|Ophelia - John William Waterhouse - 1894|
|Courtenay - 5 October 2022|
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
American philosopher George Santayana
That above quote is often repeated but I feel that there is another way of looking at it particularly in the arts. To ignore the art, architecture, theatre, music, sculpture and dance of the past means that it is difficult to be inspired in the present.
Consider the Pre-Raphaelites. I did not know too much about them but I was aware of the existence of one John William Waterhouse as I admired his painting of Ophelia drowning. But in this 21st century one can find instant satisfaction in information at one’s fingertips thanks to Wikipedia:
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (later known as the Pre-Raphaelites) was a group of English painters, poets, and art critics, founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner who formed a seven-member "Brotherhood" modelled in part on the Nazarene movement. The Brotherhood was only ever a loose association and their principles were shared by other artists of the time, including Ford Madox Brown, Arthur Hughes and Marie Spartali Stillman. Later followers of the principles of the Brotherhood included Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and John William Waterhouse.
The group sought a return to the abundant detail, intense colours and complex compositions of Quattrocento Italian art. They rejected what they regarded as the mechanistic approach first adopted by Mannerist artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo. The Brotherhood believed the Classical poses and elegant compositions of Raphael in particular had been a corrupting influence on the academic teaching of art, hence the name "Pre-Raphaelite". In particular, the group objected to the influence of Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder of the English Royal Academy of Arts, whom they called "Sir Sloshua". To the Pre-Raphaelites, according to William Michael Rossetti, "sloshy" meant "anything lax or scamped in the process of painting ... and hence ... any thing or person of a commonplace or conventional kind".[ The group associated their work with John Ruskin, an English critic whose influences were driven by his religious background. Christian themes were abundant.
The group continued to accept the concepts of history painting and mimesis, imitation of nature, as central to the purpose of art. The Pre-Raphaelites defined themselves as a reform movement, created a distinct name for their form of art, and published a periodical, The Germ, to promote their ideas. The group's debates were recorded in the Pre-Raphaelite Journal. The Brotherhood separated after almost five years.
If you go further into Wikipedia you will find out that the Pre-Raphaelites had a favourite muse the red-haired Jane Morris who was married to William Morris of Arts & Crafts fame.
I know that John William Waterhouse was born in Rome where his English painter parents lived at the time. They then all moved to London. Since my grandfather William Waterhouse Hayward was born in Manchester I doubt I may be related to John William. That did not prevent me from exercising my own interpretation of his drowning Ophelia with my own must Courtenay.
For me one of the failings of contemporary photography is that photographers have no pushy magazine art directors to send them back for re-shoots and to insist on somehow working in a different way.
When I had my chance to photograph Canadian author Robertson Davies I tried many things. One involved my inspiration in my youth (I may have been 9) when I was obsessed with Leonardo and I remember sketching a copy of his very red self-portrait with pastels.
Many years later, I was assigned by the Globe and Mail to photograph Vancouver artist Rodney Graham. Graham had his studio on the same floor as I did on the now gone corner building on Granville and Robson. I knew he had (behind his serious expression made all the more serious by his round rimless glasses) a keen and very dry sense of humour. At the UBC Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery Graham had a programmed piano that was playing a Wagner composition that would take 27, 000 years. On the walls of the gallery there were rectangles containing that one not the piano would play every few minutes. Graham and I conspired to rip off the famous 1946 photograph of Stravinsky by Arnold Newman. At the time the Globe and Mail had an excellent art department. I asked them to respect my crop of my portrait so that it would resemble Newman’s. I am happy to report that they did!
In the late 80s I admired the complicated lighting of Hollywood actors and actresses in the 40s by photographers like George Hurrell. I went on a long rampage of taking photograph inspired by Hurrell and others.
While I may have had a show in the late 90s of women in bathtubs when I thought of my Ophelia suicide drowning re-interpretation I knew there was another way. In Courtenay’s not too well lit bathroom my Fuji X-E3 set at 3200 ISO gave me photographs with very little loss of detail.
Inspiration from art of the past means that I am nicely doomed to repeat it.
The orange rose in my Ophelia picture is this one.