Sunday, March 01, 2009


John William Waterhouse. Yesterday I went to see an extensive show of this artist's work at the Groninger Museum. I took a three hour trip because that's just how much I've liked his work. I was excited and filled with anticipation. I thought about the beauty and color he portrayed in his "stories" on canvas, thinking, "At last I will see these stories come to life!".

Exactly the opposite feeling awaited me as I gazed at each, technically perfect, painting. More, what filled me was the feeling of being in a crypt. His models (or should I say model because he seems to use the same woman for every face) were all posed like mannequins, beautiful and graceful mannnequins, but dead to the world. Everything was perfect, from the veins in his marble to the weave of his rugs and yet...nothing, no soul, no life breathed there. In fact, I was surprised to find that I like his paintings much more in print then in real life!

He does get some life going in his landscapes, then he drops in a model from the studio and the birds stop singing. The wood becomes dead and nary a leaf can be heard to fall from a tree. Not surprising then, that the one painting that struck me was "Saint Elalia", which can be seen here: (One of these days I'll figure out how to post outside images here.) She is truly dead and yet he brings more life to this painting than to all the other "live" models. His studies have more life in them. Pity he couldn't carry that over to his finished paintings, or "killed" it in the process.

So, once again, I am reminded that perfection and control does not result in beauty, no matter your skill in reproducing the real. Because real is not perfect, it is flawed, it is unfinished, it is faulted and it breathes life. This can not be captured by turning all to stone, immovable and unchanging. Leaving the mausoleum, oops, museum I strolled through the Saturday market and was restored to life, all the more poignant for this contrasting point of reference.


Andrea said...

I wonder if it's because their faces look so still & placid. Even the tragic figures seem to be in a state of resigned, almost meditative acceptance of the unfairness of life.

kim said...

Yes, they all seem kind of dead. So much better in books than in real life. I think a large part of it is that he seems to have painted them in the studio an then placed them in on outdoor landscape and it just doesn't work. The light doesn't match. Plus it's just not that lively. Like you said, still and resigned. His studies are more free and "alive".