Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Rewriting History

Sir John Everett Millais, Mariana, 1851; © Tate

“Painting is quite hard enough without narrowing one’s vision or focusing one’s ‘idolatry,’” Sir John Everett Millais once said, perhaps in response to those who would view his work narrowly as those of a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Such tunnel vision blinds the viewer to Millais’ “great emotional power and psychological acuity,” says Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Tate Britain. The Tate Britain’s current exhibition Millais presents all the facets of Millais, one of the true jewels of British painting and a worthy successor to J.M.W. Turner and John Constable. In works such as Mariana (above), taken from the Tennyson poem of the same name, we see a young woman doomed to a life alone after her dowry is lost in shipwreck and her fiancée rejects her. Rather than create a simple illustration of the poem, Millais injects his own poetic touches, emphasizing “the dichotomy between the self-negation of Mariana’s nun-like existence and her sexual languor and frustration,” writes Alison Smith, Head of Acquisitions of British Art to 1900 at the Tate Britain and coauthor of the exhibition catalogue. Just as Mariana stretches to reveal her inner conflict, Millais stretches beyond the Pre-Raphaelites and their “stunner” femme fatales to create images of great psychological insight whether historical tableau, portraiture, or even landscape.

Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-1852; © Tate

Jason Rosenfeld, Associate Professor of Art History at Marymount Mannhattan College in New York and co-author of the catalogue, sees Millais’ reputation as being “particularly English” as helping and hurting the artist’s stature in the twentieth century. Aiming towards “a borderless art history” or “supranational” approach, Rosenfeld recounts the influence of Millais on Vincent Van Gogh, who believed that Millais “conveyed the experience of being of the landscape, of immersion, not just seeing nature as a remote and awesome vista.” Later, Salvador Dali linked Millais to the Symbolist movement, “entranced by Millais’s depiction of the ‘eternal feminine,’” something Dali would incorporate into his own Surrealist works. Ophelia (above), Millais’ most famous work, although part of the medievalism of Pre-Raphaelitism, thus becomes a harbinger of modernism, re-engaging the previously disengaged artist with the great chain of artistic influence. Rosenfeld performs yeoman work in recovering the Millais actively engaged with his own time, as well, demonstrating how “Millais’s international stature, unrivaled by any other British artist of the period, is too little remembered today.” Before he is done, Rosenfeld shows Millais to be “the most culturally engaged artist of his time, the continually innovative painter, the canny self-promoter, the unrepentantly bourgeois yet non-aesthete Academician, the former enfant terrible and later international celebrity, and the keen sportsman.” Millais contains multitudes, contradicting all simplistic dismissals of the man and his art.

Sir John Everett Millais, Order of Release, 1746; © Tate

Millais turn to historical anecdotal painting marks his first shift away from Pre-Raphaelitism. Spurred by John Ruskin, who championed Millais as the successor to Turner and took him as his protégé, Millais began branching out. While painting Ruskin’s portrait in Scotland, Millais and Ruskin’s young wife Effie fall in love. Millais and Effie marry shortly after the divorce, an event that many see as the beginning of Millais’ fall as a fine artist into too-comfortable domesticity. The Order of Release, 1746 (above), however, and similar works dispel that myth. Effie poses for the figure of the woman who has just arranged for the release of her husband, a defeated Scottish soldier. Here, Effie, who was of Scottish descent, bears the “expression of a woman who has succeeded in securing the freedom of a man who has failed to release his people from English tyranny,” writes Rosenfeld. “She bears the proud subjugation of Scotland.” Millais later takes on the English Civil War in The Proscribed Royalist, 1651; the end of the Crimean War in Peace Concluded, 1856; and the Battle of Waterloo in The Black Brunswicker—all attempts to put human faces on faceless conflicts by presenting the psychology of interpersonal relationships lost in the greater struggles of history. Rather than a drag on his career, Effie instead becomes a boon, “designing and fabricating costumes for his productions, researching subjects and assisting with correspondence.” At that heart of these relationship pictures emerges the strength and true partnership of Millais’ marriage itself.

Sir John Everett Millais, Bubbles, 1885-6; © Unilever, on loan to the Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museum Liverpool; Oil on canvas; 1092 x 787 mm

Millais’ reputation as a commercial “sellout” originates with his painting Bubbles (above), which later became an advertisement for Pears’ Soap. Allison Smith provides valuable context for this image and others in which Millais depicts children. “It was during the Victorian era that Enlightenment notions of optimism and beauty surrounding childhood were compromised by a more stark awareness of the degrading effects of child labor and sexual explotation,” Smith contends, casting a whole new light on works such as Bubbles and Cherry Ripe, the picture that made Millais an international household name and won denigration as a panderer to popular taste. Today, the image and even the title Cherry Ripe seem almost blatantly sexual, something Millais knew and the Victorian world did, too, but refused to admit. Millais’ children thus take on the same complexity and strange sexual energy found in Mary Cassatt’s depictions of mothers and their children.

Sir John Everett Millais, Dew-Drenched Furze, 1889-1890; © Sir Geoffroy Millais

The “new” Millais proposed by this catalogue and exhibit appears most stunningly in the late landscapes, which appear more abstract than previously believed. Dew-Drenched Furze (above), one of the 21 large-scale landscapes Millais painted in Scotland over the last 26 years of his life, achieves atmospheric effects reminiscent of Turner yet presaging the pure abstraction of the twentieth century. Here, Millais paints landscape as pure poetry, foregoing some of his previous exactitude for a more accurate, yet paradoxically less photographic, representation. Rosenfeld sees this late Millais as the key to a new lineage of modern abstract painting. “Millais may well be seen as setting a precedent for mid-twentieth-century abstraction potentially more compelling than landscape painting across the Channel, through a process rooted in romanticism and borne of empiricism,” Rosenfeld argues. “To see Millais in this light might suggest the promise of a more generous, inclusive, and engaged history of modern art that has yet to be written.” Bold statements of new histories and broad reevaluations seem commonplace in exhibition catalogues pleading the case of their subject, but in the case of Millais, it is hard to argue with the evidence before you.

Just as Millais “rewrote” history in his anecdotal paintings into something more human and empathetically comprehendible, Millais the catalogue and exhibition “rewrite” Millais as a more diverse and complex painter and thinker than ever previously attempted. Tearing away the years of misconceptions, Millais stands anew as an artist of great depth, even in his most familiar (Ophelia) and even seemingly trite (Bubbles) works. Even Effie steps forward from the mists of time to take her place at Millais’ side, no longer the helpless female rescued from Ruskin and an unconsummated marriage, but now a strong woman in her own right, assisting her husband in supporting their family as he flourished while always evolving as an artist. Without “focusing one’s ‘idolatry’” too much, it’s hard to come away from Millais without placing the artist upon a pedestal.

[Many thanks to the Tate Britain for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to Millais and for the images from the exhibition.]


Lisa Museums said...

If you are interested in seeing more about Sir John Everett Millais painting 'Bubbles on loan to the Lady Lever Art Gallery, visit: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk

Bob said...

Thanks, Lisa.

And thanks for reading my review.


Sally Big Woods said...

As always, beautiful images, and v. informative. I never knew how much I loved Millais!

Keep up the great work!