A couple of weeks ago, I went to see the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to see their current exhibition, John William Waterhouse: Garden of Enchantement. Not only is an exhibition like this a unique experience (it has been since the 1970s since Waterhouse had his last retrospective show), but it is a chance to see some of the most beautiful, romantic, and magical paintings of the late nineteenth century.
Waterhouse is a bit of a sphinx; not a lot is known about his life. Although he left behind a great body of work, the man himself remains to this day a bit of a mystery. His work is often associated with the style of the Pre-Raphaelite painters of the mid nineteenth century; he was in fact born in the year of the group's first major exhibition. Although his style is reminiscent of artists like Dante Rossetti, he was active from the 1870s onward, and developed his own unique visual language. His paintings show romantic and mystical visions of ancient myths and the medieval era. His subjects are often women (many femme fatales), and their radiant natural beauty is totally captivating.
From a fashion history point of view, Waterhouse's work gives insight into the dress reform movement that was well underway by the 1880s, and also the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain. Mainstream fashions of the late nineteenth century were characterized by the hourglass corset; an often painful garment that could deform the body, and cause women much restriction in their daily lives. Waterhouse often depicted women from eras that predate the corset (like ancient Egypt or the Medieval era), their bodies are natural and free under beautifully draped robes. Many Pre-Raphaelite painters hung out with avant garde women who would wear looser, historically inspired fashions. While these women were not mainstream fashion leaders, their unconventional good looks and looser garments definately had an impact on the artists they associated with. Many Pre-Raphaelite painters preferred dramatic looking women, and their preference for red-headed beauties is clear from looking at Waterhouse's femme fatales.
One of my favorite aspects of the exhibition was the inclusion of Melissa auf der Maur's recent short film, Out of Our Minds. Auf der Maur has said in the past how much she loves the work of Waterhouse, and how for years she carried around an image of his masterpiece The Lady of Shallot as a kind of personal talisman. The magical watery world depicted in her film, and the fact that redhead Auf der Maur looks like a Waterhouse beauty was a nice contemporary twist at the end of a great retrospective. This exhibition is on display now until February 7, 2010 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.