Friday, 29 June 2012

Bitter elergies of savagery and eloquence

J. W. Waterhouse

There is poetry in despair
 And we sang with unrivaled beauty
 Bitter elegies of savagery and eloquence
 Of blue and grey
- Hidden poem on Sing the Sorrow

John William Waterhouse was an English Pre-Raphaelite painter who was born in 1849 and died in 1917. Coming to the Pre-Raphaelite movement fairly late, he never quite achieved the popularity of some of his contempories such as John Everett Millais or Frederic Leighton, but I find Waterhouse's work much more appealing.

The Siren
It's no secret I am a massive, massive fan of mythology. I find it utterly fascinating; tales of strange creatures and fantastic beasts, of savage gods who were believed to actually involve themselves in the matters of mortal men. I love all mythology, but Greek is my favourite, and it's primarily Greek mythology where Waterhouse drew the inspiration for his paintings.
My familiarity with the tales Waterhouse portrays definitely gives me an extra appreciation of the art. I love the way Waterhouse manages to freeze the pivotal moment in the narrative, the moment of danger where the story could go either way. In the image above the siren has just sunk a ship by luring it onto the rocks with her song. The crew have drowned, but this one sailor survives, and having made it to land he looks up, and sees the siren looking back; will she help him, or will she kill him too?

The tale of Hylas and the Nymphs (below) is a similar story. Hylas has split off from the rest of the Argonauts to fetch water, but at an inland pool he encounters the nymphs, and vanishes without a trace. Waterhouse has again frozen the moment; caught in their spell Hylas is unable to tear his eyes away, even as a nymph wraps her hands around his arm and slowly draws him towards the water...
Hylas and the Nymphs
I haven't always been a fan of Waterhouse, but in 2006, when I was in uni and writing my dissertation, I decided to focus on a comparison between 19th century narrative painting and modern illustration. It was a roundabout way of writing about Alan Lee and PJ Lynch, both of whom I was somewhat obsessed with at the time. I was drawn to Waterhouse because I knew of his classic painting The Lady of Shallot (below), and I thought I could draw some comparisons. I went into the dissertation using Waterhouse's examples somewhat grudgingly, but the more I researched, and the more I read, the more I began to like his work. I now have a huge framed print of The Lady of Shallot on the bathroom wall, and two more Waterhouse prints in my bedroom.

The Lady of Shallot
Even now I am somewhat hard pressed to say exactly what it is about his paintings that appeals to me so much. Perhaps it's the classicism, and how they fit the myths and tales that they portray; they are, to me, clearly illustrations rather than fine art. Just a picture of a woman in a boat, whilst I might admire the technical skill, doesn't interest me so much as the knowledge that the painting shows the climax of Tennyson's poem of the same title - where the Lady decides to leave her tower and face the outside world, even though she knows it will mean her death.

Ulysses and the Sirens
This painting, along with Hylas and the Nymphs, is one of the three prints that adorn my bedroom wall. I love the tales of the Illiad and the Odyssey, and this moment is one of the best; the sirens try to lure Odysseus' crew to their deaths by seducing the men with their song, but wily Odysseus has his crew stopper their ears with beeswax to prevent them from succumbing. Odysseus, his own ears unstoppered, is tied to the mast by the crew, allowing him to hear the music, but preventing him from leaping into the water to his death. How creepy are the winged sirens in Waterhouse's version? How terrifying would it be to have them descend upon your ship?

The third painting on my bedroom wall is the same scene but painted by Herbert Draper.
Ulysses and the Sirens
I like the difference in how the two artists envisioned the scene, the way Draper's sirens are closer to mermaids. I also like the enraptured expression on Odysseus' face, he definitely looks like he's fallen under their spell, and were he not held back, he would willingly follow them down beneath the waves.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing. I love Greek mythology too and I remember seeing a lot of these in Art History classes in college. I've never seen the last before though, and I have to agree that those sirens are majorly creepy (but really beautiful at the same time - the darkness of their wings is incredible). You're brave for keeping them in your bedroom at night! I'd probably have all sorts of Odyssey themed nightmares.