Death by Water

john_everett_millais_ophelia_resized


Those of you familiar with the work of Sir John Everett Millais and/or Shakespeare’s Hamlet will know that this is a painting of Ophelia singing before she drowns in a river (1851-2). 
I’m not sure why I find it, and other images like it, so fascinating. Yes, the painting is eye-catchingly vibrant, beautifully composed and exquisitely detailed. But I also think it has a kind of – for lack of a better word – poetic quality that derives largely from its subject matter, and I find this quality simultaneously intriguing and baffling (I’m very aware that I’m echoing Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ (1846) here).

Apparently I’m not the only one: Ophelia is one of the most acclaimed and imitated pre-Raphaelite paintings, and artistic representations of female death by drowning abound in both historical and contemporary contexts. What is it about the aestheticised spectacle of female death (a realistically grim and unpleasant topic) that holds our attention? As someone who is interested in photography, and particularly in what might be termed ‘conceptual’ or ‘narrative’ photography, which often borrows from literature, I’ve browsed through countless digital image repositories and come across a surprisingly large number of Ophelia-esque pictures. Here are just a few examples:

Monia Merlo
Monia Merlo

Monia Merlo 3
Monia Merlo 2

Monia Merlo 4
Monia Merlo 3

Carly Zinga Photography
Carly Zinga

Overgrowth by Parker Fitzgerald and Riley Messina 2
Overgrowth by Parker Fitzgerald and Riley Messina

Overgrowth by Parker Fitzgerald and Riley Messina 3
Overgrowth by Parker Fitzgerald and Riley Messina 2

Overgrowth by Parker Fitzgerald and Riley Messina
Overgrowth by Parker Fitzgerald and Riley Messina 3

Overgrowth by Parker Fitzgerald and Riley Messina 4
Overgrowth by Parker Fitzgerald and Riley Messina 4

Dorota Gorecka Fotografia
Dorota Górecka

Dorota Gorecka Fotografia 4
Dorota Górecka 2

Slevin Aaron Photography
Slevin Aaron

Tom Hunter
Tom Hunter

There are many more, all equally stunning (which I know is a bizarre word to apply to any representation of death). There are countless literary (not to mention filmic) references, too, made by authors ranging from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Arthur Rimbaud to T.S. Eliot to Margaret Atwood, who gave a lecture entitled ‘Ophelia Has a Lot to Answer For’ at the Stratford Festival in September, 1997.

Unsurprisingly, critics have long been engaged in debate about the aesthetic, symbolic and cultural implications of these sorts of images. In his essay ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ (1846), for example, Edgar Allan Poe argues controversially that ‘the death … of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world’ because it marks the moment at which death (the supremely ‘melancholy’ topic) ‘most closely allies itself to Beauty’. Elisabeth Bronfen both elaborates on and problematises this assertion in Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic, contending, in an argument that is far too sophisticated to outline here, that artistic representations of female death are often symptomatic of androcentrism.

‘Poetic’ or not, it’s clear that these depictions – especially those featuring water – hold a certain kind of (counter-intuitive) appeal. I’m still trying to figure out why, and hopefully in future I’ll be able to research and write a paper on this topic, but for now I’m quite happy to be stumbling across images online that suggest that many people share my interest.


Header image: Sir John Everett Millais, ‘Ophelia’ (1851-2). © Tate Britain. 

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What I’ve been reading (July)

(Yes, I know it’s August, but I started writing this a while ago…)

At the start of this year, partly because I was about to start my Publishing Masters, and partly because I’d ironically had very little time to read for leisure throughout my literature degree, I made a determination to read more. I’m usually pretty bad at keeping resolutions, but this one was vague enough to be actually achievable: I only knew that I wanted to 1) read new releases, 2) read more widely, and 3) read some of those always-cited canonical novels I had somehow managed to miss.

I can’t say I’ve been tearing through contemporary novels this year, but I’ve definitely improved on last year’s tally. Here are my thoughts on a few of the texts I’ve picked up: 

All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr9780007548699
I really enjoyed this novel and was pleasantly surprised by its readability. I’d wrongly assumed that, like some literary fiction, it would be dense and difficult to read in places, but it has thriller-like momentum that derives, I think, from its interweaving of various perspectives, its panoramic historical scope, and its incorporation of supernatural elements, which also lends it an endearing fable-like quality. Part war drama, part bildungsroman, part allegory, part fantasy, this novel defies generic expectations without ever lapsing into incoherence or parody. Doerr’s writing stands out; it’s so lyrical and seemingly effortless that at times it becomes almost transparent, which is a hallmark of good prose.

9781760111236The Natural Way of Things – Charlotte Wood
I read this book, to be frank, because it won the 2016 Stella Prize, and while it’s undoubtedly an important exploration of pressing contemporary issues like misogyny and corporate corruption, I have to say that I’m ambivalent about it. Wood’s writing is beautiful and brilliant in sections – particularly in the disorientingly phantasmagoric hunting/foraging passages towards the end – but the plot didn’t quite do it for me, and the whole thing was a bit too abstract, allusive and open-ended for my liking. Having finished the novel, I felt that I’d missed something important embedded in its symbolism, and maybe I’d glean much more from a second reading. I won’t be picking up The Natural Way of Things again anytime soon, but it’s definitely worth a read, if only for its intriguing premise and stunning prose.

Enduring Love – Ian McEwan 6870
McEwan might just be my favourite novelist (I’ve never been very decisive when it comes to authors, or anything else, really)
so I came to Enduring Love with high expectations, and I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed; which is not to say that I wasn’t surprised. For some reason I’d assumed – because of the title, I guess – that the novel depicted a conventional romance, so I was hazily anticipating a kind of Nicholas Sparks-type story (and should have known better, I suppose, given McEwan’s penchant for tragic plot twists, and the dark, confronting themes of his early short stories). I won’t say too much about the novel, but it quickly metamorphoses into a study of a relationship that’s far from ordinary: obsessive, disturbing and ultimately ruinous. McEwan’s ability to trace out the seismic interpersonal and psychological ripple effects of seemingly insignificant events (exemplified, famously, in Atonement) is incredible, to say nothing of his extraordinarily perceptive, meticulous and nuanced writing.

Drawing from literature: Tennyson’s Maud

 

Small rose4

 

I’ve had these lines from Tennyson’s Maud stuck in my head all week:

Come into the garden, Maud,
For the black bat, night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
And the musk of the roses blown. (XXII, 850-855)

It’s funny, because I haven’t been reading any Tennyson lately, but it must have something to do with the incredibly memorable second line.

Since I’ve been meaning to attempt some illustrations for a while, and since I’m almost completely free at the moment (we’re on a uni break, and I don’t start work until this weekend), I decided to sketch something based on this stanza.

I opted against the garden (line one) – I’m not sure I have the patience or skill required to draw an entire landscape – and the metaphorical bat (line two) – for reasons you can probably guess – and eventually settled on the roses (line six): arguably one of the most hackneyed images in art and literature, but for good reason.

So I guess I haven’t really illustrated Maud at all – certainly not in any identifiable way – but the anonymous photograph I found online was just too good to pass up as a reference.

If you’re interested, you can read more of Tennyson’s poem here (part XXII) and here (full).