Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ophelia, Iphelia pain

Sorry for the shoddy pun but I was trying a little William Wycherley out on my prose (see The Country Wife review below). Better without, I think.

Tate Britain's winter exhibition is far more comprehensive than it needs to be: John Everett Millais (1828-96) is not a sufficiently inspired or inspiring artist to warrant over 120 paintings and drawings through seven rooms. Worse still, the exhibition does not build to a climax where we see Millais' artistic genius manifested in late career masterpieces after honing his skill over many years; disappointingly, his greatest works are his earliest, a not uncommon occurrence (ask Orson Welles).

Almost his earliest work on show was perhaps my favourite, Bust of a Greek Warrior (from the Antique) (1838-9), an impressively precise study in chalk. Millais was clearly an extraordinary draughtsman with great technical skill, which happily does not here lead to a soulless but neat rendering - on the contrary, the warrior's sternness is neatly evoked. The shock is that Millais was 10 when he drew this, showing the preternatural talent that would see him to the Royal Academy of Arts schools at 11.

Millais was a founding Pre-Raphaelite, rejecting Mannerism and its artifice in favour of detailed naturalism in brilliant colours. This is perhaps one of the reasons why his earlier pictures find most popular and critical acclaim - they are wonderfully vivid, with jewel colours and swathes of intricate scenes from nature. The most famous (and, I believe, the most popular poster in the Tate's shop) is Ophelia (1851-2), which has the poor girl half-submerged in a lake.

What the awful representation to the left doesn't show you is the success and the failure of the painting. To his credit, Millais had developed a technique for making his pigments retain their brightness, so Ophelia almost seems alive, glowing despite her watery bed. The problem is that she seems to have been imported from a different painting. Millais - here and in other paintings like Mariana (1851) - ends up with several layers (to the eye, at least), where the foreground character and the background never gel. I could never escape the feeling that the model and the rest were painted separately; this sounds foolish but better artists make you believe that they weren't, that they have captured one complete scene. With Millais, you can always see everything being painted arounded the centre.

This expresses itself in Isabella (1848-9) too, which is almost a triumph of failure of perspective. The painting does not show that this is a table of people interacting with one another and visually receding but looks like each person has been cut and pasted onto the background in the same position. Millais never wholly convinces that his painting are, well, whole.

If only Millais had stuck to his drawing: we would have more pictures like The Disentombment of Queen Matilda (1849), a small gem of macabre humour, where he populates a crowded scene with darkly comic activities. This humour is virtually completely absent from the rest of his work, most of which brim with a desire to be taken seriously or a cloying sentimentality. (I have to brush my teeth just thinking about The Blind Girl (1854-6), with its double rainbow and - uch, it's too awful to go on.)

After his Pre-Raphaelite phase wound down in the mid-185os, there are still six large rooms to go. Six! We've already had his most interesting works - now there is just room after room of paintings largely dull in content and in execution. There are portraits painted for patrons stuffed with angelic children and respectable adults. There are only occasional reminders of his real talent, such as his pen-and-ink illustrations for the Moxon Tennyson (1855-6). Millais could have made a draughtsman of unsurpassable skill and wit, but instead he turned to paintings with a vaguely numinous atmosphere which do not stand up to scrutiny.

The scale of the exhibition is just as oppressive as some of the pictures. It is not a new theme for me, complaining about exhibitions which aim to conquer through quantity, not quality, and this is another perfect example. Yes, it is a curatorial feat, and yes, it provides an unrivalled opportunity for the serious Millais-head, but it is an ordeal for everyone else - we are supposed to maintain interest and excitement for over a hundred pictures when this is nigh on impossible, even when you love the artist. A smaller, more representative selection would have worked in Millais' favour - as it is, the pile-up of lesser works constantly threatens to crumble.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I thought it was an excellent exhibition, but I agree the order in which the works were displayed wasn't the best.

It was nice for me to be able to see a lot of works that I otherwise wouldn't have been able to, all in one place.

Also, the Isabella painting is one of my favourites ;-)