Monday, 10 September 2012

Ophelia, John Everett Millais (1851-52)

So, the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition is finally here! Since it is a Tate exhibition, I admit I was expecting excess all the way. Like the Miro and Watercolour exhibitions last year, I expected something like fifteen enormous rooms filled to bursting with PRB paintings, and paintings and paraphernelia from their various followers, leading straight into the Aesthetic Movement, Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles. I thought I'd be running frantically from room to room clicking pictures and taking manic notes, while hyperventilating about all of the other rooms still left to visit. The anxiety about how much I was missing would make me sweat and later seek therapy. While what is on offer at the Tate this autumn is ripe and sensual as you would predict of a PRB exhibition, it does leave you panting for more. Well maybe that's the point. Still, I expect my full dose of hysetria when I visit the Tate...

Thankfully, my all time favourite Ophelia (1851-52) is on display. No PRB exhibition would be complete without that haunting masterpiece. With Lizzie Siddal as muse and model, Ophelia lays half-submerged in water, vines, rose leaves, wildflowers cling to her neck and hair, willow around her body and slowly drag her under. Like much of PR art, this masterpiece celebrates female beauty but gives it more than a hint of pathos and longing. It makes it one with nature - there is a little robin in the corner, a pink rose by the hem of her dress, she is surrounded by breathless and breathtaking foliage - and while doing so, it also tells a classic tale. Like other PRB work, the painting tells the truth about nature.

It was painted with Lizzie Siddal lying submerged in a bathtub. The artist - John Everett Millais (1829-1896) - got so thoroughly absorbed in the painting and Siddal was so committed to being the perfect artist's model and not interefere in the artistic vision of the painter that she lay in the water even as it got colder and colder to the point that she was shivering uncontrollably by the end of it. It is thought that Millais created the river scene at Hogsmill River at Ewell in Surrey.

Of course, you could say that this painting gives a premonition of Lizzie Siddal's life and death. Siddal was the PRB's favourite muse, but mere ten years after the painting of this classic, she died of a laudanum overdose. The poppies and violets so gorgeously painted in this work perhaps point to Ophelia's - and maybe Siddal's - death and loyalty. And there is a sense of the divine in the pose - the supplicating hands, the calm repose in the face, the fatalistic acceptance, the eternal merging with nature.

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