Sunday, March 15, 2015

MWA XXXIII: Millais's Spring

This has been a tediously long, cold winter, and as I think back to January's Monthly Work of Art, Winter by Houdon, it seems only appropriate to shift to the upcoming season of Spring, which we are all looking forward to in the NYC area. As such, the latest MWA is by the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais (1829-1896), and is appropriately titled Spring (Apple Blossoms), 1856-59 (image: Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, England). Although we are still officially in Winter, I perceive this painting as positive reinforcement of warm weather on its way. (By strange coincidence, as I'm writing this, I'm drinking Twinings Winter Spice tea, which is described as "a comforting apple flavoured camomile tea spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and cloves." Interesting convergence of associated symbols...)

I first saw Millais's painting a number of years ago when I first visited the Lady Lever with my cousin HA. This museum is not far from Liverpool and has an amazing collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings (among other great works of art). I also saw this painting in Fall 2007 when the Tate Britain hosted the well-displayed monographic exhibition of the works of Millais, curated by Alison Smith and Jason Rosenfeld. In this painting the delicacy and refinement in the eight young women, their vibrant clothes, their outdoor tea party, and the beautiful flowers and grass about them, all create a Victorian-themed fete-galante. But it is that one young woman in vibrant yellow who stares out both innocently and seductively from the lower right, and it is her presence that makes this painting erotic and disturbing at the same time. I will quote Rosenfeld, whose catalogue entry on this painting reveals all.

This painting was part of a small group of pictures Millais painted "equating new ideas of female beauty with natural and human mortality. Low and wide, they are landscape format, on a large scale. ... The girls pose on a lawn, with a low stone wall separating them from a verdant landscape filled with blooming apple trees. The resulting design is claustrophobic ... and the frieze of colourfully clad girls pushes out of the composition. ... The girl in yellow on the far right, ... posed by Alice Gray [sister-in-law of the artist], lounges on her back, a blade of grass between her lips, and looks out of the canvas in a come-hither pose. ... Only the recumbent girl on the far right looks out at the viewer; she is in a prone position and directly engages the deeper theme of the picture, hence the scythe above her. This traditional memento mori, or symbol of mortality, makes plain the meaning of the picture, that human and natural beauty will fade. The scythe is the farming implement the girls have used to cut their flowers, and also alludes to seasonal transitions, as the blossoms of the trees will ripen into fruit to be harvested. In Spring, the garden wall keeps out the wider world, but only for so long; in this season sexuality comes earlier to some than others, and along with it an awareness of its power. The girl in yellow is 'blooming', a term Millais used in his correspondence of this period to refer to young girls in maturation. ... Ultimately the figure is risque."
-- Jason Rosenfeld and Alison Smith, Millais (London: Tate, 2007), p. 136.

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