Tuesday, 26 November 2013

My Dolly Palone!

Many years ago, when I was just a wee slip of a girl, I was a member of a local Light Operatic Company (hence my outrageous use of polari, learnt at the knee of Julian and Sandy).  Together with the rest of my family, we formed a von Trapp-style singing family unit that provided much volume to the chorus.  One of my favourite shows was My Fair Lady, where my brother got to be Freddy Eynsford-Hill and I was part of the dance troupe.  I think I remember it with such fondness because of the familiarity with the film (such dresses!) and my crush on Rex Harrison (don’t ask).  After reading Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, I was astonished to find how much of the musical is from his original play in terms of script (GBS sadly did not include any songs, an oversight on his part).  Further investigation of the original, I was tickled to find the theory that the whole scenario was allegedly inspired by Jane Morris…

Now, wonder on that for a moment.  GBS obviously knew Jane, don’t get me started on his ‘spiritual marriage’ to May, and so the idea isn’t as random as it may first appear.  I have been giving it quite a bit of thought of late and it has enlightened me to how radical both the play and the Pre-Raphaelites were in terms of what they tried to achieve for their women.

Rewinding a little back to the play.  I am so cosy and familiar with the musical that I had never considered what Professor Henry Higgins is attempting with his wager.  Higgins bets his friend Colonel Pickering that he can pass off Eliza, a street flower seller, as a duchess at a society event.  When Shaw wrote that in 1912, before the social upheaval of the First World War, he was suggesting that by stealth the lowest in the land could be passed off as the highest, thus disrupting the status quo.  Also, Higgins, in orchestrating the venture is deceiving his class.  Blimey.

Jane Morris
So, what has all this to do with the Pre-Raphaelites and specifically Jane Morris?  Well, a curious adjunct to their aims and ambitions at the start of the movement seems to have been the wish to not only choose their models from the working class, but then to improve them.  The gentlemen artists were of sufficient education, if not ready money, to belong to the middle-class.  Their affection to the young women who came to model seems to have been perverse in the context of what they should have desired from their romantic attachments at the time.  More than that, in the dealings with Annie Miller, Jane Morris and to some extent, Elizabeth Siddal, there is a strong undercurrent of improvement.

Annie Miller (1860s) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Placing Rossetti to one side for a moment, as his motivations to do anything were often random and lust-generated, William Morris and William Holman Hunt seem to have desired to take a woman from ‘the gutter’ (or the stable in Jane’s case) and make her society-ready.  Hunt would not properly commit to Annie before she had gone through the necessary training to become a lady, but Morris committed to his bride before the ‘improvements’ took place.  In some ways, it seems unsurprising that each of the artists undertook a Pygmalion project, shaping the internal workings of their own Galatea, a chance to bring a walking-talking-marrying work of art to life.

It is hard to see what their motivations were behind their actions beyond love of the woman involved.  In William Morris’ case, it is easy to imagine how he thought his cushion of wealth would enable him to behave however he liked because in a way he was already stooping down from his social position in order to get his hands dirty with a business and actual work.  He appeared to have a rather more fluid opinion of what was ‘suitable’ behaviour for a gentleman, so to marry a girl from a stable because he idolised her seems entirely corresponding with his bull-headed drive to do what he considered ‘the right thing’.  I still wonder how exactly his family welcomed Jane – recently I had an eyebrow raised at me for not attending public school despite my husband having done so.  Questions were asked as to what had happened there…

A rather gorgeous Pygmalion by Jean-Léon Gérôme (ca. 1881)
All well and good in Morris’ case, but what about Hunt?  Annie Miller’s abandonment to her lessons while he went off to the Holy Land seems at once generous and hideous.  It can only be speculated how charitable Hunt was being to Annie, wanting her to be a lady before he took her out into society.  The fact that he would not put down a commitment before she had completed her training speaks of cowardice in my eyes, and possibly also Annie’s, as she didn’t bother completing the work or marrying Hunt.  Mind you, the scope of what he was attempting was immense.  He was not taking a woman with a family background and the rudiments of learning already completed, such as Elizabeth Siddal.  Elizabeth just needed the time and space to apply herself to her art (to paraphrase Virginia Woolf).  She already had the context of her application established in her mind, however unlikely it was that she would achieve it under normal circumstances.  Annie came from a flea-ridden den of uncertainty.  The chances of Annie being taught to read, or not going without meals, or not having lice on a regular basis were somewhat less than your average Stunner.  Even Fanny had attended school and had a respectable background in comparison to Annie.  What Hunt risked on a beautiful face was so massive in some ways it is unsurprising that he did not have the courage to see it through.  However, Annie managed her Eliza moment.  Armed with the new manners and negotiable morals, she married a gentleman after all.  Hunt married a more appropriate lady, twice, and never attempted his experiment again. 

There is a common fly in the ointment of both Morris and Hunt’s experiments.  I say ‘fly’, I obviously mean ‘git-weasel’….

I think we all know the real reason that Ruskin's marriage broke up...
Annie never got to be the finished ‘Eliza’ on the Pre-Raphaelite stage.  Thoroughly derailed in her courtship with Hunt, she went off to Viscount Ranelagh who palmed her off on to his cousin, Captain Thomas Thomson, with whom she shared a long, fairly comfortable life.  A large part of her break from Hunt was her involvement with Rossetti, who had been asked to stay away and who pursued her in the face of his friend and his own fiancée.  Rossetti’s seduction of Annie was, if not the entire cause of his friend’s break-up with Annie, a vastly contributing factor.

Moving on to the Morris marriage and again who derails the relationship?  With no regard for his friend’s feelings, Rossetti has an affair (of one sort or another) with Jane and drives William off to Iceland.  Obviously you can apportion blame for both relationships with the women as well, but I find it interesting that the two connections Rossetti famously fractures are the Pygmalion-styled social experiments.  It would be all too easy to blame the women, blame their common roots showing through, their lack of breeding making them immoral, but what does it say about Rossetti?  Did he regard them as easy targets because of their working-class roots?  Did he wish to sabotage the lofty aims of his friends?  It could be argued that his, at best, indifferent treatment of Elizabeth, his own ’Eliza’, displayed his contempt for her class and her aspirations to climb and better herself.
May Morris, H H Sparling, Emery Walker and G B Shaw
Shaw refused to allow a happy ending to his play. He showed Higgins unrepentant in his horrible treatment of Eliza and derisive about her low ambition. Eliza’s storms away to live in middle-class difficulties with Freddy.  Neither are happy and Higgins is tormented by the creature he has brought to life, despite his amusement at her failure in his eyes.  The ending was eventually sweetened and in the musical Eliza goes back to him for an unspecified purpose (Marriage? Pupil? Colleague?).  Shaw’s own treatment of Jane Morris’ daughter shows a marked lack of respect as he was obviously asking to live in sin with her, leading me to wonder how he regarded Jane, the proto-Eliza, and her rise from the stable.

Monday, 18 November 2013

The Fruit Forbidden

I studied a lot of poetry as a young 'un, but it is to my eternal sadness that I never got to study Christina Rossetti.  I have a suspicion that Victorian verse was seen as unfashionable when I was at school, so I did all manner of modern poems instead and had to wait until I was in my 20s before I read Goblin Market.

Christina Rossetti
Now, when I first read the poem it was presented to me as being highly sexualised and possibly evidence that Rossetti was a lesbian.  Good heavens.  In its time, it has been interpreted as being about temptation, addiction, sex, death and religion and possibly even goblins.  Rossetti regarded it as a poem for children, but then if she had just written a text about the joys of lesbian relationships she was hardly likely to write that in the forward.  So what is it about?  Who knows, but is there a clue to be found in her brother's contemporary illustrations?

Christina wrote the poem in April 1859 and it was finally published in a collection published by Macmillan and Co in 1862.  When it was published, two of its most defining illustrations appeared with it by the poet's brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  A number of Christina's poems seem to be interpreted as being biographical of her brother Gabriel, including 'In an Artist's Studio', but 'Goblin Market' seems to have special significance.  Time and again I have read how the poem is about addiction and most notably the spiral of addiction of her sister-in-law, Lizzie Siddal.

I've always thought that the figure on the left of Golden Head by Golden Head
was based in the same sketches as Beata Beatrix, such as The Return of Tibullus to Delia
It doesn't help or harm that the figure of one of the sisters seems to resemble Elizabeth Siddal when interpreted by Rossetti and (if I read his illustration correctly) the sister on the left, the weaker sister who succumbs to the Goblin fruit, is the one who looks like Elizabeth the most (although they look fairly similar). Mind you, inconveniently Christina called the errant sister 'Laura' and the stronger sister 'Lizzie'.  The use of the name is why I think people are so eager to read the 'addiction' interpretation into Goblin Market, but it is the least compelling explanation of the poem I have heard.  If you want a compelling metaphor for addiction in literature, Gollum in The Lord of the Rings is far better.  I'm not convinced that Christina would have felt strongly enough about the plight of addicts to write it as a damning indictment of addictions, however close to home.

How about lesbianism then?

She kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth (1933) George Gershinowitz
It's a very popular reading of 'Goblin Market' to say that it is about the rejection of male society (as presented by the Goblins and their poisonous fruit).  The paragraph most quoted in this argument is when Lizzie returns to her sister covered in the fruit to cure Laura: 
“Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeez’d from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;"

I find it interesting that Gabriel Rossetti did not chose this moment for illustration as it is the one of the most dramatic and shows the salvation of one sister by the other after an act of bravery.

White and Golden Lizzie Stood (1973) Kinuko Craft
The above illustration came from, believe it or not, Playboy when they featured the poem and concentrated on the more, shall we say, sexual aspects of the text.  Those Goblin Fruit look a bit suspect if you ask me, and the Goblin Men are a little more insistent than I imagined, but Craft shows the pivotal moment of bravery on the part of Lizzie.  The moment of Lizzie's humiliation by the men which she survives triumphant is described in the most terrible detail and shows the Goblin Men in their true, animalistic, evil light.  Craft shows this as a metaphoric rape, but I think Christina Rossetti intended something more spiritual in the reading.  

Her brother chose the earlier encounter by Laura with the Men, when their countenances were more pleasing:

Looking like slightly unsettling extras from Wind in the Willow, the Goblin Men 'smile' at Laura as she hacks off her hair to get a taste of the fruit.  I don't think it is a coincidence that at the time he was drawing these illustrations, Rossetti was also working on religious pictures like The Parable of the Vineyard.

The Parable of the Vineyard: The Feast of the Vintage
It is easy to see the figure of Lizzie as Christ as she offers salvation to her sister via her own suffering. Because of the sins of her sister, Lizzie has to suffer humiliations that include being crowned with the fruit that runs into her eyes like blood.  She then vanishes from them and reappears (it's tempting to say three days later) to her sister.  The sinful fruit that tasted good tastes foul to her when placed in the context of suffering and she is cured of her hunger for it.  Lizzie is offered up as a sacrifice, then as communion.  As Christina wrote the poem in April of 1859, around Easter, it's tempting to read this in the subtext of the fairytale.

I think where the subversion comes is that Christina Rossetti, a religious writer, envisages Jesus as a woman, as her sister:

“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.”

The description of Lizzie is very messianic in the traditional Christian sense: 'white and golden', 'a lily in a flood', 'a rock', 'a fire', as she approaches the Goblin Men for her moment of sacrifice.

I've always thought Golden Head by Golden Head to be less sensual and more protective, the idea that someone will watch for us and be with us always.  In her description of the pair it is almost as if Christina is describing a mirror image: 'Like two blossoms on one stem', 'Like two wands of ivory' and 'Cheek to cheek and breast to breast'.  I wonder if Christina was hinting that Laura and Lizzie are essential two sides of the same person, one of whom is weak in the face of dangerous temptation and one who is Divine.  Laura reflects Eve, warned not to eat the fruit yet still too weak to say no, in fact actively seeks out that forbidden deliciousness.  Lizzie is God, Jesus, the saviour, our eternally better self.  Her brother reflected this duality in his mirror-image sisters, a precursor to his reflection-images of Jane and May Morris in his works of the 1870s.  The sisters are both human and Divine which is a bold claim.  It is usual for woman to be seen as the weaker party, so the character of Laura plays to the trope of the weaker sex, but her twin-self is the crusading strength with not a flinch at her suffering.  The elegant subversion of the traditional Christian message of a male protector hidden within a fairytale for children is what makes Christina Rossetti a dangerous and exciting poet.

Goblin Market (modern) Katie MacDowell

No wonder they didn't teach her to children...

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Tragedy of Elizabeth Siddal

You will probably be aware by now that there will be a play on in London from the end of this month all about the tragic life of Elizabeth Siddal.  The life of the 'Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel' has been shown on screen before, but this is apparently the first time she has appeared on stage.  Maybe they have found a theatre with a door big enough to fit a bath through.

Emma West as Lizzie and Tom Bateman as Rossetti in rehersal for Lizzie Siddal
I wish them well and hope this will encourage more interest in Pre-Raphaelite art but it reminded me of an old niggle I have.  Elizabeth Siddal's name is synonymous with two things: baths and tragedy.  Is it fair or are we participating in her tragedy by reducing her to this?

You know me, I loathe assumption.  Most of the ten years it took me to write Stunner was spent saying 'No, she wasn't a cockney,' and 'No, she wasn't an illiterate prostitute!  She could read!'  However, when you are reading about someone for the first time you have to wade through the conclusions of others before you can afford to make your own.  For example, think about a short summary of Siddal's life.  It's bound to involve a bath-tub and an early death, these are unavoidable points in her life.  Possibly your summary involves painting, poetry, possibly infidelity and sadness.  Does it involve her laughing and chasing around the Red House?  Does it involve being sponsored by the leading art critic of the day?  Does it involve her finding out her artworks will appear in America?  How many of those later points appear in the 'fictional' depictions of her?

Gug in a Tub from Desperate Romantics
So, we have poor Gug, as Rossetti called her, packing quite a bit into her 32 years.  She loved poetry, after apparently discovering a poem by Tennyson wrapped around a pat of butter as a child.  See, less young 'uns these days would long to go on X-Factor if we printed poems on butter wrappers.  They would all want to be Pam Ayres, and rightly so.  She longed to paint, possibly a by-product of being thrust into the art world by her stint of modelling.  Her engagements before Ophelia seem inconsequential, even though they were for Deverell, who discovered her.  Ophelia is the moment she begins to exist for us as an icon.

Yes, yes, very nice...
I have just been reading about the many and varied theories about what followed.  Standard story is that the candles went out, she got cold, got ill and that affected her for the rest of her life.  Add to this that she may have already been taking laudanum, she may have been anorexic, she may have been a hypochondriac, she may have been taking other preparations that were slowly poisoning her, her parents may have been on the make.  Goodness, how complicated.  I wonder if the whole palaver around her near-drowning makes Ophelia remain such a prominent image of the age.  Certainly the popularity of the painting seems to have sealed Siddal's fate to be ever the dying dame, much in the same way as certain actors can never be seen as other than their most popular role.  It is much to Millais' credit that it is almost impossible to imagine the fictional character of Ophelia as being anything other than the perishing Elizabeth Siddal.

Elizabeth Siddal Painting at an Easel (1850s) D G Rossetti
Why do we not think of her like this, at an easel?  She painted for around a decade and wrote for possibly longer.  Her poems explored melancholic themes but her art works were as varied as others in her circle.  In his drawings of her at work, Rossetti shows a woman who is busy and well.  I do not look at the above image and think 'Poor Lizzie' because there is no need.  I pity her no more than any other woman artist of the age, and she achieved a great deal.

Elizabeth Siddal D G Rossetti
Something I have talked about before is the shortening of names.  I know I have discussed this with people in various contexts but I am always intrigued by the way that we shorten or change the names of famous people, notably women.  Elizabeth Rossetti becomes Lizzie Siddal but does this tell us anything else?  People shorten the names of others for many reasons; a sense of familiarity with a person, a sense of possession, an empathy or identification.  Undoubtedly Elizabeth was known as 'Lizzie' by her friends but is that a good enough reason for us to call her that?  I am variously known as 'Kiz', 'Moo', 'Nelly' and far worse, but none of those should be used by my future and no doubt plentiful biographers.  Why not use my full name under which I work?  I would think it a terrible presumption if someone I did not know referred to me as 'Kirst' (lawks, it sounds like 'cursed').  By shortening a name you are assuming the role of acquaintance of the person, but also it stops the person being at a distance, up on a pedestal, which they might be if you admired them.  It's hard to think of Alfred Lord Tennyson as being 'Alfie' or 'Fred' but presumably he must have had a nickname.  A nickname humanizes a subject, but is that helpful?  I would add that it seems common in newspapers to shorten names of victims to involve the reader with their plight, for sad example would you think of Madeleine McCann or Maddie?

Regina Cordium D G Rossetti
Now, there is nothing wrong with seeing a person in the past as a human being, if fact I would like more such understanding shown to Rossetti who seemingly is either held on a pedestal or seen as a devil devoid of feeling.  However, a byproduct of seeing a person as 'human' is that naturally we see their all-too-human foibles and failings.  It was alright for me; writing about Fanny could only reveal better things than were already said about her, but when the woman is revered then the revelations can only be detrimental in order to be 'revelations'.  Also it seems to me that we don't like uncertainty, we don't like the unexplained in life stories.  Therefore, more often than not Elizabeth Siddal 'killed herself' rather than 'took an accidental overdose' because it has a definite point rather than raise more questions.

To say Rossetti painted this from her corpse is
far more interesting than saying he used existing sketches
So where is all my rambling leading?  Well, firstly to make a general point:  Sometimes I fear that biography of successful women reinforces prejudice in a perverse way.  Speaking as a biographer, it's a hard balancing act, showing a woman in all her glory without backing up the views of the society they lived in because they lived in that society and were subject to it.  Elizabeth undoubtedly found life as an artist far more difficult than her erstwhile lover because any woman attempting to achieve success in such an elitist world is bound to find it difficult.  Goodness, there are scores of men who found it damn near impossible too, but we don't find them so pitiful as poor, tragic Lizzie.  Not even Walter Deverell gets labelled as 'tragic' as often as Mrs Rossetti.  It somehow seems a little improper to bring up the private life of men, or to lend it equal weight, when writing biography as if we are trying to excuse them or lessen their impact. Many men of Elizabeth's circle could be labelled as tragic - look at Swinburne!  Maybe we linger on women's private lives because they played such a huge part in their lives, their 'proper sphere' was the domestic, the private, and so obviously that would have a massive impact in who they were and what they did.  It held women back, it filled their time, it even killed a few of them (in childbirth), it was seen by society as being their 'job' so any attempts on their part to participate in a 'male' occupation has to be seen in the context of what they weren't doing or trying to balance.

Rossetti discovers his perfect model, as seen in Look and Learn
So why is Lizzie special?  A combination of things seem to affect Miss Siddal.  Firstly, she's a woman, therefore biography tells us about her private life.  We know she was led a merry dance by Rossetti, but then Georgiana Burne-Jones had a hard marriage and Jane Morris' was troubled.  There has to be more to the relationship than unending misery, and there are tales of laughter and joy.  She didn't almost die during every modelling assignment, but then possibly none of the other pictures were as astonishing as Ophelia.  Mind you, we don't assume Millais had a tragic life because he created the image.  It is a brilliant image of death but all the credit, emphasis, and blame is placed on the model.  That's ridiculous.  That's like saying the tiny robin in the corner had a tragic life because he appeared in Ophelia.  Yes, she had an accident while modelling but I wonder if she had been posing for a more positive subject when she had the accident, would we see her in a different light?

Elizabeth Siddal (photo)
I don't think it helps that a great deal of Pre-Raphaelite-ness is the melancholic, the tragic, the doomed, the sinister.  As a person in a movement, of course Elizabeth would look the part.  I love the photo of her in her 'melancholic swoon' but I don't think she was like that any more than any of the various pictures of me give you a full idea of what I am like as a person.  I would be very interested to find out what someone who has met me after following the blog thought I would be like.  Lawks, can you imagine...?

Anyway, back to Lizzie.  For some reason we are stuck with the epithet 'tragic' when describing her life but that lessens her because it makes her appear helpless.  The majority of her life was not tinged with tragedy, in fact proportionately more of her life was spent in victory than in sorrow.  She spent one afternoon in a bath tub but this dominates our vision of her.  I wonder if the tragedy of Elizabeth Siddal is that we can't let her be happy.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Clammer Inside

My problem is that I have a treacherous part of my brain that undermines me in the most alarming ways. It not only mutters doom upon all my plans but also tirelessly explains all the doom that the actions of others will reign down on me, either consciously or otherwise.  It gets to a point that inaction on my point is not enough because it is not only my own actions that will curse me, so I struggle to silence that little traitor in my head, but how can I?  Now, I am assuming that a fair number, maybe even all of you, are nodding at this point because I am in no way alone with this problem, a fact that was brought home to me whilst in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich last week.  I finally got to see this painting in person…

I Lock the Door Upon Myself (1891) Fernand Khnopff
I’ve always loved the mournful, pale beauty of Khnopff’s works and this has been a favourite for years.  Khnopff was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and I think the direct influence of Burne-Jones is obvious in his palette and tone.  The title of the picture comes from Christina Rossetti’s poem Who Shall Deliver Me? taking for its subject the three lines that seem to sum up the whole:

            I lock my door upon myself,
And bar them out; but who shall wall
Self from myself, most loathed of all?

The poem considers two aspects of hiding – one from the world and one from yourself.  The woman in the image is inside a room, lock and barred against the outside world.  There is a doorway behind her, but it seems to be impassable, and there are windows, or are they mirrors?  This uncertainty, this impossibility makes the woman appear trapped in the space, but she seems detached, preoccupied.  Well, not quite detached, on her lefthand she wears a ring, suggesting she is married.

Rossetti’s poem speaks of an inability to overcome the greatest enemy, herself.  Hers is not specifically a voice of doubt, but of one that craves an easy life, a ‘coward’ ‘who craves for ease and rest and joys’.  Rossetti’s rage against this inner ‘traitor’ can be seen as her unwillingness to sit and be peaceful like women were expected to be.  There is a definite tension between her desire to start on ‘the race that all must run’ and to lock herself away from the world.  However, I think she actually means that to lock the doors upon herself, to lock others out is the easiest thing, but then it leaves the greatest foe in there with her.

In Rossetti’s poem there is hope in the shape of God, but as the poem takes the form of a plea, it can be assumed she feels unanswered.  In the painting a chain dangles unnoticed by the woman with a tiny silver crown, glinting.  It seems to be entagled with the central iris.  The iris themselves pose another mystery.  In the language of flowers they have a very feminine meaning, referring to the goddess Iris, and speak of wisdom and passion.  These seem to have dried out, preserved in a faded state, possibly referring to the woman who will burn herself out while she frets and struggles with her own intellect.  I don’t think this is a criticism from Khnopff as the flowers are magnificent in their decay. 

The woman’s eyes seem so pale as to almost be sightless.  The blue is echoed in the fabric that seems to brush her on the surface in front of her, and the wings on the bust of Hypnos on the shelves behind.  Hypnos  is the Greek personification of sleep, as hinted at by the poppy beside the bust.  Hypnos lived in a cave with no doors or windows, and the river of forgetfulness, Lethe, flowed through.  I think the fabric in front of her references the river, as if the woman longs for the peace of a blank mind, but she is not drawn into it as she drifts.

"I am half-sick of shadows" Said the Lady of Shalott (1913) Sidney Harold Meteyard
The painting reminded me first and foremost of illustrations of The Lady of Shalott.  The Lady wishes to be part of the world, to leave her prison, where as Rossetti wishes to lock herself away, but both are dissatisfied with the manner of their existence and the peril they find themselves.  For the Lady, the conflict is with an unseen force, a curse that she cannot fight, that comes upon her when she is drawn into action.  For Rossetti, her participation in life causes her inner conflict that ultimately make her flee.  Look beside the woman – there is an arrow.  Is it love she is thinking of, or trying not to think of?  It was love that doomed the Lady of Shalott, will it prove to be the undoing of this woman's peace of mind too?

Who Shall Deliver Me? (1898) 
Khnopff's finished image is not the only time he used the poem as inspiration.  This fire-haired beauty is yet another woman in conflict with herself.  The pool of blue on her chest may reference the previous image, and she seems completely locked up in her clothing.  The background is a confusing mash of grates, crevices, floors all leading nowhere.  Again, her colourless eyes gaze to us, beyond us, back deep inside herself.

Ultimately, there are lots of 'individual women in closed rooms' pictures in Pre-Raphaelite and associated art.  Think of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's women of the 1860s and 70s: there are scores of women in their own little prisons.  Did he recognise what his sister had vocalised?  It seems rare to see such a picture of a man, in fact there are few, if any, images of men separated from the world in such a purposeful way.  Maybe what Rossetti identified and admitted to was a weakness of high intellect - with great thought comes unlimited, unstoppable threads of woe from the person who knows you and your weaknesses the best.  No matter how much you hide from the world it takes the ultimate strength to silence the clammer inside.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Once Upon a Time in Bavaria...

Once upon a time there lived a little girl called Mrs Walker and she longed to be a princess, living in a fairy tale castle. One day, she travelled in a pretty coach all the way to the top of a mountain and there she walked through the doors of the most magical castle she had ever seen...

Hello again, my dear chums! I have returned to you from the magical fairy-tale land of Bavaria.  My big brother lives over there and so while on a visit I was determined to travel to possibly the best-known castle in the world, Neuschwanstein Castle, which sits on a mountain by the Alps.  If you don't know the name, the shape of it will certainly be familiar.  It was the castle that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang swooped over and it was an inspiration for the appearance of Hogwarts and Disney's Sleeping Beauty's castle on screen.  It is about as fairytale as castles get, but that, my friends, is the point...

Mmmm, 'turret-y'....
First, a little history. In the mid nineteenth century, King Ludwig II decided he needed a retreat from the pressures of life.  He built such a fortress of solitude in the little village called Hohenschwangau, near Füssen in southwest Bavaria.  The notoriously odd young man became King of Bavaria from 1864 until his death just over 20 years later at the age of 40 (which is awfully young in the opinion of this 40 year old).  He was an ardent fan of the composer Richard Wagner and his music lent inspiration to the 'Swan King''s dreams of a home fit for a romantic hero.  The swan is the symbol of the area and the 'schwan' in the name of the castle and the village refers to that.  Neuschwanstein Castle and its sister castle below it, Hohenschwangau Castle, were built on the ruins of older structures. The King wanted an escape from reality, and in the music of Wagner, most notably Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, he found such an escape.  His plans for his castles were to make this dream a reality...

Christian Jank's 1869 project drawing for the castle
When he had the idea to build it, it was conceived with the idea of building somewhere worthy of Wagner to visit.  In a marvellous insight into his home life, Ludwig wrote to Wagner that the castle would be '...more beautiful and habitable than Hohenschwangau [castle] further down, which is desecrated every year by the prose of my mother; they will take revenge, the desecrated gods, and come to live with Us on the lofty heights, breathing the air of heaven.'  The lofty heights is no exaggeration as Neuschwanstein is at an elevation of 800m, nestling in the soaring Alps.  You can walk up to it, but most of us tourists seem to opt for the overcrowded buses that swings you back and forth up a winding path until you reach an equally winding, steep footpath.  After a lot of pausing to admire the view (while wishing you were fitter) you arrive at what can only be described as 'the stage door'...

Just out of shot, Mrs Walker attempting to breathe after the climb...
When visiting the castle, you have to purchase a ticket at the foot of the mountain.  You really don't want to forget that, because can you imagine having to go all the way back down again.  The only way to see the inside is by a tour, and there are only so many of these per hour.  They have a couple in English, a couple in German and then 'Other' which involves an audio tour in your chosen language.  It is heaving with tourists from all over the world and in the summer they have around 6000 visitors a day through the doors.  As you can imagine that has a very definite effect on the experience.  I was feeling a little 'regimented' by the time our tour number was asked to queue for admittance as I don't like being marshalled about in my artistic experiences and thought it would end up being a rather brisk, soulless affair, being herded from room to room.  Then I went in...

Waiting the start the tour with a couple of other tourists...
 You immediately feel that you are in the presence of something insanely special. The ceilings of the corridor are richly patterned with Gothic curls and they lead you up to the first of the halls that utterly took my breath away.

Entrance Hall.  Just out of shot, Mrs Walker has swooned...
The walls have the most amazing murals, painted on plaster-of-Paris to resemble fresco painting, depicting Sigurd's saga.  These were Germanic tales that served as a model for Wagner's 'Ring of the Nibelung'.  Painted by Wilhelm Hauschild, a Munich professor, they reminded me of the art of Dicksee or Paton.  The images have a sort of impersonal nature of early Victorian art, but the passion and romance of the narrative instantly brings to mind the Pre-Raphaelites.  The stories and images are rich with potions, lost love, fire and dragons.  The women have long sweeps of hair and the men are magnificent and shiny of armour.  They are often resplendent with weaponry too.  Goodness.  I thought it was the most impressive thing I had ever seen.  Then we went into the Throne Room...

Wow.  Just wow.
Bearing in mind that I was with Miss Walker who is 7, I was not allowed to swear, but to be honest if you were to exclaim the entirely justified expletives every time you were astonished by the beauty of the place, you would be hoarse within minutes.  I do believe I overused the words 'Goodness me...' while gazing entirely enraptured at the Throne Room.  First of all, as you can see in the above picture, there is no throne as the King died before it was made.  He had envisaged something canopied and golden but it was not to be.  Again Hauchild did the paintings which involve such things as sanctified kings, apostles, St George and a dragon, Lucifer's fall and Jesus riding a rainbow.  Awesome.  The floor is equally as decorative covered in millions of little mosaic pieces showing the animals and plants on earth.  If I had my way I would have just reclined there for the rest of the week gazing at it all, however the next tour party was hard on our heels so on we went...

The Dining Room.  Where's a footman when you need one?  
On to the Dining Room, which has a smashing statue of  Siegfried fighting a dragon in gold-plated bronze.  The idea of fighting a dragon, the personification of the battle of good and evil is everywhere in the castle and tells you something of Ludwig's ideas.  This room is on the third floor of the castle, which seems a bit of a tall order for the staff but there is a hand operated dumb-waiter that services all floors so the food could be quickly and efficiently served to the King from the kitchen far below.

The bedroom...
Redefining Gothic, the bedroom is a cavalcade of heavy wood carving and romantic art.  The bed was surprisingly large, but Ludwig was six foot four in height (she says, raising an eyebrow).  His bedroom is decorated with murals of love and faithfulness but never paid host to a Queen because the King remained unmarried.  I'll come to that in a bit...

The Living Room
I loved the big swan on the table.  The living room had the murals on all walls but they were painted to look like tapestries, with a ripple effect at the top (just like the newly uncovered one at The Red House).  Again the room is wood, gold and crystal clear scenes of romance, which all rather contrasted with the next room we visited...

The grotto.  A cave in the middle of a castle.  No, really.
Now, I've been in a grotto or two in my time, but never have I walked out of a living room into what seems to be an underground cavern, complete with stalactites.  Built with plaster-of-Paris over a steel frame, it was meant to represent the cave in Mount Hoesel from the Tannhaeuser saga.  It even has a waterfall.  Bonkers.

The Singers' Hall
Illustrated with scenes from the Parsifal saga, the Singers' Hall must be the most consciously theatrical room, complete with a little stage up one end.  The King had imagined that Wagner's opera's would be sung there, grand concerts befitting the splendid scenery but sadly he never saw any.  He continued his building plans and applied for loans to fund it, but they were turned down.  In 1886, he applied for a futher 6 million marks but by then the Government had decided enough was enough.  A report was written that he was unsound of mind and he was taken unwillingly into custody.  The next day, the King and the man who had written the report, Dr Gudden, were found drowned in Lake Starnberg.

'Mad' King Ludwig.  I don't care how mad he is, look at his home!
It is a prevailing 'truth' that Ludwig was as mad as a bag of frogs and to cement this, a specialist had declared him insane.  However, you know me, I question everything.  It strikes me that the evidence is a bit flimsy.  Yes, his vision of life was extremely theatrical and romantic.  The castle is astonishing, the stuff of magic and breathtaking beauty but that doesn't mean he was mad.  Well, I hope not, because that probably means we're all equally as crazy.  I'd live there, in fact had I not been acting like a responsible parent I think I would probably pulled the toddler trick of going limp onto the floor and refused to move.  I know I'm prone to hyperbole but my goodness, it is wondrous.  He did not use public money to build it, he used his own funds and borrowed hideous amounts, but did not act in a reckless manner with his people's purse.

I suspect that part of the stories of his madness grew out of his alleged sexual preference.  Engaged to his cousin, he eventually pulled out of the actual marriage (although he blamed his potential father in law for keeping them apart).  He maintained close friendships with men and wrote adoring letters to his hero, Wagner.  All of this is often given as proof that he was homosexual, but I think this is a rather insulting conclusion to come to.  There is no proof that he ever had a gay relationship and I have a horrible feeling that his mad/gay label are flipsides of the same coin.  He was gay therefore he must have been mad, or he was mad therefore gay.  Neither thing are provable and both say more about the times he lived in rather than him. I rather suspect he was inconvenient to those in charge, all bound up with his castle and fantasies rather than the real, modern world.  As Ludwig asked the doctor who had declared him insane, 'How can you declare me insane? After all, you have never seen or examined me before.'  In reply, Dr Gudden said that that was unnecessary as he had the servant's gossip.  Consider that, my friends, and shiver. 

Back down the mountain, with the castle in the background.
The painting on the restaurant is to remind you that you're in Bavaria.
Despite the King's reputation, it's heartwarming that he is remembered so fondly by the people of Bavaria.  Obviously, a big part of that has to be the tourist attraction that brings millions to such a tiny area to spend their Euros with gay abandon, but part of it has to be a recognition of what he was trying to achieve.  Ludwig dreamed of 'this paradise on earth, where I can live out my ideals and thus find happiness.'  I see nothing crazy in that.  

Sadly I don't think my twentieth century terraced house can cope in that much Wagner...