Thursday, December 15, 2011

In the weeping brook

Sur l'onde calme et noire où dorment les étoiles
La blanche Ophélia flotte comme un grand lys,
Flotte très lentement, couchée en ses longs voiles...
-- On entend dans les bois lointains des hallalis.

(Arthur Rimbaud: "Ophélie" [a fragment])

In his The Philosophy of Composition, Edgar Allan Poe asserts that "the death ... of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world", and, indeed, the compelling, lush, and grisly melancholy of the death of a beautiful woman has attracted tremendous attention in a number of artistic fields. 

While one of the tragic heroines most popular with artists appears to be Shakespeare's Ophelia, undoubtedly the most famous representation of her was produced by John Everett Millais (1852). The painting has proved extremely influential (on the subsequent representations and interpretations of Ophelia, for instance), and not only the drowning scene in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948) reminds us of it, but also, for instance, one scene in Lars von Trier's Melancholia (2011) is clearly reminiscent of it.

(John Everett Millais) 

(Jean Simmons in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet)

(Kirsten Dunst in Lars von Trier's Melancholia)

A number of other Pre-Raphaelite artists, such as John William Waterhouse, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Arthur Hughes, and Joseph Noel Paton, were also captivated by the subject.

"These Pre-Raphaelite images were part of a new and intricate traffic between images of woman and madness in the late nineteenth-century literature, psychiatry, drama, and art. First of all, superintendents of Victorian lunatic asylums were also enthusiasts of Shakespeare, who turned to his dramas for models of mental aberration that could be applied to their clinical practice." (Elaine Showalter, "Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism". In Susanne L. Wofford (ed.), Hamlet, Bedford Books, 1994)

(John William Waterhouse)

However, there were many other artists who in one way or another tackled the subject in the 19th and early 20th century. For instance, have a look at the works of Richard Redgrave, Alfonso Simonetti, Antoine-Auguste-Ernest Hebert, James Bertrand, Henrz Lejeune, Frank Willimas, Marcus Stone, Joseph Severn, George Frederick Watts, Artur Grottger, Joseph Kirkpatrick, Carl F. W. Trautschold, John William Godward, Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, Joseph Kronheim, James Parker, Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Eugène Delacroix, Alexandre Cabanel, Gaston Bussiere, Henry Nelson O'Neil, Thomas Francis Dicksee, Dominico Tojetti, Madeleine Lemaire, W. G. Simmonds, etc. 

The subject not only has not suffered decline in popularity in the contemporary arts, but its interpretation has been broadened and a great number of contemporary artists have toyed within the Ophelian paradigm, often applying the bricolage technique. Check out, for instance, George Steeves, Desiree Doloron, Angelo Cricchi, Marlene Dumas, Victor Burgin, Elly Strik, Marilène Oliver, Steven Graber, Pipilotti Rist, Iris van Dongen, Tom Hunter, Erzsébet Baerveldt, Gregory Crewdson, Anne Wenzel, Anouk De Clercq, Krien Clevis, Delphine Courtillot, Amie Dicke, Jason Beam, Juul Kraijer, Erik Odijk, William B. Hand, Justine Kurland, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Elisabet Stienstra, etc.

(Angelo Cricchi)

(Victor Burgin)

(George Steeves)

Besides, there are undeniable Ophelian influences, for instance, on PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love (1995) album cover art, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Kylie Minogue's "Where the Wild Roses Grow" (1995) music video and single cover art.

Moreover, fashion photographers have recently taken to the subject as well.

(Vogue November 2011)

(Vogue Korea April 2007)

(Vogue Japan March 2009)

And, interestingly, the (death) scene has often been moved into the private space of a bathtub.

 (Eleanor Hardwick)

(Sophia Sanchez and Mauro Mongiello)

(Ayten Alpun)

Furthermore, Izima Kaoru in his photographic series Landscapes with a Corpse abandons the motif of the death by drowning and collaborates with beautiful young women (actresses and models) to develop their fantasy of "a perfect death", including location, clothing, and the manner of their death. Izima then constructs the scenes, and shoots a series of images of each scene from the panoramic to the close-up perspective [1].

Finally, Erik Odijk removes the beautiful woman from the picture and confronts us with her absence as the Ophelia in his "portrait" of Ophelia's death is no longer in view, having been absorbed by  the surrounding nature.

(Eric Odijk)