Or, rather, Starting (2)
The account of Nauman’s starting-out as an artist [Starting (1)] was about the way in which he first actively created the conditions in which this work could begin. The tale here is a counter-narrative about the effects of denial-based inactivity and inattention, thus about missing the moment, and missing the point. The provocation is a nineteenth-century narrative painting recently on show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The painting? The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius of 1883 by J. W. Waterhouse, Waterhouse of Tate Britain’s The Lady of Shalott fame, a work which, based on postcard sales, is said to be one the gallery’s most popular paintings.
Between 27 June and 13 September 2009, the Royal Academy hosted a touring retrospective (JW Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite) which enabled the otherwise widely dispersed work of this artist to be seen collectively for the first time. Waterhouse was a Victorian painter of historical, literary and mythological themes. As is well known, and as was clear from this showing of his work, the themes of gender, and particularly the seductive power of the femme fatale, were characteristically important to him (Consulting the Oracle, 1884; The Magic Circle, 1886; Mariamne, 1887, Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses, 1891, and so on). But what became apparent, in addition, was the way in which a certain temporal theme also played a consistently central role: that of the simultaneous anticipation-and-aftermath of a pivotal, fateful, or decisive moment.
Take The Lady of Shalott of 1888, for instance. This was his earliest depiction of Tennyson’s tower-entrapped heroine, a figure loosely based on Elaine of Astolat who, in Arthurian legend, dies of unrequited love for the knight, Lancelot. Her story not only parallels, and is a metaphor for the fate and fall of King Arthur’s mythical kingdom but is also, often, regarded as a reflection on artistic activity and the relationship between artist and society. Waterhouse paints her here, having at last escaped the tower in which a curse of unknown origin had kept her captured, and where she had been forbidden to view the world except indirectly, in a mirror. Driven to escape, despite the curse, by boredom and impatience (“I am half sick of shadows”) as well as by her desire for Lancelot, Waterhouse shows her sitting alone in a boat strewn with the mirror-view-inspired tapestries she had woven over those long years. Entranced by fate, she is about to be swept downstream to Camelot, whose towers are visible in the background. But the moment that is upon her is not only that of the freedom she has just won. In fulfillment of the curse, it is also already that of her imminent death. The decisive moment, in other words, is depicted, or rather un-depicted, as about to happen, and as having already happened in the non-recoverable past, in the tower, when she decided that enough was enough.
Missing the Moment
But to my mind, Waterhouse’s work is most psychologically astute, and disturbing, when it portrays the decisive moment at precisely the moment in which it is being missed. In Ariadne of 1898, for instance, another mythological heroine is shown at the precise moment when, unbeknownst to her, her life has already been forever altered. Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete, is famed for having provided her lover, the Athenian hero Theseus, with the means to defeat the monstrous Minotaur and escape his labyrinth. The scene here, much painted by artists, shows Ariadne, sometime after this event, resting on the island of Naxos while en route to Greece with the victorious Theseus. In Waterhouse’s version she fills the foreground of the painting, stretched out, arms behind her head, in the abandonment of peaceful sleep. What she doesn’t know is that she has already been differently abandoned by Theseus who sails quietly away in the background. (The painting also shows what, according to some versions of the myth, is about to come: Ariadne sleeps with two spotted panthers at her feet, animals sacred to Dionysus, whom she will later marry.)
In Ariadne, the missed encounter with the decisive moment is melancholic and Ariadne herself, though here asleep, is (like the Lady of Shalott) a woman of decision, action, and endeavour. But in an early work by Waterhouse, namely The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius, the decisive moment at issue, altogether more chilling, is shown as being missed due to a passivity of character that has degenerated into a studied dereliction not only of duty but, arguably, also of properly directed love.
The “decisive moment” is an expression most commonly associated with photography, not painting — although Koral Ward’s recent book Augenblick: The Concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’ in 19th- and 20th-Century Western Philosophy discusses this concept more broadly. It’s particularly associated with the twentieth-century French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, the so-called father of modern photojournalism and one of the founding members of the cooperative picture-marketing agency Magnum. It was the English-language title of his 1952 book Images à la Sauvette (which translates either as ‘images on the run’ or ‘stolen images’), a collection of one hundred and twenty-six startling pictures taken around the world during the preceding twenty years or so. The Decisive Moment was also the title of what would be the Louvre’s first exhibition of photographs, Cartier-Bresson’s 1955 exhibition held in the Pavilion de Marsan.
He was not the originator of this expression though. He derived the concept from the writing of the seventeenth-century French churchman and political agitator Cardinal de Retz — “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment” — alluding to it in his introductory essay to Images à la Sauvette to describe the photographer’s “simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.” A few years later, in a 1957 interview for the Washington Post, he re-described this moment as a “creative fraction of a second when you are taking a photograph. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.” If that moment is missed, he said in interview, it is gone forever.
For Cartier-Bresson, then, this non-repeatable, decisive moment is a flash of powerful compositional-and-conceptual coherence that is given to the eye, suddenly, in the midst of a particular context. It is a brief moment when life in the here-and-now seems to offer itself to be photographed. But this doesn’t require the photographer to be passive. On the contrary, Cartier-Bresson spoke in terms of the photographer’s eye/view-finder actively needing to seek this moment out. He often compared this activity to another with which he was familiar: hunting.
It is also worth saying that in the 1957 interview, it was on the basis of, as he saw it, photography’s unique capacity to capture this decisive moment that he distinguished it from painting — a distinction with which several painters might in certain respects disagree. Paul Cézanne, to name but one. After all, he described his process of painting — the landscape, for instance — as a much slower but equally alert and receptive process of seeking out a ‘motif’, a particular perception of compositional and conceptual fullness, that he too felt was given to him. And might it not have been Cartier-Bresson’s own training as a painter early on in life that, in turn, trained his eye and mind to be so compositionally attuned? In fact, perhaps it was in (tacit?) recognition of a certain perceptual bond, after all, between painting and photography that the dust-jackets of both the French- and English-language editions of Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 book were graced not with one of his own photographs, but with the work of a painter, Henri Matisse, whom he had photographed in 1945. Matisse’s design was a colour work in which a group of disconnected yet perfectly balanced natural forms, cut-outs by the look of them, surround a schematic bird — a dove, perhaps, holding a frond of leaves in its beak, reminiscent of the well-known biblical symbol of fresh hope and promised new beginnings after the Great Flood.
Missing the Point
Waterhouse’s The Favourites, however, is about the approach of a definitive end. As with The Lady of Shalott, it concerns the demise of a person. In this case it is Flavius Honorius, pictured in the foreground, off-centre, to the left, who was Roman Emperor in the West from 393 to 423 AD (the year of his death). It is also, simultaneously, about the decline and fall of an Empire — the Roman Empire — a history with which Victorian Britain, itself an imperial nation, was morbidly fascinated. This decline was regarded by many to have been largely inaugurated, or at least helped along by Honorius’s indecisive, negligent leadership. This weakness and negligence were all the worse since the period of his reign was one in which much of his territory, including Rome itself, was being overrun and pillaged by invading tribes.
The Favourites was created early on in Waterhouse’s career, and reflects the interest he had during that period in Roman history and archaeology. It is skillfully designed, setting up a number of narrative and compositional contrasts that also divide and disturb our viewing if it. For in the first instance, and with Honorius positioned to the side, the painting’s strong, deeply perspectival structure pulls our attention directly towards the background of the work, to the Emperor’s clustering advisers, white-robed, and sycophantic, and, beyond them, to the far wall of the throne room where part of a stone statue on a pedestal may be seen. This statue has been identified as a then-recent archaeological find, a representation of the first Roman Emperor, the great Augustus, excavated at Prima Porta near Rome, in 1865.
On the other hand, though, the curve of bowing advisors, and the orientation of their eyes, return us to the figure of the Emperor in the foreground, who, rather than attend to the affairs of state and rather than defend the people for whom he is responsible, is shown slumped on his throne, engrossed in feeding his pet birds. These are the ‘favourites’ of the painting’s title, an indication — as pointed out in the exhibition catalogue — that an important literary source for Waterhouse’s painting was not only Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788) but also the novelist Wilkie Collins’ more recent Antonia; or, the Fall of Rome of 1850 (another instance in which the history of city’s downfall is recounted, and made vivid, through the life and experiences of an individual). Interestingly, the longer one looks at Waterhouses’s study of misdirected royal concentration, the more apparent it is that the space as a whole is also off kilter, with carpets, hangings, and curtains all subtly askew.
In Waterhouse’s painting, as noted, the slouched figure of Honorius in the foreground is contrasted with the upright, military demeanor of his imperial forerunner in the background. But the exhibition itself sets up further contrasts and comparisons between passivity and activity, between missing the moment, and missing the mark on the one hand, and capturing it, on the other. For instance, the contrast between Honorius as an embodiment of sloth and Waterhouse, the artist, as an epitome of productivity, is amplified by the fact that two preparatory studies for this painting were included in the show. These revealed aspects of the artist’s working processes, including the immense organisational labour, the trial and error, and the attention to the details of pose, gesture, setting, and spatiality, that went into the final construction of The Favourites so that precisely the dynamics just described might be achieved. And indeed, this hard work was rewarded. The finished piece, a large and ambitious oil painting on canvas (it measures 117 x 202 cm) was not only exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1883, but also purchased the same year by the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. It was the first of Waterhouse’s paintings to be bought by a municipal gallery.
Also worth mentioning, finally, is a further contrast, again set up by the exhibition’s curation and design, between those who attend, and those who don’t. This contrast, however, was focused on, and drew sudden attention to the activities of the exhibition’s visitors. For unexpectedly, half-way through the display, and visible through the entrance into the exhibition’s third room where it seemed to fill the visible space, an enormously enlarged fragment of an engraving was to be found, showing Victorian gallery-goers in a space just as crowed as the one we were in. But unlike us, who, that day, were quietly and attentively studying the works on display, those pictured were clearly indulging in the talkative, inattentive frivolities of a private view. The detail was in fact taken from the central portion of an engraving after William Powell Frith’s painting Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881.
Having made that point, though, it should be added that there are, arguably, certain kinds of inattention that are vital as points of intellectual, and protagonistic, departure — the topic of my next entry in which I reflect on my colleague Irit Rogoff’s 1998 essay ‘How to Dress for an Exhibition’. And her ‘Looking Away – Participations in Visual Culture’, published a year later.