Thursday, January 28, 2010

Art + Music = Enchantment

I've been meaning to blog about my Montreal trip all week, particularly the Montreal Museum of Fine Art's J. W. Waterhouse exhibit, which was the main reason for my visit.

This exhibition of paintings, titled "Garden of Enchantment" stands out as one of the finest I've ever experienced. The exhibition wasn't crowded, although it filled up a bit more later in the afternoon when some guided tours were in attendance. The Museum is so well run, with such excellent service, and, at the end of my time there, instead of ending up feeling quite exhausted, as often happens with me at galleries or museums, I found myself feeling still invigorated.

All the rooms in the exhibit were painted a matte black, quite daring for an art gallery in my experience. The rooms were dimly lit, with lights focused just on Waterhouse's jewel-like paintings, enhancing the luminous skin of his many female subjects; there are very few men in Waterhouse's paintings. One biological oddity: some of the ladies have excessively long thigh bones. The informative text on the walls was written in white, with the headlines in a glossy black, which created a stunning effect. Any furniture or ornamentation in the rooms were minimal and were also treated completely in a matte black paint: benches, chairs, fern-filled urns, an easel, a table with a vase of roses and two entrance ways adorned with climbing roses; every bit of it painted matte black. One room, which housed two of Waterhouse's paintings that dealt with the occult (such a fascination for that time in Victorian England), was entered and exited through heavy black velvet curtains. It took me a few moments to recognize that the bench I sat on, as I listened and watched, was shaped in a hexagon. It was all very subtlely and superbly done.

I rented a headset which played music selected for the exhibit by the dashing Kent Nagano, now music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. On entering the first room, I was invited by a woman's voice to play the first piece as an introduction, and as a match for Waterhouse's Cleopatra. Dame Janet Baker sang Berlioz's The Death of Cleopatra, with Alexander Gibson conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. At about 20 minutes in length, it lulled me into a delicious state of dreaminess as I perused the first room and pushed the outside world far away. The second piece of music was for the three Ladies of Shalott. The music was Fauré's Sicilienne from his Pelléas et Mélisande suite. In a room of paintings that featured water in them, a soft rushing of waves was barely discernible, and a play of light on the floor, with reflections of water, was enchanting. The music I listened to on the headset here was Debussy's La Mer, the 2nd and 3rd movements, with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, conducted by their former music director, Charles Dutoit. The same artists performed the next track, Debussy's Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, which accompanied an enchanted garden room. The final piece, as I approached Waterhouse's Tristan and Isolde Sharing the Potion was Wagner's Prelude to Tristan und Isolde with the Dresden Staatskapelle conducted by Carlos Kleiber.

Back to the Shalott paintings, all three of which were gathered together for the first time. Do you know the Loreena McKennit song version? It's one of my favourites. The entire Tennyson poem was one one wall, in english and french. Here are the two versions of the those last lines.

But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said "She has a lovely face;
God in His mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott."

Mais Lancelot, lui, s'attarde un moment;
Il dit: "Elle a un visage charmant!
Dans sa pitié, que Dieu lui soit clément
A cette Dame d'Escalot."

(The french translation was by Claude Dandréa.)

The Tate Gallery's Lady of Shalott (1888) is apparently their best selling postcard.

The Art Gallery of Ontario's "I am half-sick of shadows" said the Lady of Shalott (1915) is one I know well.

But this was the one who appealed to me the most directly. This Lady of Shalott is from 1894 and now resides in the Leeds Art Gallery. This picture depicts the very moment that she turns from the mirror and beholds Lancelot directly. You see the crack in the mirror, Lancelot reflected in it, her threads entrapping her, and a look of such intensity on her face. This face haunts me still. She might have been based on a single model, or an amalgam, I'm not sure, but she has strange eyes, and a riveting look. She's not perfectly beautiful, but she's fascinating.

All in all, I spent five hours in the exhibit, as I went through it twice. I had a few favourites, but the title of this one, Dolce far Niente (It's Sweet Doing Nothing), and its subject, appealed to me greatly, as an idler and follower of Tom Hodgkinson, my personal hero. The painting, from 1880, lives in Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery.

Here are some more favourites, shamelessly borrowed from this site:

Mariamne (1887, part of the Forbe's Magazine Collection) was Waterhouse's largest work, at about 70" wide and 100" tall. In reality it was awe-inspiring. You could see the tones of her skin through her dress. Stunningly sensual and one of Waterhouse's most powerful women, among so many.

In Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus the blue of dress of the nymph on the left was one I couldn't take my eyes off. These two sweet girls have just espied the severed head of Orpheus, floating (and still singing) its way down the river.

Finally, a lovely man! I've used this before on my blog, Tristan and Isolde Sharing the Potion (1916, in a private collection). Don't drink it you crazy kids!

This beautiful painting portrayed the tragic tale of St. Eulalia (1885, at the Tate Gallery), martyred at the age of 12 for being a Christian. It left out some of the more gruesome aspects of her death, but was still very powerful.

There were many, many more paintings and studies to enjoy. The exhibition runs till February 7. As I've said before, if you can, get there. It's worth the trip to Montreal.


Hilarywho said...

I'm so envious. It sounds like a wonderful exhibit - especially with the black walls, dim lights, and musical selections. Your descriptions are wonderful.

Great blog, by the way.

Protege said...

Oh my goodness, I almost held my breath reading this. You describe the impressions of the exhibition so vividly, it was almost as I was there with you. Which I wish I was! These are my most favorite paintings from the Pre-Raphaelites. Absolutely extraordinary and calling it Enchantment is what truly comes to mind...

Blog Princess G said...

Hilarywho: Thank you so much for the lovely compliment. It was great, I wish I could experience it again.

Zuzana: Thank you so much for that. I know you would have loved it.

Ann Marie said...

love this. so much. really so beautiful and enchanging. just what i needed.

Blog Princess G said...

Ann Marie: Your blog is always a balm to my soul. :)