Wednesday 26 February 2014

Revealed Ophelia

It's almost too daunting to write about Ophelia in regards to Victorian art.  There is just too much information about Millais picture alone, never mind Waterhouse et al.  One thing is for sure, because of the nineteenth century, we have an all-pervading image of a female victim, dying for love.
But should we thank them?

The big one, by Millais from 1851-2
Let's just get this one out of the way immediately.  You'd be forgiven in thinking no-one else bothered to paint the character, so overwhelming this image seems to be for our society.  Not only is this the go-to picture for Ophelia, but also for the model, Elizabeth Siddal.  There are lovely rumours suggesting she drowned while it was being painted (longest drowning ever) and other suggestions that this was the moment that doomed her as surely as Heath Ledger accepting the role of The Joker.  From this moment onward, Lizzie is Poor Lizzie, the victim, the abandoned lover.  We conflate the model and the character, such is the majesty of Millais work.  Mind you, Rossetti doesn't help by casting her again in the role...

The First Madness of Ophelia D G Rossetti
So Lizzie becomes Ophelia, sealing her fate and her image forever. She became the poster girl for benign, doomed woman. She sorts out her own problems by clumsy, accidental suicide.  Remind you of anyone?

Ophelia (1887) Simeon Solomon
The history of Ophelia imagery is much larger than one woman/one picture.  She struck a chord with Victorians and remains with us today.  But what is it she's trying to tell us and why is that message loud and clear even now?

Ophelia (1890) Henrietta Rae
By the evidence of the art, you would be forgiven in thinking that the poor lass spent the entire play in a river.  In fact, for obvious reasons, we never see Ophelia fall into the river, we only have Gertrude's description of it.  I was always tempted to never trust a word that woman said and I'm sure there are Shakespeare academics who might argue that the Queen did the poor young girl in or something like that.  Anyway, a few plucky artists chose to show Ophelia earlier in the play.  Rae shows her at the point of madness as she wanders through the court, bewildered by grief and abandonment.  The bright, white dress reflects her innocence and draws attention to the shadowy, untrustworthy nature of everyone else, especially the King.

Ophelia Weaving her Garlands (1842) Richard Redgrave
I think the time before Millais' Ophelia should be described as B.M. (Before Millais) and here is an image from that period.  A decade before Millais was letting the candles go out, Redgrave was producing this lovely image of the doomed maid on the riverbank, presumably sitting on the willow that will ultimately let her down.  I find it interesting that in a play so full of floral meaning, the tree that breaks beneath her is a symbol of female magic, rebirth and strength.  Are we supposed to imagine Ophelia as a sourceress or is it an ironic comment on the fact that she is guileless and betrayed, a powerless victim of the machinations of others?

Ophelia (1873) Thomas Francis Dicksee
I think the images of her on the riverbank are slightly titilating in purpose.  This isn't any girl sat in the open air, this is a mad girl by the means of her demise.  It is an image that reaches forward in time, showing someone with the unwitting method of their death, much like this...

James Dean and his car, Little Bastard
There is some vicious schadenfreude in seeing people posing with the thing that will kill them, something that taps into a base part of ourselves, that makes us see with 20:20 hindsight how obvious their deaths were.  Think of all the snarky comments about the death of Paul Walker, actor in the Fast and Furious franchise, in a car accident.  The fact he was not to blame seemed to have past some parts of the media by because look, there he is in all those films acting recklessly with a car.  We knew he would come to a bad end.  The same definitely seems to be the case for Elizabeth 'Ophelia' Siddal.  There she is, on the river bank, she's bound to fall in.  There she is in the water, she's bound to come to a bad end.

The Play Scene in Hamlet (1897) Edwin Austin Abbey
When not hanging about on a riverbank, I have to admit this is one of my favourite images of Ophelia.  Much like the Rae above, we are instantly drawn to the pale spectre of Ophelia.  All other figures jumble in dark, rich colours but she is like a candle, fragile and pale in a court that is so full of shadows she looks in danger of being smothered.  She strikes me as being a victim here, but not a direct one.  Her suffering, her emotions are used by others or ignored and she is slowly slipping away while everyone else is busy looking at each other and muttering curses.

Detail of Ophelia J W Waterhouse
Ophelia J W Waterhouse
Back to the riverbank and enter the other person equally responsible for making Ophelia a lasting icon of Victorian womanhood.  Waterhouse is better known for his Lady of Shalott fetish, but his images of Ophelia are equally loved and reproduced.  The gowns become luxuriant, the hair is long and glorious.  She is the bride of death, a creature of power and beauty who may never die because she is already beyond alive.  Unlike the Lady of Shalott, Waterhouse's Ophelia in the blue gown looks like she is going to drown and then come and get you.  She is unsettling as well as beautiful.

Ophelia Alexandre Cabanel
We all know what the money shot is.  Ophelia needs to fall in the water.  If she wasn't in the water, would we recognise her?  She's just a girl in medieval dress, sitting in a meadow or sitting in a castle.  It is when she is in the water that we know who she is.

Ophelia Constant Montald
Maybe it was the power of Millais image, or maybe because it is a visual cue from the story, but it lingers now with us.  That girl in the river with the flowers, we all know her name...

The video for this song referenced Millais' image

A typical Ophelia-based fashion shoot
Roll forward in time, over a hundred years since Millias put Lizzie in a bath.  Due to the colour palette used in the photographs, I think it is obvious that Millais' version of Ophelia remains the dominant source, but that is just due to the amount of exposure it receives.  Why do photographers use the drowned Ophelia?  What does she say to us?

If I was to wear my very serious feminist hat for a moment, I would admit I don't feel comfortable with the currency of Ophelia.  I am torn between how utterly beautiful the images are and how we link feminine beauty and feminine madness so closely.  It is a damaging construct to reach for: that women are at their most beautiful in madness and death, that it is a natural state (as hinted at by the one-ness with nature that Ophelia achieves).  It's no good blaming Shakespeare, he had it all happen off stage.  We turn an unblinking eye on the suicide-porn of Ophelia's demise in all its glorious colour.  Do we want to emphasize how a woman is at her most beautiful when she is at her most fragile or even when she is dead? Yet that very dangerous message slips past our radar into the pages of our glossy magazines.  Mind you compared to the other messages they push, it seems to fit right in.

I suppose what I am asking is that we question our consumption of images drawn from the art we love.  Don't reject Ophelia, I would never shout that and the Tate can sleep soundly knowing I would only come to marvel at their beautiful painting.  I think I need to be more aware of how my contemporaries choose to use her because if they want to sell me my victimhood, then I'm not sure I want to buy it.

Saturday 22 February 2014

Here Comes the Rain Again...

As I write this I am aware that there is a thin shaft of sun-light dappling the conservatory in a very hopeful manner but frankly I don't fancy its chances.  For those not living in the British Isles, I should explain that presently we are in the midst of a rather long deluge whence God is attempting us to wash us off the face of this part of the earth like a rather stubborn stain.  Now this is undoubtedly because of some sinfulness (I'm not buying the idea that its because those nice gay people want to get married, unless Somerset has become the Gay Capital of England.  Ah, bigots spout such exciting nonsense!) Anyhow, all this endless, endless rain (which has turned our chicken run into something resembling Passchendaele) got me thinking about Victorian images of flooding...

The World Before the Flood William Etty
There we were, just before Christmas, behaving quite disgustingly.  I'm the one on the left.  Maybe it was the amount of Quality Street I ate over the festive period, possibly it was all manner of other naughtiness I got up to, but something snapped and on came the rain...

The Eve of the Deluge (1865) William Bell Scott
I love this picture because surely one of these louche types hanging around on their sundeck thought 'Hang on, why have the neighbours got such a big boat in their back garden?  Maybe I should check the weather...'  But no, they just slouched around in their garden loungers with their leopards and their fringe-y ponchos which cover up nothing.  Better spend your time inflating a rubber ring, if you ask me.

The Flood James de Louther Bourg
Yes, yes, all very sad and no use crying about it now.  You've all been very naughty and God was very disappointed in you.  Naughty people!  Did no-one else have a boat handy?  Was everyone else too busy drinking and eating with their leopards to get the sandbags out and blow up a lilo?  Shameful stuff.  It's best not to think about it too much as it does seem quite harsh to believe God would just wipe everyone out, much like clearing the screen on an Etch-a-Sketch but that's the Old Testament for you.  Incidentally, my 8 year old daughter, Lily, has been learning religion at school but I feel some of the finer detail has been lost on her.  When I asked her what she learnt this week she said 'I learnt about the Bible.  It has two books, the Old Testament and the New Testament.  The Old Testament is longer therefore it wins.'  You can't argue with that logic.

A Flood (1886) Leon Augustin Lhermitte
Moving away from the Bible, unsurprisingly images of flooding are relatively plentiful.  I think it is a common fear we all share, how our lives and lifestock can be swept away by water.  Thinking about literature, there are several instances of people/ways of life being metaphorically swept away by a flood (I am thinking of The Rainbow by D H Lawrence, for example) and there may be hints of that here.  While the above might be a straight forward image of a flood, it could equally be a comment on the family moving away from a traditional way of life, or maybe the rural communities moving to the town because their way of life had been lost.  Either way, floods seem to hit people as families, like the image of the Biblical flood above, possibly playing on our concerns for the more vulnerable members of our groups...

A Flood (1870) John Everett Millais
The Inundation (1856) Lawrence Alma Tadema
Not sure why you have to have a cat on your babies cradle, but babies and flood seem to go together like cheese and crackers.  Millais' baby seems to be having quite a nice time of it, bobbing along the reasonably calm waters, but Alma Tadema seems to envisage something out of Moby Dick.  That cat does not look happy.  It is very much a case of 'Won't somebody please think of the children!' and shows us the horror in flooding.  Water doesn't care, it will come along and steal your babies.  And your cats.

A Highland Flood  (1864) Edwin Henry Landseer
Because it's Victorian then it must be tartan.  I don't think there was any subject during the nineteenth century that couldn't be rendered more moving and filled with pathos than by setting it in the Highlands.  This poor family have lost everything, including many picturesque cattle, by a sweep of water.  They huddle with some sheep on a piece of higher ground and watch their lives being washed away.  I think I now see a very good reason for having a wooden crib for you child.  At least it would float.

Flood Sufferings (1890) Aby Altson
Over the last two months, I have seen umpteen reporters and politicians wading about the flooded areas stating the obvious and not really helping anyone.  It's good to know that two strapping lads will come and carry you out in a nice cosy stretcher if you get injured, but her floor has become a pond.  These heroic chaps don't have wading wellies on, they just rolled up their trousers and got on with it.  Inspiring stuff.

Princess Tarakanova (1864) Konstantin Dimitrievich
Possibly the strangest flood image I found was this one of Princess Tarakanova (or Tarakanoff) who was a pretender to the Russian throne.  In this dramatic telling of her story, she was drowned in the Peter and Paul Fortress where she was imprisoned (although she more likely died of tuberculosis) after being locked away for claiming she was related to royalty.  Here she is, dying in an off-the-shoulder number.  Well, if you have to go, you might as well get flooded in a nice frock.

The Story of the Flood Robert McGregor
Keep safe and dry, darling readers, I am thinking of you.  We live at the top of a hill so if we get flooded then everyone is in trouble, but I am considering trading in our car for a boat.  If it helps, bear in mind that more than likely in a few months time we will be well into Spring with the sun shining down on us and not a cloud in the sky.  I guarantee that by the end of summer there will be a hosepipe ban in Yorkshire and everyone will be complaining about how dry it is and how nice it would be to have a bit of rain.  These horrible couple of months will dry up eventually.  In the meantime, keep an eye on your neighbour.  If he starts building a really big boat, it's probably time to be nice to him...

Friday 14 February 2014

I Love You All!

Happy Valentine's Day, my beloved readership!  I am filled with unbridled affection for each and every one of you, obviously.  Now, as you may remember from past Valentine's posts, I have a bit of an ambivalent relationship with The Most Romantic Day of the Year.  When I was a frankly unattractive teen, I spent many a year with not a single card.  It's okay for me now, as a smug married person, but I remember how grim the day can be when you don't get any cards or even a sniff of a rose.  So here is my cunning plan, I shall shower you with Valentine's cards so you realise how important you are to me.  Without you, my dear reader, I would just be rambling on to myself and that sort of thing gets you locked up.  The least I can do is send you a card...

I really hope this isn't a Valentine's card as it's a smidge harsh.  I'm sure her dog is very fond of her too.  Mind you, if you start seeing the moon smiling at you then it's best to seek medical help rather than be overly bothered about the lack of roses delivered.  Let's move on...

This is definitely the card for Mr Walker, he does love a decent sausage.  I swear his affection can be bought with toad in the hole.  I'm rather concerned by the large number of blades in this image.  I want to know what is in these sausages as I suspect it might be the last person who received this card...

Ah, now that's better.  How very sweet, although children on Valentine's Day cards are a little disconcerting.  This couple are in Medieval dress which I suppose is meant to signify romance for some reason, but then I suppose nothing says 'I love you' like the feudal system.  Naturally, this couple have been married for ages, they must be at least 7 years old.  They are expecting their first turnip in the Spring.  If they live that long.

I'm not good with clowns, not since I got road-raged by one in full make-up.  I'm not joking.  What's worse is that he was a beloved children's entertainer who I had seen do his act when I was about 9 years old.  Both terrifying and disappointing in equal measure.  Do clowns say 'romance' to you?  I'm not sure deep wells of emotion can be adequately expressed through small girls in clown suits.  In fact, I'm not sure what tiny girl-clowns say when on the front of cards. Also, I'm not sure I want to be called 'my little friend', as is written on the front of the card on the left.  Isn't that what Scarface called his M16 with an underslung grenade launcher?  Nothing says 'I yearn for you' like being compared to something with the ability to blow up a great number of people with a single shot.

Oh, tiny, armed babies, you truly are the symbol of love.  However in this card they seem to be forming a tiny jazz trio in a cherry tree.  Can I not just have some blue tits in my nesting box?  They would be quieter and I don't fancy these three against next door's ninja cat.  That would be an unfortunate Valentine's fatality.  Talking of which...

This lovely card is described as a Valentine's Card in Mixed Media.  This involves lace and pressed flowers and beads. Oh and a squashed bird.  A real, squashed bird.  I must thank my friend CJ for bringing this charming card to my attention.  Because nothing says 'You are my desire' like a badly dyed sparrow glued to some card.

Well, seeing as the weather we've been having since Christmas can only be described as 'apocalyptic', a Valentine's card with some sort of heart-rain going on seems very appropriate.  I have to admire how graceful this lady looks as I have been doing battle with my skirt all week.  It seemed to be under the impression that it needed to be wrapped around my head every time the wind blew.  Mmm, dignified.

Oh dear me.  Well at least these are only pictures of animals rather than more fatalities.  Take note, Gentlemen, women aren't overly impressed by a chap who needs to have a cat doing his propositioning for him.  Plus also, I wouldn't trust a cat to do anything for me let alone be in charge of delivering an important missive of love.

Look, this is not going too well, there must be something I can send you that doesn't give you the impression that I'm strange and possibly slightly psychotic ('I put all my love for you into flattening this sparrow onto a card...').  Surely there is a nice card I can send you all?

No, not the roses with baby heads growing out of them.  Have another go...
Now look at this, how sweet! Everyone seems to be an adult, not an animal and not dead.  That has to be the minimum you expect from a card.  It's so charming, opening up to show a little lady stood on her balcony while her beau brings her flowers.  That is rather splendid and I'd love to receive this card, so this is the one I send to you, dear readers.  Happy Valentine's Day and I hope that you got lovely cards and the suchlike and no-one glued any small garden birds to anything for love for you.

Monday 10 February 2014

Film Review: The Invisible Woman

I am freshly returned from the cinema after seeing a morning showing of the new film about Charles Dickens and his mistress Nelly Ternan, The Invisible Woman.

I've never had to do a film review before, how thrilling!  Well, to start with I loved this film, but it is not an easy story to watch.  I'll start with the positive stuff.

Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Ternan with Ralph Fiennes as Dickens,
and Felicity Jones as Nelly and Perdita Weeks as Maria, her sister
It is an extraordinarily beautiful film, but not in a showy 'gowns-and-carriages' sort of way, rather in the everyday detail of mid-Victorian Britain among the literary classes.  The world of actresses and writers is shown in detail, from the plush interior of the Dickens' home to the sparseness of the Ternan women and their 'digs' as they work around the country.  Fiennes and Tom Hollander (as Wilkie Collins) are perfect in their playful glamour, celebrities but so curious of the world and their place in it.  It seems understandable that they would still want to explore, to enjoy not a normal life, but a strange jumble of acting and mingling.  It is during one of these bouts of acting that Dickens meets Nelly.  As Dickens says 'She has something', and their relationship is born.  From an eighteen year old girl to a middle aged wife of a respectable Headmaster, Felicity Jones portrays a woman who chooses to live an 'invisible' life and has to suffer with the consequences.  Fiennes as Dickens is loveable, charismatic, childlike and callous.  He looks picture-perfect, physically as you would imagine, using the force of his personality to make you understand why people were so captivated.

Michelle Fairley as Caroline Graves and Tom Hollander as Wilkie Collins
The supporting cast is superb, as you would imagine.  Tom Hollander is understated and subversive as Collins and Michelle Fairley is fascinating as his mistress.  They are a marvellously simple foil to the main couple, having no problem with their scandalous relationship.  The Ternan sisters and their mother are all actresses and this frames their rather dubious position in society.  For me, the most heartbreaking character has to be Mrs Dickens, portrayed by Joanna Scanlan, showing a discordant note to the romance.  Really, she broke my heart.

I could tell you how marvellous this film is, and it is, but there is more to it than just a fabulous costume drama.  For the likes of us, who like a nice bit of art, there are echoes of paintings within the films.  The most moving has to be the birthday party, which I felt referenced Frith's Many Happy Returns and provided, for me a very interesting theme to the film.  I felt that there was a stark contrast between the adult that people took Nelly to be and the child she actually was.  Children occur and reoccur in the film - the Dickens' children and grandchildren, the lost baby, the little lion.  Nelly is a child who is trapped in a woman's body.  Possibly that is true of all the women because how much control do they have?  They all are at the whim of Dickens who acts at powerlessness in a world where he is king.

I think I am meant to finish my review there and give you a star rating but you know me, I don't shut up easily.  One of the reasons I loved this film so much is that it tapped into a very real fear I have, no doubt shared by others. There is a scene in the film where Dickens pulls the 'my wife doesn't understand me' line, adding that the young Miss Ternan understands him and his work perfectly.  The 19 year old me would probably have completely bought that line and I would have swooned quicker than you can say 'David Copperfield'.  The somewhat older me sees it for what it is.

The scene that started me crying was the birthday party.  When Mrs Dickens arrives and delivers the present I sobbed for England because I am not 19 anymore, I am middle-aged, a bit grey and wrinkly, and found that scene not only sad but terrifying.  The two scenes where Dickens see his wife naked and then his rather brutal, wooden response were so horrible.  For me, it was a brilliant insight into my own fears that I was far more interesting when I was younger and prettier.  I did say that this was not an easy film to watch and beyond the frocks and fabulous special effects of the railway incident, I found the contrast between Nelly and Catherine Dickens to be a sobering insight into women's fears.

I urge you all to see the film and don't blame me if you cry into your Maltesers.

Friday 7 February 2014

What the Dickens?!

Happy Birthday Charles Dickens!  Born in Portsmouth in 1812 Dickens is probably one of, if not the defining novelist of the Victorian era.  Today on the mean streets of Portsmouth (where I used to live) they unveiled a wonderful full-size statue of Charlie...

I'm guessing there will be some sort of fence in place to stop me just going over and sitting on his lap.  You know I will.  Anyway, all this marvellous Dickensian revelry got me thinking about how Dickens view of life through his books defines how we see the Victorians and how that was expressed in art.

Florence Dombey in Captain Cutler's Parlour (1888) William Maw Egley
Poor Florence Dombey, neglected and struck by her erstwhile father, here she glows as a proper Victorian heroine resplendent in white.  She is the imperiled Victorian child not really abused in a fatal sense, just misused, a distraction from what is important in the world.  She is a woman in the way of men, discarded at best and blamed at worst.  This is not so far removed from other images of women contemplating their futures in domestic spaces, like this one...

A Passing Cloud Arthur Hughes
Unlike Hardy (who I love), Dickens' female protagonists often find themselves trapped in a domestic setting, symbolising their trapped status in general, thinking over and over their limited chances.  That's not to say that Dickens was a great feminist, but he seemed to understand that women didn't fair well on the whole and were dependent on men for their chances and happiness.

Little Nell and her Grandfather (1845) William Holman Hunt
Oh dear, little Nell, the 'Walter Deverell' of Dickens characters.  The Poster-Girl of worthy doomed maidenhood, Little Nell starred in many painted images...

Little Nell Leaving the Church J. Lobley
Little Nell and Her Grandfather W. Orchardson

Unstoppably good and wonderful, Nell Trent is the sort of Dickens woman who is an angel too good for this life which slowly breaks her down until she is killed by metaphoric worldliness.  Damn you world!  Look how lovely she is...

Kit's Writing Lesson Robert Braithwaite Martineau
I knew this picture but didn't realise that it was a Dickensian scene (mainly because I am none to bright at times).  This is a gorgeous rendering of the inside of the Old Curiosity Shop filled with wonder and sparkle.  Mind you, items like the apple in the front of the scene are marvellously shiny and perfect and Nell is a little Pre-Raphaelite lovely.  She reminds me of early pictures of Elizabeth Siddal in Deverell's images, her hair all shiny and flat.

Moving away from actual images from his novels, it's easy to see Dickensian narratives playing out in Victorian art.  I would argue that I find the stories told in Pre-Raphaelite art to be more Thomas Hardy than Dickens (if they touch on the contemporary) but there are no shortage of plots in traditional Victorian art that would make Charlie proud.  Take this example...

Past and Present Augustus Egg
This picture from a well-known trilogy shows a woman being discovered in disgrace, dying under a railway arch while her irreparably damaged daughters contemplate their wrecked fortunes.  Egg's prostate female is a disgraced woman, fallen quite literally.  How about this one?

Thoughts of the Past John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
She would be the childhood friend of the hero of a novel who had been forced to make her own way in the world due to some early tragedy and had fallen on hard times and been forced to sell herself so she wouldn't starve or be done in by her vicious boyfriend, but she does love him even though he'll no doubt bludgeon her to death by the end of Chapter 24.

No one does the vast theatre of Dickensian England like William Powell Frith.  Have a look at this lot...

Derby Day William Powell Frith
Possibly the worst picture to illustrate in its entirety because of its sheer scale, but all of Frith's panoramas of life are lots of little plots rolled into one scene.  Thieves, lords, acrobats, gamblers, swindlers country, city:  all are here mixing, interacting, rising and falling in their luck.  For Dickens' men, if they stay on the straight and narrow they will be alright (for the most part).  For Dickens' women, it's a bit more problematic and often they are just too good to live.  For a society where a large number of perfectly decent young women died in childbirth, that is probably a convenient belief to hold.

I have always preferred the romantic fatalism of Thomas Hardy to the morals of Dickens, but no-one shows you the Victorian Dream like Charlie-boy.  It is black and white, good and bad.  There are redemptions of bad characters but they are few and far between if you expect the character to keep living.  Mostly you have to realise your mistake then die, like absolving yourself of sin by confession on the way out.  For a man (like Frith) who had a home life in multiple, this moralising is a little difficult to take, but it is archetypally Victorian in its glorious double standard.

Happy Birthday Charles Dickens, you cuddly Victorian hypocrite.  Your home-life was complex but your stories are classic.  You informed so much narrative art and filled Sunday tea-time telly and so I cannot help but love you.