Waterhouse at the Groningen Museum

The Groningen Museum is a remarkable building, a masterpiece of early Babylonian Mechano, with a significant nod in the direction of neo-Chaldean Barbie chic. Its central pylon looms gloweringly against the Friesland sky, a dour pastel-yellow affair the shape and texture of a butter dish balanced on end. No one knows why. Nonetheless, it has been called one of Europe’s ugliest buildings. Perhaps it is for this reason that the people of Groningen have covered the underside of the large bridge which spans the gracht running alongside this piece of breakfast crockery masquerading as an art gallery with oversized Delft tiles. We will never know, and try as we might to penetrate the jumble of angles and symbols which make up this building, we are forced to acknowledge that there are some secrets the Groningen museum will not give up easily to foreigners. It does, however, host a cracking good Waterhouse exhibition at the moment.

I don’t know much about Waterhouse. I have a suspicion he’s the kind of artist who appeals to people with little taste (like myself), a creator of strictly bourgeois fare; and that deep down, sincerely snobby artists must be grateful to him for such an obvious opportunity to put their noses in the air. He’s the one who does all those portraits of terribly earnest looking young women who look like they just stepped off the pages of Chretien de Troyes or Wolfram of Eisenbach (or J.R.R. Tolkien, for that matter). In this, he has achieved exactly what he set out to do, which is a step up on most of the sincerely snobby artists out there who need long, syllable-laden sentences to explain what they’re trying to say to people who obviously don’t understand these things that they are trying to say, exactly. Which is not to say that the man operated without some kind of theory, some underlying aesthetic: I’m merely pointing out that though his paintings are drenched in concept (when the rest of Europe was by and large experimenting technically rather than intellectually) they are still bloody pretty. As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for the obvious and perhaps superficial beauty of these paintings, most conceptual artists today would all have reproductions of his work magnetised to the fridge. Waterhouse’s big mistake was to be fascinated with beauty as we all understand it to be, when everyone knows the true duty of an artist is to electrocute rats which died of natural causes and sell the ECG printouts.*

Perhaps it was preoccupation with these aesthetic questions which resulted in a significant portion of the exhibit being mislabeled. I won’t go into the sorry details, but it suffices to say that there was much leafing through the guide booklet going on. This book, by the way, was completely useless. If the gallery is merely going to describe the painting then really, what is the point? All of this was debated loudly by the hordes that descended to view these paintings. Swedes, Germans, (random quirkily disparaging adverb) Belgians, many Hollanders from elsewhere in the country and, it seems, the entire population of Groningen thronged through the various rooms chattering loudly to each other. I’ve never been to such a crowded, loud exhibition, and it was wonderful. It meant that I could be loud and bombastic myself. And let’s face it, when compared to your Renoirs, Monets, Manets, and Gauguins, these are loud paintings – although they never achieve the ear-splitting levels one experiences when looking at a van Gogh. St. Odila’s uncomfortably angled feet are awash in the white noise of post-mortem static, while Circe’s sickly green poison is nauseating as a sine wave. There is an opaqueness to his colour, a two-dimensionality which belies his pseudo-photo realism. Here his ties with Klimt (aside from the obvious) are clear. But Klimt, purely by virtue of his working on the continent, could take things so much further. Raucous though Edwardian England could be, it could never really let its hair down in the same way: when Klimt’s models do so they are quite often lying down – not so with Waterhouse’s.

These things notwithstanding, Waterhouse gets short shrift in sincerely snobby artistic circles, and the reason is one of the oldest for this kind of treatment: he is popular. Even worse: he is fashionable; and if there’s one thing mindless trendsetters hate, it’s a trend they didn’t set. It frustrates them that people buy sheerly pretty prints by a dead man instead of spending money on art devoted to probing Lacanian discourse of the Other or frustrating the context of the signifier. The irony, of course, is that the prevailing post-Warhol crypto-ironic art-as-consumption “logic” makes it possible for fashion photographers to exhibit their sheerly pretty (and pretty boring) photographs of conventionally pretty models as high art, as indeed an unnameable individual has done in the foyer of the Groningen Museum. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Waterhouse produced his paintings to invite contemplation (there was a time when people could spend hours looking at a painting), but a cow with golden horns that sells for an obscene amount of money is little more than a clever visual pun, and once you’ve got the joke what more is there? Just a stinky wet cow.

*These are the questions we’re all asking ourselves about Damien Hirst: “How did the cow die?” and “Can a cow die of natural causes in the globalised marketplace?”

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