A Romantic Painting Emerges Amid a Desert Wasteland

George Miller’s new prequel, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga (2024), unpacks the origins of the titular heroine, played by Anya Taylor-Joy and last seen in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), following her as she is torn from her lush homeland and cast into a desert wilderness.

All the post-apocalyptic hallmarks from the Mad Max franchise are here: desolate vistas, crazed marauders, chrome porn, and the desperate pursuit of resources. “As the world falls around us,” narrates a voiceover, “how must we brave its cruelties?” Furiosa offers an example, learning to survive a bleak landscape to find her way home, while plotting her revenge on Dr. Dementus (Chris Hemsworth), the warlord who abducted her as a young child.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Furiosa, Tom Burke as Praetorian Jack, and Chris Hemsworth as Dementus in Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga (2024). Photo: Jason Boland. © 2024 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Dementus commands the Biker Horde, a gang of motorcycle-riding raiders given to casual savagery, which he leads across the wasteland in his bid to grasp power. In a major coup, he seizes Gastown, an oil refinery that supplies the nearby Citadel settlement. It’s here, amid the plant’s industrial build and corroded fittings, that we’re presented with a rare prelapsarian vision in the form of a pre-Raphaelite masterpiece.  

The Guardian of Gastown, before he is alerted to Dementus’s approach, is in the midst of painting a large mural of John William Waterhouse’s breathtaking canvas Hylas and the Nymphs (1896). For reference, he holds open a book containing an image of the painting as he works. His is a faithful copy, replicating the translucent skin of the nymphs, the weightlessness of the surrounding water lilies, and Hylas’s shadowed face across an expansive wall. 

John William Waterhouse's painting of Greek tragic hero Nylas surrounded by enchanting nymphs

John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs (1869). Collection of Manchester Art Gallery. Public Domain.

As was the English painter’s practice, Waterhouse created the work after a Greek and Roman myth, in this case that of Hylas being lured by Naiads. The youth was a companion of Hercules and joined him on the Argo vessel on his quest to find the Golden Fleece. Along the way, Hylas was sent to fetch fresh water, encountered the nymphs, and never returned.  

Accounts vary as to his fate: Flaccus, in Argonautica, has it that Hylas fell in love and opted to stay with the sprites, while Theocritus decided he was violently taken. (Waterhouse’s own ambiguous portrayal would prompt the Manchester Art Gallery, which holds the painting, to controversially remove it from display in 2018 lest it cause offense in a MeToo climate.) 

Despite his bit part in mythology, the tragic Hylas has captured the creative imagination over generations. Author Oscar Wilde brought him up constantly, most notably in The Picture of Dorian Gray, while artists William Etty and Henrietta Rae have depicted his seduction. Waterhouse himself painted an earlier iteration of the scene, titled Hylas With a Nymph or the Naiad (1893), a more foreboding image than his later work. 

A sketch of two women

Study for Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) by John William Waterhouse. Photo: Ashmolean Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

So, what is a Waterhouse painting doing in a rust-covered dystopia? There are obvious contrasts between the work’s verdant, water-centric setting and the film’s dry, desert milieu, as there are parallels between Hylas’s capture and Furiosa’s own. Its depiction of innocence before a fall is also of note—the mural’s creation itself precedes Gastown’s destruction and takeover (the work is later shown crudely vandalized by the bikers). 

But just like Waterhouse’s work, Miller’s Furiosa takes its cue from myth—albeit one of the filmmaker’s own making. The movie is dotted throughout with ancient Green and Roman touches, from Dementus’s motorcycle-driven “chariot” to the Trojan Horse-style attack on Gastown. Much like Hylas, the warlord’s fate is also shrouded in mystery.  

Above all is Furiosa’s own story, her emergence as a hero framed as the stuff of legends. “This is our destiny,” Dementus tells Furiosa at one point. “Do you have it in you to make it epic?” Her journey home, too, is recounted as fable by a narrator known as History Man, echoing the legendary king Odysseus whose travels were immortalized by Homer. “45 years after the collapse, a young Furiosa is taken from her family. She will devote the rest of her life to finding her way home,” the film’s trailer informs us. “This is her odyssey.” And, yes, it’s pretty epic. 

As Seen On explores the paintings and sculptures that have made it to the big and small screens—from a Bond villain’s heisted canvas to the Sopranos’ taste for Renaissance artworks. More than just set decor, these visual works play pivotal roles in on-screen narratives, when not stealing the show.

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