Πέμπτη, 26 Ιουλίου 2012

Ophelia Part1


Ophelia - then and now

Ophelia is a character in Shakespeare's play 'Hamlet' - a creation of the Elizabethan stage. Yet for over four hundred years she has remained a figure of fascination for artists, writers and poets alike - and she emerged as a subject of devotion among the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite movement of painters that flourished in England during the second half of the 19th Century.

This page examines the Pre-Raphaelite obsession with Ophelia and asks the question of why was she so important within the intellectual landscape of Victorian society - and why might she still be of relevance to us today in an age where we sometimes expect young women to grow up so very fast and to conform to all manner of expectations that may be neither relevant or appropriate for their needs? We still have our 'desperate romantics' - even in our modern, most logically-minded and rational of ages.

(The painting shown here, above, is the 1910 version of Ophelia by John William Waterhouse)

Ophelia and the Pre-Raphaelite painters of the 19th Century

(The painting of Ophelia shown here is by John Everett Millais. Made in 1852, it remains one of the great iconic images of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and of Victorian art in general)

The Pre-Raphaelite movement has its origins around 1848 among a group of young English painters and writers - notably the founding members of the 'brotherhood' who were: William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. These were later joined by other notable artists such as William Morris and John William Waterhouse - who painted Ophelia several times during his career and who has left us with some of the most beautiful images of the whole era.

The aim of the brotherhood was to promote a new kind of art that celebrated the directness and 'honesty' of painting as it existed prior to the corrupting influence - as they saw it - of the great classical artists of the Renaissance such as Raphael and Michelangelo. Hence the term 'Pre-Raphaelite.' They felt that the classic methodology and style had permeated art through the centuries and that it still existed as a limiting influence even in their own times where it had resulted in a kind of sentimental and technically 'sloppy' kind of painting. They wanted to break away from the current conventions of Victorian art and to develop a style which was iconic, spiritually motivated and yet which was also constructed through the application of great detail, intense colours and complex composition. It was one of the first 'revolutionary' or avant garde movements in painting, and pre-dated the Impressionists in France.

In the painting above by Millais, the model for Ophelia was a young woman called Elizabeth Siddal, then aged 19. She was a popular choice of model for other painters within the group, and became the wife of Rossetti in 1860. For this work, she posed for the painter in a bath of water, warmed by oil lamps. Millais was so engrossed in his work on some occasions that he allowed the lamps to go out and the water to become cold, resulting in illness for his model. This negligence cost him dearly in medical bills, and Elizabeth survived to become one of the most famous faces of the Victorian age.

In a slightly more negative aspect, she and the other Pre-Raphaelite models (Annie Miller, Jane Morris and Fanny Cornforth) set the 'standard' for all subsequent idealised representations of women right up to our present times - with our 21st century ultra-thin, barbies and cat-walk nymphs and all the unrealistic and often dangerous associations that go along with these images.

Ophelia - her story

(The painting shown here, above, is the 1889 version of Ophelia by John William Waterhouse. Here, Ophelia is almost in a state of metamorphosis, of returning to the elements, part of the earth and marshy ground beneath her)

In Shakespeare's play Hamlet, written around 1600, Ophelia is a maid at the court of the King of Denmark. She is the sweetheart of the main character, prince Hamlet. Hamlet is faced with a dilemma in the play - being informed by his father's ghost that his uncle, the present king, has murdered his brother (Hamlet's father). The uncle's motive was to take the throne and to marry the King's widow (Hamlet's mother). Hamlet is plagued with indecision and by guilt as to whether it is right to take revenge upon his treacherous uncle.

This dilemma eventually drives him mad, and Ophelia becomes a victim of his deranged aggression towards both her and Ophelia's father - who he mistakenly kills instead of his uncle. Ophelia's father - Polonius - had concealed himself behind some hanging drapes at the time to eavesdrop on the conversation. Hamlet thrust through the drapes with his sword and the old man was slain.

Ophelia, herself, is turned by these events and she loses her mind - eventually wandering off from the castle and drowning - it is suggested by her own desire for death - in a nearby brook. It is this tragic event that became the subject for numerous paintings by the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.

Whether Ophelia was herself pained by guilt, perhaps having lost her virginity to Hamlet, or whether she was driven through remorse for the loss of her own father to take her own life will never be resolved. But the figure of a young woman profoundly troubled in spirit, being compelled to grow up too quickly and finding it impossible to reconcile the conflicting demands of society and sexuality are ones that still strike a chord today in our present age - which, for all its freedoms and climate of open discussion, can still give rise to those who indulge in self-harm or who suffer the anxieties of anorexia or bulimia.

Ophelia's tragic portrayal

(The painting shown here, above, is the 1894 version of John William Waterhouse's Ophelia. the background of water lilies is a powerful symbol of purity and innocence - also of the virgin Mary, of course. All this is greatly contrasted with the sensuous, curvaceous body of Ophelia herself, who could almost be in the early stages of pregnancy. Much of the Pre-Raphaelite message can only be comprehended through biblical imagery.)

The Pre-Raphaelites artists tended to show Ophelia at various times either in the process of contemplating her sorrow or else in the very act of drowning. It was the enacting of this intense emotional state that drew them to her as a dramatic figure - along with what was an almost obsessional reverence the Victorians held for the tragic feminine or the ideal of 'lost innocence' or beauty destroyed by a world of corruption and cruelty.

See Jane Grey And also The Lady of Shalott

In the wake of the earlier Romantic movement among artists and poets, the relentless growth of the industrial society in 18th Century England gave rise to a gradual dawning of a mood of nostalgia, of regret and guilt within 19th century and Victorian society - a concern felt at a very deep level about what was being lost in the race for progress. The world of nature was, even then, seen as being under threat - of being crushed beneath the grime and noise of the satanic mills and factories, the dreadful inner city slums and all the disease and poverty that they brought with them. Ophelia, in a similar way to the figure of doomed Tudor Queen Jane Grey, represented that lost innocence. She was the corrupted maid, a sacrificial figure destroyed by political intrigue or through her own sense of guilt - the paradox of beauty among ugliness, of innocence amid a world of exploitation and cynicism.

In this, and with their determination to paint nature with precision and accuracy, the Pre-Raphaelites chose in particular to show in their paintings of Ophelia the array of wild flowers and herbs that Shakespeare tells us the maiden hung about herself as she went to her death - a description given to us in the play by Hamlet's mother as she breaks the terrible news and describes Opelia's final moments:

"There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death."