Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Washington Journal II: Millais’ Ophelia

Ophelia by John Everet Millais (1851-2)
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, op. 18 is indubitably moving. But is it great art? The strains of it accompany the ill-fated lovers in David Lean’s l945 film adaptation of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, a powerfully moving work of emotion in its own right. The Pre-Raphaelite show at the National Gallery, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design 1848-1900 begs the same question. One of the most famous works of Pre-Raphaelite art, the painting of the drowning Ophelia by John Everet Millais, is a centerpiece of the exhibit. As you walk into the gallery in which it’s displayed, it hits you right between the eyes. You are struck by the apparition of sepulchered beauty. Millais in fact has gone where Shakespeare feared to tread, showing what in Shakespeare was only spoken by Queen Gertrude (Act IV, Scene VII) and ambiguously at that. Did Ophelia kill herself or was the drowning accidental? It’s a question Shakespeare scholars have troubled over  for centuries and which Millais doesn’t answer in the painting. But what is the difference between romanticism and estheticization? The Pre-Raphaelite movement which came into existence during the height of the Industrial Revolution was known for the propagation of the esthetic as a counterpoint to material values. Yet this romanticized Ophelia in all her sublime glory embellishes the bard’s words in way that ultimately lessens their imaginative effect.

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