presumption? In early July, as I was getting back from my London 10k run, I struck up conversation with an elderly gentleman sitting next to me in the tube and since he was carrying the Waterhouse exhibition pamphlet, I asked him about it and in a very English and polite manner, conveyed that he didn’t consider it worthy of waking up so early on a Sunday for.

I dragged a completely non-artsy and newbie-to-the-galleries friend to the exhibitions a couple of weeks before its closing, with much trepidation that a bad exhibition would scar him for life. But with a byline of ‘Modern Pre-Raphaelite‘, Waterhouse’s works had to be pretty if nothing else (unlike what can be said for much of Modern Art works – wow, what a mean generalization!).

And well, pretty was what it was. And that is where it ends. Beauty without an underlying philosophy. Reminiscent of many artworks I have seen many friends and acquaintances, in that there’s great command over technique and knowledge of subject matter, but lacking that je ne sais quoi, which separates regular artistic works from art. Initially, I thought I was missing something, but I found that this very feeling is shared by other reviewers – particularly this one (I read reviews after viewing the exhibition, to maintain some degree of original PoV!). And in this review where the artist is exalted, unusually for him, the author mentions a quip by GB Shaw, ‘that he specialised in reminding one of other artists’.

I looked and looked for his works to change my world view a wee bit, for his masterpieces to move something within, to make me realize an ‘aha’ moment or make me feel awed at his talent beyond being able to imitate the masters well. He lived in interesting times for England, he had the honour of being a Royal Academician, he was prolific – surely all of this would have poured into his art, so that it may create a dent in the soul of the viewer. The only thing that created an impression on me was his depiction of ‘sweet doing nothing’ or ‘dolce far niente‘ – this fascination on my part might perhaps be explained by the fact that this is a very unachievable state of being for me. But I am not sure if it is a compliment to ascribe someone with excellence at only depicting ‘nothingness’. The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius (aka Pidgeons of Honorius) was amusing; as an aside, many of his earlier works featured a lot of pigeons, which I noticed only because my newbie friend was fascinated by pigeon presence. Among the rest, I found the composition of ‘Diogenes‘ interesting.

Waterhouse clearly over-did the theme of the depiction of a lone woman – by the end of the exhibition, I found it hard to appreciate the multiple images of women trying too hard to seem mysterious and luscious; all I was thinking was, rather a crass image, what?

Alas, even for someone with low expectations as I had, JW Waterhouse was a tad disappointing. But perhaps to have expected anything beyond what was on offer, from someone who had always been deemed to be commercially successful and not so acclaimed critically, is entirely my fault.


A good read on the Victorian Summer at the Royal Academy.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2009 1:00 am

    that was an interesting read

    • October 7, 2009 8:53 am

      Thanks! Much to say and write about the London arts scene, if only I could past this oh-so-comfortable laziness

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