Thursday, July 30, 2009

London 2009 - Part 2

I'm only now getting a chance to catch up on writing about some of my activities in England. There was one shared computer at the hotel, and I hated to blog while people were waiting to use it. That said, there was one rather impertinent young lady who didn't give a hoot and was blogging incessantly, even while people were waiting to use the computer. Such nerve! In any case, I'm catching up now, writing this from my Brooklyn abode.

The image you see here is one of my favorite paintings by John William Waterhouse, Saint Eulalia (1885). The painting is owned by the Tate, but it currently is hanging at the Royal Academy for the exhibition J.W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite. If you think you’ve heard about Waterhouse on this blog before, you’re correct. Back in November I wrote about Elizabeth Prettejohn, one of the curators who gave a talk about the exhibition during the NAVSA conference at Yale. Last Friday morning I had coffee with another of the curators, Peter Trippi (who also was a guest speaker at the Why Victorian Art? symposium), and then I visited the exhibition. The show at the RA is smaller than it was in its first venue in The Netherlands, which is unfortunate, but it still is excellent. The exhibition is biographical in nature and the works unfold chronologically from about 1870 to his death in 1917. Waterhouse is one of the later Pre-Raphaelites. He was older than others in the original Brotherhood (Millais, Rossetti, etc.), so Waterhouse’s take on their style comes off seeming nostalgic. Yet, he also gives it his own spin. His subjects respond more to issues of the day like women's rights and the surging interest in the occult. In addition, his brushstroke is looser and broader than the tight, linear style associated with Pre-Raphaelitism, suggesting his awareness of new influences coming from France with plein-aire painting, Naturalism, and Impressionism. The exhibition consists of 40 oil paintings with subjects ranging from classical literature to Arthurian lore, but it's complimented by drawings and illustrated books. I find Saint Eulalia to be an amazing picture. She was an early Christian who refused to worship the pagan gods and was martyred for her beliefs. According to legend, when Eulalia died, a dove miraculously sprang from her mouth and it began to snow. The dove then represents her soul and the snow becomes a metaphor for the passing of nature in winter. Compositionally, the picture hangs so that you stare at the very center. But the foreshortening at the bottom means you're in the role of a viewer, looking down at the dead girl, whose appearance is both erotic and eerie. Her hair is splayed out, suggesting blood on an otherwise pure corpse. Your eyes move over her naked breasts and follow her limbs upward, where they suddenly point to the dove whose wings unfurl and lead your gaze toward the white space in the center and the shrouded girl in white who gazes at her. It is as if only this young girl and you the viewer have witnessed the miracle. It's an incredible painting and even more impressive in person. If you're in London, I highly recommend you look for it. You can see the exhibition until mid-September, and then it moves to Montreal.

Afterwards, I visited Apsley House, the home of the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852). General Arthur Wellesley (as he was known) was raised to the peerage after his military successes against Napoleon, finally defeating him at the historic Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Wellington remains to this day one of England’s great military heroes (and in case you’re wondering, yes, he designed the utilitarian boots that became a pseudo-fashion trend and were named for him). Upon buying Apsley House, located just down the block from Buckingham Palace, he expanded and redecorated it to reflect the Neoclassical Georgian taste of the time. He inherited many works of art from the fallen Napoleonic monarchies, including one of the best pictures in the collection, The Waterseller of Seville (c.1620) by Velázquez. The most famous work in the collection, however, is probably the work seen here, Canova’s monumental nude sculpture of Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker (1802-6). The sculpture was commissioned by the Emperor, but when he saw it he was embarrassed by the nudity and unhappy that it did not represent his true, calm demeanor (so he believed). It was only after the Napoleonic Wars were over that the figure was bought by the British crown and given to Wellington as war booty for defeating the French. One funny bit about the statue’s history, however, is narrated by the present Duke on the audio guide to the house. Properties near the house were bombed by Germans during World War II, and Apsley House suffered some damage. The only resident in the house at the time was the housekeeper, Mrs. Dow. Fortunately, she was fine, but for her insistence that of all the cleaning up to be done, they first needed to replace the statue’s fig leaf, which had blown off during the bombing and was now revealing the statue in all its apparently indecent glory.

My friend CC came down from York for one night while I was in London. I had made arrangements for us to tour two private art collections. (I’m purposely not saying anymore about this to protect the privacy of the owners, but rest assured it was very posh and we saw beautiful works of art.) We also met up with our friend DE, and over a lovely Italian dinner at Paradiso we gabbed and gossiped about art history and other fun things.

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