Friday, 31 May 2013

Review: Jane Morris: The Burden of History by Wendy Parkins

I rarely think of Rossetti and common sense in the same moment, but this sums up exactly my feelings towards modern trends of biography:

'if Byron f-ed his sister, he f-ed his sister and there's an end, - an absolute end, in my opinion, as far as the vital interest of his poetry goes, which is all we have to do with.' (Letter dated 15 September 1869)

Quite so, Rossetti, and this in some ways is a keynote of the new book on Jane Morris, Jane Morris: The Burden of History by Wendy Parkins and published by Edinburgh University Press.  Instead of being a straight biography, this book attempts a rather more novel approach to Jane Morris, examining what others have said about her and whether being fixated on who she 'f-ed' is ever enough in evaluating the life of a silent woman.

Silence Dante Gabriel Rossetti
One of the thrusts of the book is how we as art explorers approach our subjects, especially if our subjects are women.  Being a nineteenth century woman is fraught with trouble, even the simplest matter such as name can be heavy with meaning.  Parkins spends a worthwhile and interesting passage discussing her issues in choosing what to call the object of her attention. Is it 'Jane' or 'Janey', or even more properly 'Morris', as you would use when talking about her husband.  Isn't it rather presumptive and familiar to use first names, in some way trivialising the subject which we would never do with a man.  Then there is the problem arising by calling her 'Jane Morris' when we more usually refer to 'Elizabeth Siddal' rather than 'Elizabeth Rossetti'. Why not then 'Jane Burden'? That's before we've even started...

May I just say that I have never used the word 'trope' so often as I have over the last few days while discussing this book in the Walker household.  In case you didn't know what a 'trope' was, it is a common or overused theme or device, sort of like a stereotype. Tropes seem to be hot right now, so you'll probably hear that word a lot.  Anyway, there is much discussion of Jane Morris fulfilling the tropes of femme fatale and of Victorian female invalid and how these easy shorthands have come to define her within a little pigeonhole that does her a disservice.  One of the joys of this books is that Parkins points out when an assumption is being made (a trope alarm goes off) and how most of the time these constructions of Jane's character are entirely without basis in fact.  If ever a woman was built on the whimsied eye of the prejudiced audience, it has to be Jane.

Oh, look who it is...
Well, I can't go much further without exclaiming in delight about the pleasure in seeing Wilfrid Scawen Blunt's diaries examined for the self-stroking pile of narcissistic flim-flam they were (I've just spent a good few minutes debating the exchange of the word 'narcissistic' for the one I originally wanted to use, which was a great deal ruder and rhymed with his name). Blunt is a prime example of projection, very obviously exhibited.  His love affair with Rossetti colours the romance he feels for Jane (and for Marie Stillman, who seems to have had the sense to hold him a little removed, only removing a glove for him) and Parkins shows Blunt's swirling descriptions of his creepy adoration together with Jane's puzzlement at why he would describe her as melancholic, tragic or mystic.

The book is split into five sections: Scandal, Silence, Class, Icon and Home.  In Scandal, Parkins considers Jane and Rossetti, and Jane and Blunt.  Both self-consciously painted pictures of her for the public, one with paint and one with words.  Jane's character tended to be constructed through portraits by others without any consideration that the portraits of Jane say more about the painters than the model.  Similarly in the chapter entitled 'Silence' we experience Jane through a cavalcade of reporters.  Henry James, for example, describes her as a wonder 'who haunts me still'.  To take it to its most absurd heights, even when presenting her guest, Richard Le Gallienne, with a jar of jam, he describes Jane as The Blessed Damozel or Helen of Troy.  If that isn't projection of image, I don't know what is and it is arguably her silence, either by design or dint of her gender that rendered her at the mercy of such fanciful narrators.

I had never considered Jane in relation to her class, unlike Fanny who was always firmly held down in the class where she started, despite her fiscal and social mobility.  Jane is described as having shame in her origins and this is often interpreted as class-orientated by those commentator who judge things via class.  While it is true that Jane resisted retellings of her roots or pictures of her family home being included in any biography of her husband, she never elaborated her reasoning, or at least her reasons have been lost.  Again, her blanks are there to be filled by us, pouring in our own opinions as we fill in the words in her blank speech bubbles.

Interior of Kelmscott Manor William Morris
I especially enjoyed the discussion of Jane as 'Icon'.  I feel as an art historian, it is the easiest trap for me to fall into, believing that the Jane that inhabits Rossetti's works is the real woman.  The problems lie in the fact that they look so alike, but that would be as stupid as to believe an actor is a part he plays just because they look the same.  Take these two pictures...

One of these women is the sad, unloved wife, but the problem is that they both look the same, so how are we to tell which is which?  It is easy to confuse Jane for the Icon and is useful to have that reality exposed.  Jane and Lizzie are especially vulnerable to this, in the attempts of others (and possibly themselves) to conform to a more aesthetic ideal.  To a lesser extent Fanny is often mistaken for the more earthy good-time girls of Rossetti's early 1860s period, but she never exuded the silent stillness of the Rossetti muse in real life.

In Home, Parkins examines how Jane is placed within the appropriate Victorian female sphere of the Home, how she created the beautiful embroidery in that setting and how the majority of her commentators experienced her within the domestic scene, and how all of that in itself built a narrative of her.  Much of the description of Jane is external, very little actual fact is spoken about her character.  When picked apart it is fascinating to see how many stories and descriptions of Jane are entirely concerned with her appearance rather than any description of her actions, her words or her personality.  In fact, the preference of the biographer seemed to be to watch her from a distance, self-affirming the tropes that bound together to make the woman.  Were people frightened of her?  Were people frightened to find out that she was not the goddess that walked among them but a normal woman?  Possibly each biographer wished Jane to be what they made of her, but it seems that it is not for her benefit they read her.  Jane is thus because it means that her lover is thus.  Maybe Blunt wasn't far off the mark when he slept with Jane Morris to get closer to Rossetti.  Lord knows it seems that most other commentator were also making the same mistake.

Jane said 'Why should there by any special record of me when I have never done any special work?', but record of her there has been, in vast array.  Jane as goddess, Jane as deceiver, Jane as malevolent presence, the silent spectre of her own portrait, fading and aging as the audience push to get a better view from a safe distance.  Rossetti's view of Jane is problematic as so little of their actual contact remains beyond his fictional portrayals of his muse.  I did not realise that he called her 'Moocow' which now makes me wonder about all the emphasis that is placed on his naming of Fanny as 'Elephant'.  No particular interest has been shown on a nickname that likens Jane to a cow, but then it does not fit with our narrative of Jane.

Yes, the book is expensive at £70, but that's why Jesus gave us libraries and anyone who wishes to understand Stunners will appreciate this angle of investigation.  It may not tell you anything you didn't know but I guarantee it will make you consider all that you know in a new light.  If Parkins book does anything, it makes you appreciate the sad truth that the majority we 'know' about Jane tends to be based on the surface, as if the record was of a painting rather than the woman.

We should never stop questioning anything.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Temptation, Pleasure, Genius

If ever there was a piece of fruit that caused a stir, it has to be an apple.  Curious really, it looks so innocent, so unprepossessing, yet it can damn you, win you, tempt you and crown you.  The apple is all powerful.

Bocca Baciata (1859) D G Rossetti
To start with, it's undeniable that the apple stands for temptation.  Casually placed in the corner of the canvas, the apple belonging to Bocca Baciata clearly refers to the knowledge and attraction of the woman, unbuttoned and pouting, awaiting your kisses.  The apple stands for sexual awakening, the power of carnal desire, with its shiny blush reflecting the rosy hair of the woman.

Eve (1896) Lucien Levy Dhurmer
The most famous apple is arguably the one that cast us from the garden of Eden.  Again, the rosy glow of the apple reflects the swirling locks of the beautiful Eve, surrounded by these tempting fruits.  They share her glow, they are almost part of her and extension of her, and reflect the woman's inherently sinful nature.  If there is a bad apple in the barrel, the woman is it.

Temptation (1880) William Bouguereau
Apples are tempting, all shiny and crisp, but somehow their possession is enough to rip you from childhood innocence.  Bouguereau contrasts the naked girl with the young lady as they face each other.  The apple has clothed her, rendered her marriagable, but not sophisticated, as marked by the bare feet.

The Hireling Shepherd William Holman Hunt
It seems once an apple is held, it has to be shared.  As corrupting produce goes, the apple is quite social.  The unlikely Eve in the shepherd's field has a look of sly knowledge, unlike her bumbling, lusty companion who has no thought beyond impressing his lady-love.  Much is made of the strayed sheep, exploding due to their wanton ways, but what of the woman?  What does she want?  She seems to exist to corrupt, destroy, lead astray, an apple-holding agent of chaos.

Apple Blossom (1859) J E Millais
The fruit doesn't even have to be developed for it to impart experience.  The young women sheltering under the blossom-strewn bows of the apple trees are, by degrees, blossoming themselves.  Far right, the girl in yellow reclines, her eyes on the viewer, suddenly aware of her (presumably) male admirer.

Of course, Eve wasn't the only woman of antiquity to cradle an apple...

Venus Verticordia (1868) D G Rossetti
The apple in Venus' hand signifies her triumph of attraction.  She won the apple from Paris, triumphing over her fellow goddesses with her naked ambition.  The apple is clothed in love, desire, the triumph of beauty over everything else.  In this religion, the apple is right, the natural choice, the choice of love.

Mars and Venus (1918) Mabel Frances Layng
A little later than we're used to here, but I couldn't resist it.  Mars, the soldier, is halted in his battles by the gentle, beautiful Venus, surrounding him with her apples of love.  He is not protected by his khaki, his battle-dress, from the charms of the open handed woman, his goddess.  She is his love, his safety, his imprisonment.

Vivien Anthony Frederick Sandys

Sandys shows his beautiful witch, complete with her apple.  She too will imprison a man, the all-powerful Merlin, safe from action, caught in a web of her beauty to which he has no power.

Golden Dream Thomas Cooper Gotch
The apple for women is a symbol of perfection, the height of what we are meant to be.  Despite the fall and corruption, the apple says women exist to be beautiful, to blossom into the loveliest creatures that will capture men in a safe net of immobility.  An apple in a woman's hands is a weapon of seduction, but what if the apple is in the hand of the man?

Master Isaac Newton (1905) Robert Hannah
Iconography  plays an apple as the spark of genius for men.  It falls from the tree to reveal wisdom; it is nature working in a flirting partnership with human genius, the sidekick to his intellectual prowess.

Tell's Son  Ford Madox Brown
The apple splits and reveals the talent of a man who would risk his son to prove his brilliance.  In a subversion of the story of Abraham and Isaac, Tell splits the apple of knowledge, his son placed in line for sacrifice.  For men, the apple is not food, not the stuff of base urges but the conduit for greatness, the revelation of genius.

Autumn Frederick Walker
In the end, apples are more than just fruit, they are edible signifiers.  By holding the blushing globe, the world of experience is nestled in your palm. Sometimes that knowledge is enough to make you a goddess, but sometimes it just makes you sad, looking out at the world with that ripe fruit at its pinnacle in your grasp.  Truth is, there is only decay left.  For that moment, the woman knows she is perfect, brilliant and beautiful.  She can conqueror Mars, wizards and shepherds alike and they will be powerless to resist her, but Venus' butterflies show that the power is momentary, transient.  All beauty fades because it is only nature.  When the apple finds a man without a woman, he can release the genius trapped inside.  What is left unspoken is whether the man's genius and the woman's beauty are connected. What is for sure is the hand that picks the apple is feminine, the arrow that splits it is male.

The Garden of the Hesperides Edward Burne-Jones

Thursday, 23 May 2013

That Fateful Kiss

I find it astonishing that I have gone so long without knowing the alternate title for this sculpture...

The Kiss (Paolo & Francesca) (1901-4) Auguste Rodin
The story of Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini (or da Polenta) as told by Dante, is inextricable linked to Rossetti's work (and arguably life) and is echoed in the work of a whole range of Victorian artists.  While familiar with Rodin's sculpture, so iconic in its moment of tender intimacy, I was unaware of the link until I searched for images of the doomed couple.  After this, I will never be able to see a picture of a kiss again without fearing the worst...

Paolo and Francesca da Rimini (1855) D G Rossetti
There are moments of life and art collision with Rossetti, and his early love of Dante and the story of Paolo and Francesca (possibly form the work of Leigh Hunt) has some tempting echoes in his later life.  In 1855, possibly our young painter still regarded himself as 'Dante' the observer, the recorder of other's folly, other's doom.  Later, Rossetti became the doomed Paolo, falling for his brother's wife, straight into the whirl-flames of the Inferno.  Planned and executed before the trip to Oxford, Rossetti shows us the couple brought together adulterously over an image of Lancelot and Guinevere, then locked together in the hell of their own making.  Soon after he would meet a stablehand's daughter, cast as Guinevere and lulled into marriage with another man.  Did Rossetti know how much his love of Jane would cost him?

Paolo and Francesca Gaetano Previati
You will remember I used this image a couple of weeks ago, and it was this gorgeous moment of drama which really set me on the path to learn more as I adored the paleness of the scene, the stillness of the moment, cruelly mirroring the passion that has ended.  To give you a short version of the story, Francesca was offered in marriage to the eldest son of an opposing family in an attempt to end a long war between them.  Although the eldest son, Gianciotto was sure to be a capable ruler in his father's stead, he was ugly and deformed, unlike his rather handsome and lovely younger brother Paolo.  It was pretty Paolo they sent to woo Francesca, who only learnt of the deception on her wedding day when the other man stood beside her at the altar.  By this time she and Paolo were very much in love and spent time together as brother and sister, reading a book about King Arthur and the knights of the round table.  They finally consummated their passion over the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, but were caught by Gianciotto who attempted to kill his brother.  Francesca threw herself in the way of the blade and was killed.  Gianciotto then killed his brother and the lovers were buried together.  Dante who was a contemporary of the families included them in the Inferno, in the circle that dealt with lust and consequence.

Paolo and Francesca Amos Casioli
Artists tend to gravitate to three aspects of the story: the kiss, the death and the Inferno.  Overwhelmingly, the majority seem to prefer showing the kiss.  In some ways this is unsurprising as it is far more commercial and pleasing to the eye.  This aspect reminds me of imagery of Romeo and Juliet, possibly because of the illicit nature of the passion.  There is a definite scaling of the passion involved ranging from chaste to 'unsuitable for ladies eyes!' in the interpretation placed on the fateful moment.  Take Casioli's take on it above, it's pretty steamy.  Compare it to William Dyce's vision of the moment...

Paolo and Francesca (1845) William Dyce
That does really emphasise the innocent nature of their love, and she doesn't even seem to be that bothered.  It's not that he is only pecking her on the cheek, they just don't seem very enamored of each other.  Look at how much passion Charles Halle manages to express without lip contact...

Paolo and Francesca Charles Edward Halle
The light hitting Francesca's face is lovely, highlighting her shining love for the young man.  The book is forgotten and the only thing in the whole world is their love.

Paolo and Francesca Anselm Feuerbach

They sit together, not looking at each other but the space is compressed making you feel their embrace is inevitable. Her skirt fills the canvas, catching the light and seeming to confine her to her seat as the shadow-cast figure of her young lover guards her.  Her attention is on the book, his attention is on the book but their awareness of each other is undeniable.

Paolo and Francesca (1894) Frank Dicksee
They embrace, but he kisses her fingers rather than her lips.  In the Inferno, Dante describes Francesca admitting that as they read about Lancelot, 'This one, who ne'er from me shall be divided, kissed me upon the mouth all palpitating.'  I love the richness of their dress and surroundings.  There is a wealth of luxury from the silk of her dress to the fur beneath their feet and yet it will not save them.

Paolo and Francesca (1902) Christopher Williams
Possibly the most dreamy image of the couple comes from Christopher Williams' Edwardian wonder, the circular nature of the story reflected in the form of the canvas, as the story of the adulterous knight falls to the floor as the adulterous couple form a circle with their arms.  Behind them, the sun is already setting but the couple are unaware of how late it is and that their lives are almost over.

The Death of Paolo and Francesca (1870) Alexandre Cabanel
Very few of the paintings cover the actual death of the lovers.  The one by Gaetano Previati and this one by Cabanel show the pair together in death, their powder-pale skin whispering death from the canvas.  They reach for each other, cling but death has made their embrace futile and incomplete.  I love the shimmer of marble on their flesh, reflecting the beautiful floor where Paolo lies in an agonized contortion.

Paolo and Francesca Gustave Dore
Like Rossetti, many artists liked to show the lovers in the context of Dante's vision of Hell.  This gives rise to some complex meshing of emotions.  The couple cling together, forever united, but spinning in burning hell of their adultery.  There is no hint that their deaths may have been punishment enough; Dante's vision see torture unending for their indiscretion, an unworldly judgement on the couple.

Paolo and Francesca (1863) Jean Lecomte du Nouy
There is a sort of subversion of their fate in that they cling together, but even this may be a cruel parody of their lover's embrace.  While chastely clothed in the images of their love, in death they are stripped, Francesca's skin shining in the gloom of Hell.

Paolo and Francesca Henri-Jean-Guillaume Martin
The figure of Dante echoes our own pity for the couple as he finds the couple so sympathetic, he faints to see Paolo cry as Francesca describes their circumstances with much eloquency.  It is suggested that Dante may have even met Paolo in real life, shortly before the marriage of his brother to Francesca.  His pity for the couple does not save them from the flames of Hell, a very moral judgement, but he cannot help put feel their pain and be affected by their suffering.

Paolo and Francesca Ary Scheffer
Paolo and Francesca G F Watts
The fate of the lovers is both bleak and complete.  They spin together in either fire or a gloomy nothingness, clasping each other in love and torment.  It is tempting to see their punishment and Dante's horror and empathy as our own dual-nature response to violations to our moral codes.  We set rules for ourselves and for our civilised society but if the perpetrator of a break in the code is sympathetic enough, we cry with Dante.  It also speaks of a feeling of unending punishment for such a violation.  Their earthly death is not enough, they must burn for all eternity as we watch them, the terrible warning.  It strikes me as fascinating that when Rossetti envisioned the scene, he saw all aspects.  He saw the kiss and the burning, and in the centre, regarding it all was his namesake. How closely did he identify?  It is often said that Rossetti identified with Dante and Beatrice, morphing her from Lizzie to Jane, when death stole the former.  What of his identification with Paolo?  It would be tempting to see his torment at his adultery begin on earth, but William Morris did not kill them, nor did Jane cling to him in death.  Rossetti was just left as both Dante, recording the punishment and Paolo, turning alone in the Hell of his own making.

Virgil and Dante meet Paolo and Francesca in 1911 film L'Inferno

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Swinburne, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll!

As many of you will know, I visited the Isle of Wight at the weekend.  Whilst there, I paid my respects to a rogue...

I really should know more about Swinburne than I do, after all he lived at Cheyne Walk and knew Fanny well (and disliked her with a vengeance)....

 Swinburne attempted to remain nonchalant as his chair sunk into the lawn....

It struck me that I really did not know enough about the little rascal, and so here is a little history of one of the best connected men in Victorian poetry.  Really, there is more than naked banister-sliding....

Swinburne and his Sisters (1843) George Richmond
Algernon Charles Swinburne was born in 1837 to a rather illustrious family.  His father was Admiral Charles Henry Swinburne (son of Sir John Henry Swinburne) and his mother was Lady Jane Henrietta Ashburnham (daughter of the 3rd Earl of Ashburnham) and so, as their eldest child and a son, great things were no doubt expected of little Algernon.  He grew up in lovely East Dene in Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight (or as I like to call it, the 'Isle of Victorian Splendidness') and went off to Eton, then to Oxford.  So far, so traditional.  You can see by the portrait of him at six years old (above), he already had his vibrantly red hair, and by 16 he was already writing poetry.  The only blip on his record was being temporarily expelled (or 'rusticated', which sounds like a type of bread.  I do like a rusticated loaf) for publically supporting the attempted assissination of Napoleon III by Felice Orsini.  We all do crazy things as students...

Swinburne at Oxford. I love how easy he is to spot...
The family's house was in Northumberland, and it was there he fell in with the intellectual circles of William Bell Scott and Lady Trevelyan and his connection to the Pre-Raphaelites was assured.  Swinburne had been at Oxford while the painting party of the Union occurred and had met Rossetti, Burne-Jones and William Morris.  When he moved to London in the early 1860s, his friendship with Rossetti strengthened, and Rossetti referred to him as 'my little Northumbrian friend'.

Algernon Swinburne William Bell Scott
Swinburne was a constant visitor to Chatham Place and he became very attached to Elizabeth Siddal.  It's easy to speculate that the little red-haired boy in the first picture found a surrogate sister in the small, redhaired woman.  He and Lizzie would rush around the studio as Rossetti painted and the artist was sometimes forced to 'call them both to order, as he might a pair of charming angora cats' (according to one observer).

Swinburne (1861) D G Rossetti
Swinburne's intimacy with the couple was such that he was one of the last people to see Elizabeth alive.  He dined with the couple at the Sabloniere Hotel on 11 February 1862 and gave evidence at the resultant inquest of Elizabeth's death.  Whatever the truth of that evening, Swinburne was destroyed by the death of his friend, and the letter he wrote home to his mother in the aftermath was filled with the sadness at his loss and worry for his friend, to the detriment of his own health.

Swinburne (1860s)
Rossetti had fled to his mother's while the matter of his new home was sorted and when Swinburne visited him, his friend begged him to move in.  It is tempting to speculate whether Rossetti was trying to replace one redhead with another.  That is not to suggest that there was any sort of homosexual motivation behind his actions, but that simply put, Swinburne reminded Rossetti of Lizzie and their happier times, chasing in the studio.  What never seems to be examined in any detail is what the loss of Lizzie did to Swinburne.  His behaviour quickly became a bone of contention in the household, and the famous story of him sliding naked down the banister with a friend in the middle of the night comes from this period.  He continued to write poetry, praised and admired, and his circle of friends expanded to included important figures in the artistic and literary worlds.

Swinburne in 1865
He met and became intimate with Burne-Jones and Simeon Solomon, and they formed an unholy trio, swapping obscene drawings and poems.  Swinburne is blamed for encouraging Solomon into alcoholism and risk-taking homosexual activity.  Swinburne championed Solomon's gentle, sensual style and in many ways it was a reflection of his poetry.  Between them, they were trying to reveal a person, neither male nor female, but a blend and something different.  Swinburne became an algolagniac (word of the day!  Try and drop it into conversation, or simply announce it outloud wherever you may be right at this moment.  Go on, I dare you.  All together now: AL-GO-LAG-NIAC!  It means someone who enjoys a smack around the nethers.  Sorry about that.)

Swinburne and Adah Menken, the American actress
In an attempt to sort him out (or should that be 'straighten him out'), Rossetti threw Swinburne (possibly literally, he was only small) at the American actress Adah Menken. She threw him back, declaring it a failure, as she complained, "I can't make him understand that biting's no use."

He went through cycles of drinking, debauching, de Sade and degeneration, at which point his family would swoop in and carry him back up North until he was better.  He would then return back to London, strip off with a bottle in one hand and a whip in the other and the cycle would begin again.  He was tarred with the same brush as Rossetti in terms of the 'Fleshly poets' but his behaviour made it impossible for any defence to be made.  He was wreckage.

Move forward to 1897, and look who is Mr January in the Modern Poets calendar!  How on earth did the tiny, masochistic drunk become the 'Modern Poet'?  The answer is this gentleman...

Theodore Watts-Dunton

By the late 1870s, Swinburne had almost killed himself with his lifestyle.  Instead of his family swooping in, his legal advisor (and friend of Rossetti) Theodore Watts-Dunton came and removed him, taking him to live in his home outside London.  There he dried Swinburne out and changed his behaviour.  His poetry which had been in decline, had a new, gentler flourish in the last years of his life.  Swinburne became detached from his former friends, and people accused Watts-Dunton of holding him prisoner, but in truth Swinburne had grown deaf and just wanted to stay at home and not have his belongings whipped.  Swinburne finally got respectable...

Swinburne (1900) Robert Ponsonby Staples
He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1903, 1904, 1905, 1906 and 1907, then again in 1909, the year he died.  It was thanks to Watts-Dunton that he made it to 72 years old and had the opportunity to be remembered for the energy and drive of his poetry.  H P Lovecraft declared that Swinburne was the only real poet on either side of the Atlantic after the death of Edgar Allan Poe.  While not  as popular now as he has been, Swinburne's legacy remains with us and hopefully the interest generated by the Pre-Raphaelites will extend to his work.

Swinburne (1974) David Levine
But remember, reading Swinburne may lead to more outrageous behaviour.
Friends don't let friends read Swinburne while drinking....