Monday, 31 October 2011

I Want Your Head on a Plate !

I am currently working on a couple of very dignified pieces to do with my visits to two fine exhibitions over the weekend, but in the meantime, as it’s Halloween, I thought I’d do a piece about something scary. Now, I love a good scare as much as the next person, but what I really like is to be unsettled. Oddly, that makes me think of what we had to do to our chicken when she went broody last year, but that’s not really what I mean. What I mean is something innocuous that has sinister purpose, something both beautiful and horrific. Observe this…

The Dance of Salome (1885) Robert Fowler
Oh, the horror. Okay, it’s not terrifying, it’s not Drag Me to Hell, but I find the subject of Salome very unsettling, not least in the very varied manner that the Victorians handled it. Take the above, for example. To be honest, I had to check it was really a Salome image, it really could be anything by Moore, or Leighton, or Alma Tadema (or Robert Fowler, who I need to know more about as I’ve never heard of him) and could be any number of ‘idle women in classical dress’, a genre we love so well. I do not get ‘psychotic Biblical murderess’ from the picture, it’s just a bit titillating or from the ‘gauzy boobs’ end of the market.

Salome (1906) Franz von Stuck
Yes, well, now I’m disturbed. I have a dance for many things, but I do not have a severed head dance. Von Stuck’s Salome is vampire pale and bends lithely in her utter orgasmic joy of being presented with a head on a plate. She is a creature of insane evil and damn sexy with it. Maybe this is what a Victorian chap was after to hang on his wall? Despite her lack of covering, Salome is not a temptress like, for example Delilah, she is a psychotic virgin, whose default, when asked what she wants, isn’t ‘Pony’ like any normal girl.

Salome Receiving the Head of St John the Baptist (1896) Lovis Corinth
This has to be one of my favourite Salome pictures because it is so damn mundane in its horror. Look at how ghostly and heavily made-up Salome’s face is as she fondles the severed head presented to her. The chap who did the slicing stands around slightly awkwardly to the side, while they bundle the body of the unfortunate saint off-stage. Everyone look pleased and jolly as if they have just presented her with a nice bunch of flowers or a book token, but no, it’s a severed head. Grimness itself is that her nipples almost graze the beard as she bends to look at her prize. Urgh, shudder.

Salome (1890) Ella Ferris Pell
When looking at Victorian images of Salome, it’s easy to think it begins and ends with the Wilde/Beardsley black and white twists of woman-beast, but there are some other fascinating depictions, including Pell’s rather dignified painting. Salome is given the grace and nobility usually reserved for Judith (yet another chick-and-severed-head combo, but entirely different in context). Compared with the other pallid vampires, this Salome is a rosy cheeked, round hipped gem with great hair and an attention-seeking top. There is nothing unhinged about this young woman, no rolling eyes and insanely giggling lips, she is remarkably still. Poised with her plate, she looks like she knows what she wants and is aware of everything she has to do to achieve her nefarious ends. It is tempting to find this Salome very attractive, but you forget she is holding a plate for a severed head, which is the one thing she desires most in the world.  Possibly Pell is reaching for a Salome who is the weary pawn of her mother, the one who actually wants St John dead.  Isn't it odd how the story twists into a tale of lust of an old king for a young girl?  Salome's Mum seems to play no part in the Victorian retelling, which is far more of a cautionary tale about spoiling your children.  It's rather like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in many ways...mmmm, chocolate, I'd dance for chocolate...but I digress...

Salome (1898) Juana Romani
The most 'Victorian; image of Salome has to be the funniest. She sits patiently with her plate and sword, as if she waiting her turn at the Antiques Roadshow. Her hair is a bit out of control, so she must be a bit mental, and her dress is off the shoulder, so she must be a sex mad psycho. The fact that she is looking coyly at her viewers and doesn’t really seem in danger of doing very much kind of undoes her power. Mind you, it’s one of the few where she brings her own sword, usually she only has the plate, so maybe I should be a bit more wary of her.

Salome Henri Regnault
So why did the Victorians like Salome? Well, obviously it’s a bona fide reason to show some nipple in a Biblical sense, but also she is a villain of uncontrolled sexuality. The various depictions of Salome show a very attractive, semi-clad young woman who may kill you. Granted, most of the images come from the morbid, self-destructive period towards the end of the century, but Salome seemed to embody a sense of hungry evil, sometimes unhinged, sometimes cold and calculating. Salome seems to get away scot free in the Bible, but not in various dramatic versions. She in turn is killed by Herod, and all is right with the world, sort of. Interesting how we don’t see that aspect portrayed, only her wild sexy dance and her head-fingering, as if we don’t really want her to have her comeuppance because sometimes the world is more interesting if the wild woman is still on the loose…

Well, a quiet word to the gentleman who read this blog: If you see a beautiful young woman with a large plate, run like hell! I wouldn't want to lose either of you...

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Venus with a Bucket

This week, in between decorating and being ill, I milked a cow. You heard me and don’t act surprised, it was only a matter of time. I really wanted to learn how to do it after I read The Observations by Jane Harris, where the determined young heroine lies about being able to milk a cow and gets caught out. I panicked. What if I travel back in time and my only hope of food and lodging is to be able to milk a cow? Well, now I can rest easy as apparently I am a natural milkmaid. I’m not sure how to take that, but as I tend to think of them as buxom wenches looking a bit saucy, I’m quite down with it.

A Peasant Girl, Brittany (1887) Emile Bayard
Yes, that’s what I think of. Oh, and I tickled some piglets on the same farm excursion. I love this picture as it is just so damn rural. At this point if I was talking to you, I would adapt my west country accent and proclaim how much ‘I loves my pigs’ but it doesn’t really translate in type. But I does, 'cos they are gert lush.

Poll, The Milkmaid (1872) Arthur Hughes
Oh, and I bottle-fed a calf who had giant brown eyes and I wanted to take her home. Really, I’m just a floral dress and shawl off of living in a Hardy novel at times. Knowing my luck, I’d be the one to be ruined by a soldier and then starve in the snow before I’d managed to milk any cows at all. Not like Poll, who is so honest and rural she only needs a name of one syllable. This is all very picturesque, the trees in blossom, the bubbling stream, the lush green grass. Ah, the countryside…

The Young Milkmaid Helen Allingham
Hang on, this doesn’t look so jolly. I don’t think she’s wearing shoes and she looks a little grubby. Surely there are some cows that need milking somewhere? No, this young lady is leaning against a grey stone wall and seems to be dreaming of being somewhere else. The only thing that gives her away as a milkmaid is her bucket, which seems to serve as an international shorthand for ‘milkmaid’. For example…

The Milkmaid John Simmons
Oh, I wonder what she does for a living? It’s iconic, I suppose, and immediately sums up certain aspects of rural life that people find attractive. There is something in the persona of a milkmaid that makes you think of wholesome, hardworking, little bit saucy, healthy, strong and other qualities which makes them a bit sexy. You don’t tend to see unattractive milkmaids, strangely enough. They seem somehow more glamorous than the girl who shovels dung for a living.

The Milkmaid William Edward Millner
Look at the pose she is striking – she is like a classical goddess, possibly modelled on a statue that Millner saw. Change her clothes for classical drapes and hide the milk can and she could be Venus. She is certainly lit in a way that suggests she has inner significance beyond the lass who squeezes udders for a living.

The Milkmaid Henry John Yeend King
Yet another milkmaid with the longing expression of one who wishes to escape. She has no bucket, so how do we know she is a milkmaid? She is reasonably clean, emphasised by her white apron. I wonder if that is why they are often depicted as silently gazing, dewy-eyed towards a future of possible release. It’s as if the painter alone has realised that this apple-cheeked daughter of the soil is actually a goddess awaiting release from her disguise.

The Young Milkmaid Julien Dupre
I think there may be a rule about certain farm animals. Horses obviously are the most dignified of rural beasts, but cows seem to be up there with a sort of sensible beauty. Being associated with them seems to give the maids the same dignified, useful attraction. Don’t be caught hanging around with pigs, they lend nothing to your dignity at all, apparently.

The Milkmaid (1860) Myles Birket Foster
To sum up, the white-aproned maidens of spring that populate many a canvas are more than just farm workers. They are beautiful women filled with natural power, yet imprisoned like fairy-tale princesses, manually labouring, while dreaming of another life. They often appear in spring-like scenes, as if they are the personification of all things fecund and fertile, the burgeoning rural bounty in human form. And they come with their own gold top. No wonder they were so damn attractive.

To milk a cow, form a ring around the top of the teat with your thumb and forefinger, then close the other three in a squeeze which shoot milk out. Where’s my bucket and apron…?

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

In Bed with Byam Shaw

It feels like forever since I wrote my last blog, which, being sensible, it wasn’t.  It was only the end of last week, but I’m used to writing this every day.  Presently I am engaged in painting our living room, the room where I write, so I am forced to type this in bed.  I am hoping Mr Walker isn’t planning on coming to bed any time soon as his side is currently filled with books.  Anyway, hello, I’ve missed you and I want to talk to you about one of my favourite lesser-known painters, John Byam Liston Shaw.
Mr Walker has now come to bed and grumbled because Lionel Lambourne’s Victorian Painting is where he should be.  T’uh.  Anyway, Byam Shaw…if Byam Shaw had been born forty years before he was, I think Millais would have had a serious run for his money in the ‘child prodigy’ stakes.  As an eight year old, Byam Shaw was thrown off a donkey and badly hurt his left arm.  His response when asked if he was alright was ‘It’s not my drawing arm’.  Ah, kids.  Anyway, Byam Shaw is one of those artists who I have loved for ages but not worked out that all the pictures are by the same artist.  He doesn’t crop up in big exhibitions very often, but I’m guessing that most provincial museums have one of his art works, if not two – just checked with Mr Walker and the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum have two.  Gosh, our pillow talk is saucy.  Anyway, the thing about Byam Shaw is that he is nice and Pre-Raphaelite but I didn’t realise exactly how deep his PRB leanings went.  Take for example one of his well-known images The Blessed Damosel (1895).

Now, I hadn’t put two and two together but of course this is a Rossetti-inspired image.  The two stanza’s from Rossetti’s poem that accompany the image draw attention to the five handmaidens of Mary, all sewing the heavenly birth-robes, while a choir sing and a couple are led through to heaven.  It is at once a traditional triangular composition, but also packed with people, filling the frame.  Despite the melee of figures, Mary stands out from the crowd in her absolute stillness.  He was only twenty three when he painted this and it was hung in prime position, on the line, at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Blimey.
Queen of Spades
Queen of Hearts
I think my problem with Byam Shaw in the past is that I have thought his paintings were by other people.  Take for example the magnificent The Queen of Spades  (1898).  For some reason I thought this was by Gotch, I think because of the weird singing girl on the floor, but I love the slightly broken symmetry of the composition, with the guard looking over.  It’s so serious, compared to The Queen of Hearts which is skippety madness, with giggling and girliness.  There ain’t no giggling here.  Maybe the girl with the elaborate banjo isn’t very good.

It isn’t all Gotch-esque women in big dresses and vaguely triangular hair.  I saw ‘and he begetteth a son and there is nothing in his hand,’ when it was exhibited with the Forbes collection about a decade ago and its tight framing blew me away.  The general sense of a father troubled by his son, a quarrel, the father thinking deeply about the financial implication of his family’s behaviour are all apparent without intimate knowledge of the passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes.  Byam Shaw painted a series of works from Ecclesiastes, little moral pictures, with their stories apparent but not sledge-hammered.

Rats, no, only in balck and white
As I am typing this, I hope that I am able to find a colour reproduction of the next picture I want to rave about, as I only have a little black and white one in my collection, but even so…When Byam Shaw became engaged to the charmingly names Evelyn Pyke-Nott, he painted a 2.5m tall portrait of her.  This massive picture is a tribute to the love of the artist for Miss Pyke-Nott, as she sports his emerald and ruby ring.  The frieze about her head shows her family home and her past-times, riding, painting and croquet.  It has a splendidly medieval-revival, Gothic feel with an almost Tissot-esque woman in plain, stunning fashion, standing in a stately, yet oblivious manner.  Stunning.

Finally, I have to talk about possibly the best known of Byam Shaw’s works today. 
The Boer War 1900 (1901)
Appended to the title are two lines from Christina Rossetti: ‘Last summer green things were greener,/ Brambles fewer, blue skies bluer.’  This painting reminds me of how I got Mr Walker to watch The Sound of Music with me (he’d never seen it) by promising him it was a war film.  This is war art but without the fighting.  The figure, dressed sombrely and most likely in mourning, looks over a pond in thought.  Is she thinking about the last time she stood there?  Is she thinking about the person she stood there with?  When I first saw this picture I remember thinking ‘Has she lost her dog?’ as it is such a strange scene, but like the best narrative art, you slowly get a sense that all is not what it appears and that something has happened that affects the protagonist.  It is an interesting picture of the ‘home front’ in war, well before such a thing had any sort of resonance.  The idea that a war, thousands of miles away, could have a casualty in some sleepy backwater of England is a very modern notion.  Byam Shaw has tackled a very female response to conflict in an age when nice middle class girls had no truck with war as it got in the way of needlework and looking pretty.  Set this picture fourteen years later and you could speculate that the young woman is thinking about her chances of marrying, or the chances that her husband will come back alive.  This is a picture of a woman completely at the mercy of politics, her happiness destroyed by a colonial conflict.  I will come back to colonial conflict another time, but I applaud what is a proto-feminist image, realistic and horribly every-day.  In an age when images of female ruin were common place, think Found or Past and Present, it makes a refreshing change to find a woman ruined by war, possibly not a consequence of conflict much considered otherwise.
Take yourselves off to your local museums, or online, and find the beautiful works by John Byam Liston Shaw, you’ll be surprised how many you know.  I better get some sleep as I have to scrape down floor boards tomorrow.  Night night…

Friday, 21 October 2011

Sex and Spires

A couple of posts ago I was whinging that I wanted to read Victorian Love Story by Nerina Shute.  Well, lo and behold, after a bit of wrangling I managed to get hold of a copy and it proved to be a bit of a revelation…

Nerina Shute
Published in 1954, it fits nicely into my obsession with mid-20th century ideas about Pre-Raphaelitism and is an extension to my previous comments about how certain ideas changed and developed as the century drew on.  Shute prefaces her novel with an explanation of what sources she used in writing her fictionalised account, and more interestingly what she didn’t.  May Morris donated her mother’s correspondence to the British Museum with the proviso that it shouldn’t be read for fifty years, which expired in 1958.  Therefore, Shute relies on her suspicions to paint the relationship between Rossetti and Jane Morris, with a note that only time will show how accurate she was.

This is a Rossetti-centric book; the subtitle is ‘A study of the Victorian Romantics based on the life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’, alerting you straight away to the fact that this is a book about Rossetti and his loves.  Similar to Elizabeth Savage’s Willowwood, it revolves around Lizzie, Jane and Fanny, with only brief mention of Annie Miller and almost no mention of Alexa Wilding.  Poor Alexa, I would say ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’, but she never even seems to get invited to the wedding.  Anyway Victorian Love Story is split into two parts: Part I revolves around the courtship of Lizzie resulting in the marriage, then Part II is a downhill slope of honeymoon, death and obsession.  So far, so familiar.  What makes this book so good?  The humour.  This book is hilarious, who knew the Pre-Raphaelites could be so funny?

Lizzie Siddal,
funnier than expected...
There is a Downton Abbey kind of gentle humour that pervades the action of Victorian Love Story.  When Mrs Deverell describes Rossetti as having ‘the misfortune to be the son of an Italian professor’, you know that it’s not going to be misery all the way.  Mrs Millais describes the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in glowing terms: ‘the Brothers did not swear, nor drink, and were, with the exception of Rossetti, as good as gold…and longed, said Mrs Millais, to rescue women from a fate worse than death.’  While Lizzie poses for Millais, Mrs Millais gives her opinions of familiar people in a funny and astute manner, setting the characters up for the rest of the book.  Interestingly, Shute hints at a possible romance between Lizzie and Millais, with Millais offering to teach Lizzie to paint because he is a better artist than Rossetti.  This made me think about an alternative history, where Millais married Lizzie and stayed PRB to the bone.  Rossetti then may have married Jane because I doubt he was ever going to marry poor Fanny.  Maybe he would never have married at all and spared a load of women a load of heartache.  Mind you, that would mean that Effie would never have left Ruskin for Millais.  Possibly Ruskin would have thrown Effie at Rossetti.  It doesn’t bear thinking about….

Back to the book.  Now, I had never thought about Lizzie Siddal beyond the party-line we are so often given.  She was a troubled artistic soul, she was a victim of Rossetti’s neglect, blah blah blah… What Shute does is give Lizzie a sense of humour.  It makes so much difference, and lifts her from being a victim to giving as good as she got.  I adore the idea that she held Rossetti off with her wit:

            “Do you not wish me to love you?”
“Oh yes, thank you, it is all right when a person gets used to it, but,” said Miss Sid, “it is ever so tiring at first.”

Rossetti, who should be
ashamed of himself

Shute’s depiction of Rossetti is of an earnest, passionate man, who is uncompromising in the manner he wishes to live.  Lizzie has to find a way to fit comfortably into his life while not risking her wellbeing and good name to a disastrous degree.

“I think I shall go mad!” cried Rossetti, throwing out both his arms in a gesture of torment. “I have, my dearest Lizzie, the natural desire of a man for a woman!”
“Do be careful,” said Miss Sid, observing the wild movement of his arms, “or you will knock the aspidistra off the table.”

What Shute manages to provide is not the Free-Love Wildchild, or the ghostly victim of Rossetti’s lusts, but a Victorian woman who makes a calculated gamble on a man who she thought would change, but who doesn’t?  Which of us hasn’t fallen for a man thinking ‘He’ll change, he’ll mature just like Millais’ only to find out he’s a feckless wastrel?  I’m longing for someone to say that on Jeremy Kyle now….

Tom Hollander and a Feckless Wastrel
Reason number two why Victorian Love Story is brilliant is the scene where John Ruskin has to explain to his parents exactly why his wife has left him.  One of the few redeeming features of Desperate Romantics was Tom Hollander as Ruskin, and it is that rather lovely actor I imagine now when I think of the pretty much unlovable art critic, as Mr Hollander made him human.  Well, Shute delivers a scene that made me both laugh out loud and feel horribly sorry for Ruskin (imagine that) as he has to admit his own catastrophic weirdness to his completely baffled mother and father.  When trying, painfully, to explain why he couldn’t consummate his marriage, Ruskin admits he would rather think about art and architecture.

“But no one,” said his mother in a moment of exasperation, “can think about Cathedrals in bed.”
“Why not?” said the great art critic.

The Millais Family -
Obviously he didn't think about cathedrals
Shute then goes on to describe the disastrous wedding night without sensationalism or drama, just the increasing desperate Ruskin stalling Effie with stories of swans and bees, and the increasingly puzzled Effie asking more and more questions and getting less and less answers, while laughing then finally crying as Ruskin buckles under the weight of his disgust.  It’s sad, understated and beautifully written and as much pity as I naturally felt for Effie, I actually felt sorry for John Ruskin, as much a victim of his strangeness as the unfortunate woman who married him.

Fanny does not figure heavily in the opening scenes of the novel.  She is mentioned, already married and flirty, but she only reappears in the closing phases of the Rossetti/Siddal romance.  She is cited as a cause of miserable jealousy for Lizzie, but Rossetti is clear on what he wants.  Shute’s Rossetti wants his soulful maiden to paint, but he needs a woman to bed as well, and he has no intension of marrying.  Either Lizzie fulfil both roles and surrenders her hopes of marriage, or she hangs onto her virginity and watches her lover cavort around with other women.  As Fanny has more and more hold over Rossetti’s passion, there is an interesting scene as Rossetti paints Fanny in his studio and Lizzie constantly summons him with a little bell which drives Fanny mad.  The sadness of the scene is revealed through the implication that Lizzie is as desperate as Fanny is, but Fanny has the ultimate weapon at her disposal and only has to suggest a quick tumble and she has Rossetti’s full attention.  Shute doesn’t seem to pass any judgement on Rossetti other than the self-serving philosophy that tumbles from his lips.  What Shute does to balance the fact that Rossetti is an idiot is that the women go along with it and pander to him.  He is not properly challenged when he makes astonishing statements, which arguably never wake him to the mistakes he makes.  When Effie challenges him on his treatment of Lizzie, he is puzzled by the question:

“It is wrong and very wicked,” she told the poet, “to have your mistress in the next room.”
“But I cannot have her in the same room,” replied Rossetti in surprise. “Lizzie and Fanny do not like one another.”

Lovely Janey
When Lizzie dies, Fanny rules his heart for a while before the advent of Jane Morris.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a difficulty with imagining how on earth William Morris ever put up with the goings-on between Jane and Rossetti.  It’s generally felt he bowed out to his master, but I was delighted to see Fanny’s reaction to the situation.  She describes William and Jane as being ‘like a trained bear behind its keeper’, which is a fabulous image.  She finally confronts Morris when he brings Jane to model.

“Ain’t you jealous?”
Morris frowning, turned a flushed face and replied at the top of his voice: “No, I am not! Please mind your own business!”

He does look quite hacked off....
Fanny stalks away, angry and Rossetti admits that Fanny doesn’t like William. “Women never do,” comes Morris’ sad reply.  When Morris finally loses his temper with the couple and almost breaks down the door to find Jane, Fanny actually kisses him and is utterly delighted that at least someone is behaving in a normal manner. “You’re as jealous as I am!” she declares, smiling.

The remainder of the story is very familiar, but Rossetti’s years of self indulgence catch up with him and I’ve always found the end of his life to be horribly pitiful.  It seems to me that he died surrounded by people who respected and revered him, rather than the people who loved him, and that was his punishment.  I have to admit that my feelings towards certain familiar people were changed subtly by imagining things that are just outside the official story:  Did Fanny ever meet Jane?  Or Lizzie?  Did Topsy ever lose his patience with Rossetti?  How did Ruskin explain himself to his parents?  Did Rossetti ever consider how his behaviour affected the choices other people made for him when he was no longer able to make his own decisions?  The mark of a good book is that it makes you reconsider people and events that you thought you knew inside and out. 

If any of you go to bed tonight to think about cathedrals, I shall be very disappointed in you.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me

Rather than being a big old attention seeker, there was a point to me calling my blog ‘The Kissed Mouth’. Maybe that should be ‘In addition to being a big old attention seeker…’, but I think that Bocca Baciata is possibly the most important and interesting painting that Rossetti produced. Here’s why….

Bocca Baciata (1859) D G Rossetti
Painted in 1859, Bocca Baciata is heralded as a divergence from the watercoloured romance of Rossetti’s early art to a more sensual oil-based passion that would dominate his work until his death. His eye moved from the wane love of a faint damsel to sex and flowers with a sturdy lass who had a throat like an ivory tower. If you consider that Bocca Baciata was painted in the same year as Writing on the Sand, then the difference is marked.

Writing on the Sand (1859) D G Rossetti
Writing in the Sand is a rather unusual picture, being 'modern' rather than medieval, but it still sums up nicely the feeling of his 1850s work. The gentleman's little bird of a love coyly shies away from the passion of the romantic man.   Rossetti’s ‘1850s Lovers’ were chaste, virginal, and wistful, the man restrained yet longing and the woman shy and beautiful. In comes Fanny Cornforth and out goes the romance. All of a sudden we have lust, flesh and things you find in the first aisle of a supermarket. Obviously in my Fanny-centric view of the world, I have no problems with crediting Madame Cornforth with everything that happened of note in Rossetti’s life, but if I’m a little bit honest for a moment, could there be more at work?

Let’s start with Bellini’s St Dominic from 1515.

Hello Sexy.
 This had been recently purchased by the South Kensington museum and had been visited and admired by Rossetti. What do we have? Flattened background with organic patterning? Check. Flower? Check. Saucy expression? Okay, so he’s no Stunner, but there is a definite link stylistically between St. Dom and a Rossetti Venetian portrait like Regina Cordium, for example.

Regina Cordium (1866) D G Rossetti
So, maybe the time he spent with St Dominic had as great an impact as the time he spent with Fanny Cornforth. Add to this other works from the sixteenth century that Rossetti could have had access to and the links become stronger.

Woman with a Mirror (1513-15) Titian
Fazio's Mistress (1863) D G Rossetti

There is a style and an enjoyment of women that Rossetti shares eagerly with the Venetian masters of the sixteenth century. The poses they strike, the way they are presented, all echoes back three hundred years and were re-imagined during a period of moral uneasiness. When Rossetti painted beauty like this:

Dantis Amor (1860) D G Rossetti
…he was saying that there is a spiritual love between men and women that can span time, distance and death. The lovers of his former works rarely touched or kissed, but existed in a trance of chaste desire that never seemed to climax in physicality. When he painted beauty like Bocca Baciata he was saying ‘The enjoyment in beauty is in the consumption. The consumption of beauty will never diminish it.’

Uh oh.

Exactly how practical and honest the sentiment behind The Kissed Mouth was is debatable, but you have to wonder at a man who promotes promiscuity in women and praises the prostitute in high art. That’s simultaneously brave and deluded on a whole new level. I have a theory that he never had a physical relationship with Jane Morris for two reasons: firstly, his health was so bad and I wish I didn’t know what hydrocele was. Ouch. Secondly, I think Jane was smarter than that because Rossetti strikes me as a man who got bored when there was nothing left to discover, so better to remain a mystery and keep him interested than to show him everything. The thing about the renewal of the kissed mouth is that it doesn’t diminish, but then it doesn’t improve, it remains the same. I’m left with the impression that Rossetti liked novelty and he’s already kissed that mouth once. Next!

Back to the painting. If you look at his painted output of the 1850s it is hard to see where Bocca Baciata comes from. Watercolour maiden, watercolour knight….then, bam! Oily trollop! Not a smooth progression I grant you. I think more could be made to link Rossetti’s pencil sketches of Elizabeth during the decade to his Venetian period. His obsessive sketching of her yielded some very ‘1860s’ images, for example…

Head of Elizabeth Siddal reclining on a pillow (1850s) D G Rossetti
Lizzie as Regina Cordium
Ellen Heaten as Reginan Cordium
Put this in oil and Lizzie could be the Stunner she deserved to be. I find this sketch far more beautiful than the rather sad ‘Stunner’ oil he did of his wife as Regina Cordium (1860). Rossetti’s problem (one of them) was that he found a groove with Fanny and it wasn’t appropriate for his portraits of other women of that period, for example another Regina Cordium painted from Ellen Heaton (which is dreadful and awkward). The rather more languid beauty of the pencil sketch found its voice again with the portraits of Alexa Wilding, but for full on, in your face gorgeousness, Bocca Baciata is the one for me.

Finally, Rossetti created a head-and-shoulders Stunner picture earlier than 1859. It could be argued that the origins of Bocca Baciata can be seen in a pencil portrait of 1847 where the beauty of the sitter is sensual and alluring. Ah, the pouty lip and coy glance we know so well…

Self Portrait (1847) D G Rossetti
I think the reason I find Bocca such an important part of Rossetti’s psyche is that in many ways it reflects the painter’s projection of himself. He is the kissed mouth, he wants people to understand that he is not tainted or soiled by his passions. Bocca Baciata wasn’t the start of something new, but the culmination of something that was there at the birth of Rossetti’s artistic identity. I think Rossetti saw something in Fanny that reflected a freedom of expression, both artistic and sexual, that he desired to express in himself. She is at once his muse, his conduit and his leader, and all of these qualities may well have existed entirely in Rossetti’s head. Bocca Baciata is a celebration of the beauty of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite stunner and a glimpse into the mind of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite artist. It is a wonderfully modern tribute to a loving nature and rejoices in sauciness, cheerfulness and naughtiness.

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that it’s also on the front cover of the new edition of Stunner.
You heard it straight from The Kissed Mouth.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

I Was an Only Twin

Yesterday, we spoke about the image of a reflected woman in a glass and how the Victorian were frightened and fascinated by the double. Today then, we shall talk about a more straightforward double image, the image of female twins in Victorian art, and how sometimes your sister is yourself.

Twins (1875-6) J E Millais
Kate and Grace Hoare are possibly the best known twins in Victorian art, and are a good starting place for a discussion of how to paint two women who look alike. It was commented that to paint twins such as the Hoare girls was the greatest test to an artist: ‘the rare skill of the painter has succeeded in giving to each twin a marked and distinctive individuality’ proclaimed the Daily Telegraph at the exhibition of the paining in 1878. It was remarked that one twin seemed at ease, removing her hat and relaxing, while the other, the one with the dog whip (yes, dog whip) was more attentive and alert. I think Millais’ portraits are a good argument against his lessening power in his later work, as the faces of the twins are beautifully realised and look at the detail on the dog whip (really? A dog whip?). The painting says that the girls may well be almost identical in looks but in personality they differ greatly. How about this image…?

 The Travelling Companions (1862) Augustus Egg
Two women travel first class by rail, one sleeping and one reading. Hang on, they are dressed identically, so possibly they are twins. They place their hats on their laps in a similar manner and sit in a similar manner, their skirts breaking like waves against the far wall of the compartment. How sure are you that this is a picture of two girls? It’s possible that Egg had one model who he moved around to get the different poses, so could this not be a portrait of a journey rather than of two women? I would argue that the woman slept facing the sun, then moved to read her book, with the light coming from behind her. Her companions are the oranges, the flowers and the book, the things she brought with her to make the journey more tolerable, but maybe what she really wanted was some company.

Ida and Ethel (1884) James Sant
At first look I thought this was a Millais, but it is the lovely Ida and Ethel, again displaying how different they are, even though they look alike and are dressed alike. One dreams while the other reads, one stands while the other sits, but that is all there is to separate them, and still we get a perfect portrait of two women who happen to share facial characteristics but are distinct. Rather like this…

Long Mary (1860) G F Watts
 Hang on, this is a double portrait, not a picture of twins, but the same rules apply somehow. You see two expressions on the same face, two different temperaments on an identical woman in identical clothes. It is in the skill of the artist to show you the same woman but different, to make you realise that what you are looking at is the same face only with a slightly different attitude. Mary has become her own twin. She stands in the same space as a woman who shares her features. While this is arguably just an exercise in painting his model from different angles, it does utilise some of the characteristics of twins’ portraiture.

The Sisters (1884) Abbott Thayer
Faces at slightly different angles, bodies posed in slightly different ways, in many ways this is no different to Mary’s double portrait. I looked hard for a double portrait of a man, or for male twins, but although they must exist, I was damned if I could find them (other than Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee). Why the fascination with a double woman? As we saw yesterday, one woman and her reflection causes enough trouble, why delight in two women who could pass as one? Well, twins are a perfectly natural part of life, so need not cause alarm. On the face of it, Kate and Grace Hoare are just two sisters, but there had to be differences applied to them – the removal of the hat, the different flowers, details that help the uninformed viewer tell them apart, because despite looking identical, twins are two different people. So let’s dress them alike!

 The Two Sisters (1834) Theodore Chasseriau
When a little less effort has been made by the artist to tell the women apart, then the disconcerting aspect of the pictures comes a little more into view. Even though these two have markedly different faces, I find them less individual than the Hoares. Possibly it’s the locking of arms that makes me take a breath in and think ‘That is two women, right?’ and as I’m typing and the image is scrolling off screen, all I can see is one being of orange dress and alabaster limbs and I couldn’t tell you which head went on which body.

Georgina Treherne (1856) G F Watts
Take for example these two: one sister reading to the other while she sleeps. I like to think that she has sung her sister to sleep. Only it’s not two women. It’s the same bloody woman. Like Mary, this is possibly just a practice of painting Watts’ model in different poses, but in this case, the woman on the left seems to intrude into the area of the woman on the right, as if to talk to her. They exist in the same place at the same time. She is her own twin.

The Sisters (1906) Harold Cazneaux
Could it be a comment on the nature of women? Women are two-faced, are fragments bound into a whole? Possibly the idea of women’s fragility comes from the notion that they are a loosely grouped construct of facets that cling to each other desperately in order to keep the show together. Are women essentially unknowable as you are never talking to the entirety, but the face that is facing you at that moment. The other part of her might be asleep or reading. I think that the pleasure and fascination found in twin portraits (be they of one or two women) is that there are two beautiful women looking at you and you have to guess if they are the same or different.

I’ll leave you with what might be not only the most unsettling twins portrait I found, but what might be ranked as one of the most scary pictures ever painted. All I know for sure is that neither of these two should ever, ever be given a dog whip…

Winifred and Leonora Reid (1920) Thomas Garine

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Mirror of Men’s Eyes Delights Me Less

There has been much talk of doppelgängers of late, as our spooky nights draw in, and to pitch into the ‘double your fun’ festivities I have a post about double-image and women in Victorian art. In fact, I have two of them.

I’ll start today with the feminine autoerotic tendency of narcissism, or ‘girls and glass’, if you prefer. Mirrors are everywhere in the Victorian psyche, and if there is not a pocket mirror to hand, then a glassy pool will suffice, and 9 times out of 10 there will be a self-absorbed girl gazing at herself. Maybe with a friend or two, as in Exhibit A...

The Mirror of Venus (1898) Edward Burne-Jones
 Yes, yes, yes, you are all very pretty. The women exist in a barren landscape, but they notice nothing but their own reflections and the goddess of Love who stands over them. The women, who are strikingly similar, reflect each other as well as themselves in and out of the glassy pool. Venus, having risen from water, infuses the substance with love, and the women all gaze with love back at themselves. At first the picture seems an aesthetic expression of colour and beauty, but it also reflects the Victorian artists’ obsession with the vanity of women.

A Bunch of Blue Ribbons (1862) E J Poynter
Vanity Auguste Toulmouche

Vanity, thy name is woman. Gosh, don’t we all love ourselves? Apparently I have nothing better to do but hang around in front of mirrors, wondering at my beauty. It’s a miracle I get anything done. Well, I don’t look like either of these, there is a little too much pouting, preening, and poufy dresses for my liking, hang on…

Nude Before a Mirror Henri Caro-Delvaille
That’s better. Snigger.  What was I saying? Oh yes, if you believe the hype, all women did was gaze at themselves in mirrors, filled with their own self-adoration. A part of these images was admiration of smashing looking girls who had every right to look at themselves naked (as long as we could all watch), but obviously a slice of it was mocking the weakness of women, so bedazzled by their own boobs that they couldn’t even get dressed. Even when they did get dressed, it didn’t stop them scooping up a handy mirror to continue the self-love.

Vanity Frank Cadogan Cowper
What she said...

Mmmm, Cowper loved the title so much he painted it twice, although I wouldn’t be so absorbed in my beauty if I had a cushion tied to my head. She is so damn into herself that she can’t resist taking a little peek even while apparently putting the mirror aside. There is definitely a link between women’s vanity and the underlying original sin, either obvious or hinted. Very few images of women and mirrors are without judgement on the subject, and sometimes the judgement is harsh.

Lady Lilith (1867-8) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Obviously, the utter absorption in loving yourself does rather cut out others, and so you can see how vanity got such a bad name, but women’s vanity seems to be specifically targeted and noted. Lilith did without Adam, Rossetti showing her engrossed by her own beauty and her long gorgeous hair. The image of a woman captivated by her own reflection gives the impression of two women, identical, staring at each other, their movements, or lack of them, in perfect unison. This gave rise to a notion that women were twin-souls to themselves, a single being of two identical halves that resembled a whole. The mirror did not reflect the woman but provided a device to show the truth of the matter. This twin-soul being was at once a thing of weakness and power, so complete within herself that she needed no man to see her, as she saw herself utterly. When Arthur Symons wrote ‘The mirror of men’s eyes delights me less, O mirror, than the friend I find in thee’, his female narrator was speaking of her twin-soul staring back at her from her mirror. She needed no man to see her as beautiful, or felt that no man’s assurance of her beauty would ever be as convincing as her own. That’s all very well, but as Victorian society dictated you couldn’t marry your mirror, you would have to make do with the mirror of a man’s eyes. Some thought this would mean a sort of death for the woman, to be torn from her twin-soul, separated from the reflected vision, now hidden inside her husband’s mind. A neat illustration of this phenomenon would be ‘The Lady of Shalott’ who perished the moment her eyes left the mirror and settled on a man.

I am half sick of shadows said the Lady of Shalott (1916) J W Waterhouse
There is no question of the state of things in Rossetti’s mind. In his description of the True Woman from The House of Life, he says ‘Passion in her is a glass facing his fire, where the bright bliss is mirrored and the heat returned.’ The proper reflection of a woman was her husband’s eye and if another gazed upon her with desire, she should not accept their reflection of her as it would turn her to ice. I have two words for Rossetti – ‘Jane’ and ‘Morris’.

There was of course a subject much painted in the 19th century in which it was male narcissism that came under scrutiny, and that is obviously Echo and Narcissus. But is the subject as straight forward as the woman as victim of male vanity?

Echo and Narcissus (1902) J W Waterhouse
The poet Armand Silvestre felt strongly that Narcissus should have been Narcissa, as women knew how to use a mirror properly. If Narcissus had been a girl, he would have scooped up some water and carried it with him, therefore being able to lead a normal life and revell in his beauty. Hence the invention of the hand mirror. Genius.

The Mysterious Water (1912) Ernest Bieler
However, within the myth of Echo lies another source of woman as a creature of reflection, possibly the pinnacle of the idea. Echo has no personality, she is an uncontrolled reflection of others. She has lost her man to his own vanity, but she has no reflection in his eyes so she seeks to reflect all other things with sound. Echo is at once the reductive conclusion and the antithesis of the woman myth. Echo is so obsessed with reflection that she seeks it in everything, becoming the world’s promiscuous, passive double. She is the perfect Victorian wife, there just to reflect and respond in her husband’s words. However, she completely contradicts the idea of woman as self-absorbed auto-erotic self-sufficiency, finding her completion in herself. Echo is doomed to eternal incompletion due to the folly of her lover.

Girl with a Mirror John William Godward
But is it a paradox? Not necessarily so, if you consider that beauty was a quality that woman aspired to, and cultivated in their attraction of a husband. The continual cultivation of attraction, the endless absorption in the mirror, in truth was less about self-love, but more often than not about being ‘worthy’ of the attention of a man, and finally being able to look away from the mirror.

See you tomorrow for twins and double-portraits...