Thursday, 3 January 2013
Millais - Ophelia
Ophelia's pose—her open arms and upwards gaze— resembles traditional portrayals of saints or martyrs, but has also been interpreted as erotic.
In the 20th century, the painting was championed by surrealist painter Salvador Dalí. In an article published in a 1936 journal, he wrote, "How could Salvador Dalí fail to be dazzled by the flagrant surrealism of English Pre-Raphaelitism. The Pre-Raphaelite painters bring us radiant women who are, at the same time, the most desirable and most frightening that exist."
At first, I didn't delve into its story and symbolism. I viewed it strictly as a picture, how it was composed and so on. But later I learned that it had been analysed by so many people. Every blade of grass and each plant has been botanically identified, and someone has found almost exactly where Millais set up his easel. Some believe there is a skull hidden just to the left of the forget-me-nots on the right.
The painting became a trigger in my art, an inspiration. You look down on her from an oblique angle, so the painting is an aerial view; the diagonal of her body in the water is an aspect my work echoes.
My study of art is ordered on that thinking: that you look at something almost as if it were a tabletop arrangement. I regard a lot of my paintings and even my photographs as the offspring of this painting.
Ophelia is in the grand tradition of English painting, and its story goes back to Shakespeare; my work goes back to 1968 and, you could say, is the culmination of commercial America. But pictorially they are connected, like brother and sister. Each time I come to London, I feel obliged see it. In some ways, I feel I am looking at myself.
It is because Ophelia looks as if she is already dead. That face is transfigured, the eyes are sightless; it looks like that of a corpse - in fact, like the kind of dead female body recovered from a watery grave that forensic thrillers take such sinister prurient delight in showing us. This is a CSI Ophelia, a Patricia Cornwell Ophelia: both assailant and victim. I can imagine yellow crime-scene tape all around that stretch of water. There is a horribly brilliant, necrophiliac edge to the painting: Millais has seen female vulnerability in its ultimate form, and the image is grippingly voyeuristic.