The image of John Everett Millais’s Ophelia serenely slipping under the surface of the Hogsmill river and the accompanying story regarding Elizabeth Siddall catching a cold in the bath tub is etched into British art historical lore.
At present, the picture is making an appearance in Tate Britain’s Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde exhibition (reviewed on page… by Rachel Schraer) and debates have focused on resuscitating the reputation of Siddall as an artist instead of a muse. The disquiet surrounding the marginalization of Siddall’s work is in some respects heightened by the fact that the most famous image of her, and the story surrounding it, depicts her as the quintessentially passive female literally drowning in the male gaze. Contextualizing narratives of a Victorian preoccupation with the death of virginal maidens, as seen in the poetry of Tennyson, have further added to the feelings of nausea amongst feminists and the painting has become imbued with uncomfortable notions of antiquarianism and triteness.
However, Millais’s picture was, at the time of its exhibition in 1852, a deviation from the traditional depictions of Shakespearean character. By showing her actually drowning – a action which takes place off stage – Millais was allowing Ophelia to be far more active and therefore subversive in terms of gender norms than other artists had previously.
Additionally, 20th century critics have read hints of sexual ecstasy present in her gently parted lips. If we decide that this is suicide and not an accidental death, then detecting signs of ecstasy at the point at which she is alone and determining her own destiny apart from those of her father and lover suggests that the Ophelia we see lying before us is far more complex than simplistic active-passive readings would imply. Perhaps then, it is erroneous that this artwork should have become so strongly associated with feminine weakness.
As scholars such as Elaine Showalter and Kimberly Rhodes have discussed, the character of Ophelia has been ever changing since Shakespeare’s Hamlet was first performed. Until the end of the 19th century most productions deleted lines in which Ophelia uses sexually suggestive language and thus helped mold Ophelia into the silent and inactive female some viewers object to seeing in Millais’s painting.
Whether or not the Millais work can be read as transgressive is up for debate, however two 21st century references to the character – one in Lars Von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia and the other in a fashion photo shoot in the September 2012 edition of Vogue UK – have overtly contributed to reviving a more defiant and dynamic version of Ophelia.
In Lars Von Trier’s film, the main character Justine as played by Kirsten Dunst is twice represented as having explicit links to both Ophelia and, specifically, Millais’s painting of her. The most obvious parallel is present in the photography used for the film’s publicity poster and DVD cover. Dunst, resplendent in her wedding dress seemingly floats on the surface of lily pad-studded water, her eyes looking defiantly towards the viewer and her lips a thin line of determination. Similarly, during the film she is seen sitting naked by the water in the blue moonlight, her surprisingly muscular female body looking like it grew out of the plant life around it. The overly intense hues, especially the luminescent greens, and Dunst’s white skin are all borrowed from the Pre-Raphaelite work, and Ophelia/Justine appears to be reveling in the moonlight and solitude.
Finally, a brief shot of a coffee table art book actually showing Millais’s painting is present during a scene in the library, leaving no doubt that Von Trier is paying homage to this most famous representation of Ophelia.
What then, is the point to seeing these parallels between the characters of Justine and Ophelia? Crucially, the salient and vital point which the narrative makes is that, when events hit reach their untenable zenith, the woman who has previously appeared hysterical, depressive, unstable and even futile is the one to thrive. This may be a reference to the belief that people with an overdeveloped dose of melancholia can be the ones to remain functioning in times of desperation as they are more used to doing so than their cheery counterparts. Alternately, it may be Von Trier – a man who has suffered from depression himself – suggesting, slightly irreverently, that when the shit hits the fan it will be the ‘crazy’ people who survive. Either way, this reimagined conception of Ophelia is far from a meek Victorian heroine.
In a slightly similar vein, the Vogue photo shoot featured model Lara Stone in a selection of shots making reference to both Millais’s artwork and Authur Hughes’s rendering of the same subject also exhibited in 1852. In a perfect example of pro-Capitalist feminism the caption accompanying the opening picture reads: ‘Any modern-day Ophelia would find it hard to resist…Dolce & Gabbana’s colourful needlepoint bodice.’
In this instance it appears Ophelia is too busy shopping to think about the Prince of Denmark and whether you agree with the replacement of ‘men’ with ‘clothes’ as the number one female preoccupation, what is pertinent is the positioning of Stone. Instead of lying half submerged – or even floating as in the case of Dunst – she lies supine across a branch which looks suspiciously similar to both the one Hughes’s Tim Burtonesque Ophelia perches on and that which hangs just above Ophelia in the Millais. No intention of drowning and with a gaze to rival Manet’s Olympia, any suggestions of dejection or fragility are absent. This Ophelia looks like she is having fun and, from her seat above the water, it will be those who try to reach her that run the risk of submerging.
Since her birth in 1604, Ophelia has been a vessel for myriad personality traits and different viewers’ fantasies of femininity. What these latest two metamorphoses imply is that – crazy, bereaved, lovelorn and fragile – she might just be all right after all. Ophelia is dead. Long live Ophelia.