I am absolutely in love with this new BBC series, “Desperate Romantics.” It’s about the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the Victorian period. It’s being told in the voice of Frederic George Stephens (Fred), a writer portrayed in the series as a moth to the dazzling personalities of the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and the boyish John Everett Millais. (I’m not sure if there are plans to include them later on, but the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood actually included a number of artists who haven’t yet found their way into the plot, like Dante’s brother and sister William and Christina Rossetti.)
In watching the series I’ve begun to think about common themes in paintings of female subjects. One of the major plot points so far has been the relationship between the model Elizabeth Siddal and the members of the brotherhood, who use any tricks at their disposal in order to prevent the others from having any time to paint her while jealously guarding their own painting time with her.
Siddal is the model for the Millais painting of Ophelia–you know the one, she’s in the water, hands turned palm upwards, flowers floating all around her. Though I like the pre-Raphaelite style for its use of bold color and fine detail, I have always hated this painting. Mainly because she’s already given up; she’s just lying there without trying to swim or anything, she already looks like she’s dead and laid out for the funeral. I know, everyone loves this one because it’s so beautiful and poigniant and blah de blah de blah. I just don’t like the implications–the ideal of femininity is a woman so submissive, she’s already a corpse. It’s all a bit gothic for me.
But that doesn’t even compare to how much I hate the Klimt painting The Kiss. I HATE that painting! I can’t tell you how many of my undergraduate female friends had posters of it, large and small, decorating their dorm rooms. It’s for sale in every poster shop in the universe; there are eight kabillion reproductions and re-imaginings of it in the same pose but different styles or different subjects (Cowboys! Pop art! Tiny ceramic sculpture! Photographic recreation! Native Americans!) Everyone thinks it’s so romantic and beautiful and shiny–people (okay, women) go all gooey in front of it. Shall I tell you what I see when I look at The Kiss? The guy has quite clearly snapped her neck in half like a Pez dispenser because he’s obviously a zombie and is about to go in for a great big bite right out of her cheek! Look at it again and tell me you don’t see the abject horror in that picture. There she is, trying to get away, can’t even look at his horrible zombie face, struggling to free herself and pressing her lips together to avoid letting him kiss her, but she can’t! It’s too late! Zombie tacos!
I know, I know, Klimt wasn’t a pre-Raphaelite. But there are lots of other paintings of women that bug me–going back to the Romantically Drowning theme, you can’t overlook images of the Lady of Shalott, another popular figure. Why did Victorian men love painting women on their way to a watery grave? My least favorite version of the Lady of Shalott is the John Atkinson Grimshaw version–once again, she already looks dead, she’s past the point of no return, she’s a lifeless object. John William Waterhouse painted a study of her on a boat about to go over a waterfall; she looks miserable. Why not just paint a drowned corpse and be done with it, guys? What is wrong with these men? Did they not get out much?
Returning to the Pre-Raphaelites: when I was maybe twelve, my mom took me on a trip to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. There, in a large solarium-type room with a spiral staircase running up one wall, I saw a giant canvas on which was painted a woman swinging her hair around her in a passion, weaving a giant tapestry on a horizontal loom with a large round mirror reflecting all. In my imagination, the woman’s hair was becoming the strings of thread in the tapestry; it was claiming her as she struggled to break free. I saw the painting again many years later; it is (ta-da! Pre-Raphaelites!) William Henry Hunt’s image of the Lady of Shalott. In reality the strings aren’t becoming her hair, though she is tangled up in them. This remains one of my favorite paintings of all time, despite the tragic end of its heroine–at least there is some life and movement in it. At least her eyes are open.
My favorite Lady of Shalott, though, is another one by Waterhouse–he redeems himself with this one. She’s holding some balls of yarn in her lap, using her skirts to form a pocket for them as she tries to get up. One of the gold threads from her tapestry has reached out and encircled her knees, leaving her trapped. But she looks straight up at the viewer, meeting your gaze with full force, looking seriously annoyed at this unplanned diversion from her day. I much prefer this to Millais’s tragic Ophelia or Klimt’s nameless kissed (bitten?!) woman–here is a lady who is just having none of it. Drown herself? Who has time to drown herself? Now bugger off, Lancelot. She’s got a tapestry to finish.