Millais in London

When I was 12 or 13, I joined a local film society, being the youngest member by at least 20 years. I still remember the films I saw there: L’Assamoire, L’Etranger, Animal Farm, Odd Man Out, Battleship Potemkin, et al. Before each film, a short documentary was shown, followed by a talk about the main feature. And that is when I discovered the pre-Raphaelites, and in particular Millais, in a wonderful short film about the movement that I remember to this day. 

I didn’t know anything at that time about Bubbles, the main reason for people to sneer at Millais, and to me this picture is an irrelevance. My love of Millais and his contemporaries was, and is, due to the beautiful evocations of the classics and Shakespeare. This is why I am looking forward to seeing the Millais exhibition currently in London: see Millais’s high drama and low designs – Times Online. The picture of Ophelia has special meaning for me, and is so well-described in the article at the link:

"This discomfiting fascination with the relationship between human bodies and what they are in – both clothes and setting – is one of Millais’s distinctive qualities. Through all the variations in style and genre which this exhibition amply documents, he remains absorbed by the idea that a setting can become a kind of vesture, the vesture project an image, and the image tally uneasily with the human being to whom it is attached. No character has been more comprehensively sunk into a natural setting than Ophelia, and yet the effect of this is the opposite, it seems to me, of that suggested in the exhibition’s detailed and generally perceptive catalogue: “the depicted cycles of growth, maturation and display doubly absorb Ophelia into a natural process, and render her insignificant”. Of course the silver flowery embroidery of her dress mingles with the stream and connects with the sprays of white dog rose above; and the purple loosestrife on the bank calls out to the poppies, violets and daisies of her bouquet now scattered on the water. But this weaving of pretty patterns will not assimilate the bare bits of her moribund body which stick up above the surface: her cupped hands, which are shaped like lily flowers but whose cold fleshiness repels the thought of the comparison as soon as it occurs; her lips, which are not at all like an opening bud; her cheeks, which are pink but hardly rosy. The painting sets up and worries at a contrast between what can be taken as decoration – leaves, flowers, and dress material – and what, here at least, cannot: the woman’s body."

2 thoughts on “Millais in London

  1. Hodmandod Senior loves the pre-Raphaelites too – so I shall tell him about this – thanks. (We are pretty well off for pre-Raphaelite art up here. Liverpool is awash with them and there is a lovely little art gallery in Ellesmere Port that has lots too).

  2. I LOVE Millais, and all the Pre-Raphaelites for that matter. In Wilmington, Delaware, there’s a museum with a huge collection of Holman Hunt, Burne-Jones, Millais, and Rossetti paintings — collected no doubt by the wealthy DuPont family who settled in that area.
    Millais’ life interests me quite a bit, too, particularly his rescuing Effie from the cold and sexless marriage she endured with John Ruskin.

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