Tuesday, January 01, 2008

TLS October 26 2007

from Matthew Reynolds's review of Tate Britain's Millais exhibition:

This discomfiting fascination with the relationship between human bodies and what they are in - both clothes and setting - is one of Millais's distinctive qualities. Through all the variation in style and genre which this exhibition amply documents, he remains absorbed by the idea that a setting can become a kind of vesture, the vesture project an image, and the image tally uneasily with the human being to whom it is attached. No character has been more comprehensively sunk into a natural setting than Ophelia, and yet the effect of ths is the opposite, it seems to me, of that suggested in the exhibition's detailed and generally perceptive catalogue: "the depicted cycles of growth, maturation and display doubly absorb Ophelia into a natural process, and render her insignificant". Of course the silvery embroidery of her dress mingles with the stream and connects with the sprays of white dog rose above; and the purple loosestrife on the bank calls out to the poppies, violets and daisies of her bouquet now scattered on the water. But this weaving of pretty patterns will not assimilate the bare bits of her moribund body which stick up above the surface: her cupped hands, which are shaped like lily flowers but whose cold fleshiness repeals the thought of the comparison as soon as it occurs; her lips, which are not at all like an opening bud; her cheeks, which are pink but hardly rosy. The painting sets up and worries at a contrast between what can be taken as decoration - leaves, flowers, and dress material - and what, here at least, cannot: the woman's body.

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52

It is a paradox of Pre-Raphaelite art that the more accurately natural forms are rendered in oils the more artificial they appear. Millais was the painter who most noticed this peculiarity and turned it to advantage. In "Mariana", leaves from the detailed autumn trees outside have come into the interior, perhaps through the window, or a door out of shot, or perhaps gathered by Mariana to serve as models for the leaf-and-flower embroidery with which she is passing the time (this piece of woman's work shows that Millais was responding to "The Lady of Shalott", with its weaving, as well as to the other poems by Tennyson that were his main sources, "Mariana" and "Mariana in the South"). The embroidery has a kinship to the gilt leaf pattern on the walls, which in turn finds an echo in the semi-abstracted leaf-cum-star-cum-lily background to the Annunciation depicted in the stained glass; it takes a further step from representation into ornament in the gold and silver filigree of Mariana's belt. The painting draws attention to the processes of pattern-making, of becoming decorative, in which it too is engaged. As with "Ophelia", the popular success of "Mariana" as something nice to look at, and its consequent mass reproduction, are a part of the work's "design".

John Everett Millais, Mariana, 1851

And yet there is something else in the painting which protests against this drift: Mariana's body, which asserts itself with its aching pose, complaining perhaps of pregnancy or of period pain but more likely of everyday bad posture. The two-fold aspect of these pictures is like the switchbacks of tone which occur in the dramatized lyrics and dramatic monologues that were the dominant forms in Victorian poetry: as for instance in Tennyson's "Mariana" itself, where the woman's repeated complaint, "I am aweary, aweary" pushes unavailingly against the surrounding third-person description, which goes on pleasurably detailing the setting for her pain.

Millais must have been sensitized to these dislocation of body and surrounding texture by his working practices: one reason why Ophelia looks at odds with her location is that the model for her, Lizzie Siddal, shivered in a bath in London while Millais inserted her into a scene brought home from the Hogsmill river at Malden; Mariana, too, was cut-and-paste together with trees observed in an Oxford garden and glass inpsired by Merton College chapel. For all the skill with which they are assembled, the pictures' elements retain the feel of their divergent origins.

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