Painting backgrounds – a weekend of art films

For two hours, or thereabouts, on Saturday I was held utterly absorbed by a film and, straight afterwards, held interested enough to avidly cross-reference what I had just seen with some reading until bedtime. The film was called ‘Effie Gray’ and it took me on an extraordinary trip through the doomed (later annulled) marriage of Gray to Victorian art critic, John Ruskin, and the beginnings of her relationship with artist John Everett Millais, to whom she later became married.

Emma Thompson’s well-supported and sensitively handled screenplay delivered loads of food for thought and a wonderfully atmospheric nugget of the art scene at the time, slotting in with other threads that I have been exploring in this space. The crux of its plot-line is that this marriage of six-years duration remained unconsummated for reasons that first elude and then torture Gray. We watch Ruskin’s optimistic young bride, groomed as his wife since childhood, thrown into bewilderment, self-loathing then illness and despair, her hair falling out in chunks, as he persists in an aloof treatment of her that is painful to behold, both for us as distant audience across the annuls of time, watching his ruthless indifference with ever more grim fascination, and for the artist Millais. The latter, an up-and-coming star of the painting scene, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and Ruskin’s latest protigee, gets to witness this strange marriage at very close quarters on a painting trip to the Scottish highlands where he and Gray develop a sense of solidarity and then an attachment to each other.

I knew I had Ruskin’s ‘The Stones of Venice’ somewhere on my bookcase…there it was, right next to Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’…and had dipped into this years ago yet still knew relatively little about him, the man. My post-film delving brought up some interesting links to recent blog topics; he was a supporter of the Pre-Raphaelites in the days when their approach to art was still considered repugnant by the ruling traditionalists of the London art scene; Ruskin’s philosophy was later held very close to the heart of William Morris, who I’ve written about more than once recently. The thing he, Morris and even Blake (subject of my last art post) had in common was an abhorrence for the industrialisation of society – or, the division of labour – and, in the process, the loss of true ‘hands on’ craftsmanship and skill plus that all-important interrelationship of the ‘organising’ and ‘making’ aspects of society (Blake’s ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’) which, through their systematic disengagement from one another, were perpetrating the destruction of civilisation. Ruskin’s belief was that without the linchpin of a mutual investment in these two factors…workmen being invested in thinking for themselves and allowed to bring personal expression to all that they do; organisers being involved in how things work (not distanced and detached from the ‘factory floor’)…everything begins to collapse; an idea that could be said to have been shared by all three. To quote Ruskin:

“We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.”

So, that blatant cross-over with the subject of some of my other recent ponderings caught my attention, as did Ruskin’s support of the Pre-Raphaelites when few others were prepared to stick their heads over the parapet to do so. In a way that distinctly reminds me of Blake’s view that ‘innocent’ youth possesses innate knowledge that is lost with the onset of cultural ‘teaching’, Ruskin saw in the Pre-Raphaelite’s youthful, fresh approach to painting a huge quantity of merit versus the establishment painters who stuck rigidly to a learned and accepted approach to art that had become nothing but a Raphael-revering formula. He argued that, in harking back to an era that pre-dated Raphael, the Pre-Raphaelites were not actually mimicking anything ‘medieval’ at all (a criticism levelled at them) but bringing something quite new, fresh and honest to the table. Here’s the viewpoint that really grabbed me: he believed that art owed a duty to God to depict all things exactly as they are, warts and all, as experienced and seen with the eyes, including all the less aesthetic aspects, the grime and decay and more repugnant aspects of life if they are part of the natural order of things, along with what is most pleasing to the eye or picturesque. This all-inclusiveness could have been Blake; could, indeed, be my own full-spectrum viewpoint of art and of life – wholeness being that which incorporates it all, swirling it all together, blending every colour, including both the light and the dark.

So why, given that, could Ruskin not accept the reality of his own flesh-and blood wife? There has been so much speculation around this subject, so many words written, even more dramatisations and screenplays of which ‘Effie Gray’ is simply the latest in a long line. My own immediate thought, one since tripped upon several times as a theory, is that when confronted with his wife’s nakedness on their wedding night, he was taken aback and repulsed by her pubic hair, having only ever been accustomed to seeing the female form as popularly depicted in classical sculpture and in the very art he criticised for its selective ‘honesty’; smooth, white and perfected.  Whatever went wrong that night, it only became more convoluted and destructive with time, Ruskin withdrawing more and more while his wife was pushed out into society almost as though he wanted her to ‘slip up’ so that he could, then, justify his own abhorrence towards her, labelling her a harlot and all those things she was so clearly not, which would then provide him with the opportunity to disown her. So, what had gone wrong? He had set his sights on her, as his future bride, when she was just twelve years old…a little girl, a ‘pure vessel’ as he saw her (even writing a fairy story, ‘The King of the Golden River’, for her). Yet, by the time she had come-of-age and now that he (through marriage, in Victorian terms) possessed her, it was as though he could not cope with the true womanhood of her mature self (how ironic coming from a man who supported the acceptance of all things natural, just as they are); a pattern that was repeated in his later fixation with at least two other under-age girls, one of whom he tried to become engaged to until her parents found out what had happened with Effie (for fascinating reading about the degree of his lifelong emotional-stuckness, in this respect, the article Morbid Love is worth a dip).

Rather than get deeply caught up into the personal circumstances of this tragic story…for tragic, sad and bewildering I found it to be, for the duration of a film…I am, rather, fascinated by what this says about the Victorians who, in so many ways, were beginning to pull at some extremely promising threads and yet, in this very fundamental way, they were still so cut off, at the root, from their own wholeness through the negation of all that is divine about both the male and female aspects together, in balance and fully meeting each other, as found nature and in all things. To the Victorian, purity meant separation, denial, mutual exclusiveness, abstinence, inviolable beauty that could only be seen but never touched, purity so sacrosanct that it would disappear like a bubble burst if ‘violated’ by any aspect of the physical. In their own beings, they had become as utterly disengaged from the physical as they were busily exploiting the physical world, industrially, scientifically; it was all about dominion, not embrace. In not getting past the stuckness of this belief, at the core of his own personal life, Ruskin tripped over an elephant at the heart of his own theories because to accept all of nature as he intended to means to merge all, to consummate, to blend everything to the point where the full spectrum of all experience manifests its own version of purity, the ‘white’ that is made up of every colour, the light that comes from completeness. His marriage to Effie remains tragically incomplete, as a result of which both parties languish in their own version of misery yet both have been rendered so tragically naive by their own upbringings that they hardly know why, which makes for fascinating watching; a thought-provoking way of spending a couple of hours, I highly recommend this film.

A few words about John Everett Millais: an artist who was on my most favourite list as a teenager though he’s been ridden a bit rough shod by critics who find his work sentimental or a little-bit chocolate box (or should I say soap packaging…being mostly well-known for the Pears advert ‘Bubbles’ boy). To me, so much of the appeal of Pre-Raphaelite art lies in their high-realism, combined with wonderful light and incredible colour; a rainbow-vivid world where tangible emotion (a facial expression, body stance or simple gesture that speaks a thousand words) is as regular a subject as any other kind of high-drama narrative. This was my kind of world: emotion-based, sensual, thoughtful, often mystical and allegorical in its themes, with layers upon layers of meaning to feast upon. Millais’s attention to detail brought such a world to life, for me; his work featured very prominently in the collection of postcards stuck by the side of my bed, including what I now know was the first painting he ever did of Effie when she was still married to Ruskin, ‘Order of Release’, which depicts a husband’s obvious relief to return home to his family and place his head on his wife’s shoulder after she has, clearly, secured his release from imprisonment; there is something prophetic and highly symbolic in that – not just for Millais but for all of us!

After he married Effie and they produced eight children, critics have said, he lost his pre-Raphaelite touch, his style became looser, his output…they also say…focussed more on rapid turnaround and commercial viability than his previous high-standards. Well, while no artist with a family to support can argue against the necessity of considering such priorities, in a world where making a livelihood as an artist has never got any easier, I can’t help feeling that this so-called slip in standards was no more than the natural evolution of the man. No painter worth their salt stays the same, paints the same, year after year (however popular and in-demand their earlier style) and marriage and fatherhood would have, inevitably, had an impact on his preoccupations. I like to think that they softened him with love; he was well-known as a doting father to his children and, by all accounts, made Effie considerably happier than she was in her first marriage. Millais said of his own output that he never placed an ill considered stroke on any canvas and I can well believe that. The career he built was, by anyone’s standards, hugely successful and I love that this film has led me to newly appraise the man who was one of the first loves of my art-awakening.

My second ‘art film’ of the weekend was ‘Mr. Turner’, which I generated much excitement in myself about when I heard it had a corresponding exhibition at Petworth House – where a small part of it was filmed – but, it seems, popularity of the film has caused all tickets to the exhibition, still running for another couple of weeks, to quickly ‘sell out’ in advance. The NT invited me to turn up on spec, just in case they could squeeze me in at some point but I gracefully declined, being such a long drive there for a non-guaranteed viewing and as reviews are very mixed; much of the display consisting of props from the film and Turner paintings that I have seen on previous visits to the house.

More importantly, back to the film; a bio-pic of an artist’s life (in this case JMW Turner) is always an acquired taste, though perhaps more appealing to a fellow artist, even if this one has attracted top reviews and various nominations. At almost two and a half hours long, it was also one to save up for an evening when I was prepared to make the epic journey if it. Of the two films of my weekend, I confess, I enjoyed ‘Effie Gray’ the most for being a more rounded ‘story’ and something less like a long, chronological slog through a thirty-ish year period of history.

For all that, and an ‘interesting’ portrayal of Turner, I enjoyed it a great deal and it has left a colourful impression upon me, even if I’m not sure if I will ever look at a Turner painting in quite the same light again. To what degree should our impression of the artist behind the work affect our ‘take’ of the work is the question this gives rise to. Actor Timothy Spall presents Turner as an extremely singular character; one who is as snorting, grunting and spitting (possibly more so) than the pig whose head is brought home, early in the film, to make his hog-hair brushes from. Coarse, insensitive and so utterly lacking in social graces that he is almost painful to watch, I found myself thinking that it was a wonder the RA of the time let him in. For at least the first hour, I found it hard to settle into such a comic depiction, a caricature, but mostly struggled to reconcile the person with the art. Having now watched to the end, I see where this was going: artists (and all of this overview applies to myself) tend to be very singular personalities, they often do lack easy social graces, going around life being intensely preoccupied with matters that don’t tend to occupy the thoughts or priorities of others. They also skit around from one thing to another, its difficult to hold their attention with the mundane and they are quickly diverted by a change of the light, or whatever most fascinates them, changing impulse or direction as quickly as some of the very sea-skies that Turner painted for much of his career; radiant one minute, brooding the next. I confess, I am all of that, complex in the extreme and not everybody’s cup-of-tea when you meet me (though, hopefully,  I don’t grunt or snort) so I applaud a film that endeavours to capture something suggestive of those qualities about the artist-persona.

Turner’s fixation, all through his life (no less mine!) was ‘the light’ and as he pursued this relentlessly with his brushes, his style became more and more abstract – far more abstract than the Victorians were ready for – and so, like Millais, he dropped out of favour for having failed to consistently deliver what was most popular about his work; his romantic sea and landscapes with dramatic skies and well defined subjects. The ‘horrible yellow mess’ that he produced towards the end (to paraphrase the damning words of a young Queen Victoria in the film) was not a popular phase of his career…at the time; and yet it is these, along with his watercolour studies of skies, that first captured my attention and held it there – for being fluid, radiant, transient, light-filled and many more of my favourite things in paint. He never gave up on his search for light: his final words on his deathbed, included in the film, were apparently “the sun is God”.

That other thread running uneasily through the film, loosely tying it to the first film of this post, is Turner’s uneasy relationship with women. He apparently visited brothels a great deal (touched upon only briefly in the film), sexually exploited his loyal and obviously besotted housekeeper at whim, had two daughters by another woman in whom he showed no interest, financial or emotional (when one of them dies, in the film, he manages a shrug) and, late in his life, set up a second home with a widow who becomes as close a thing to a wife as he had ever had, posing incognito as her husband, largely (it feels like) because of the later-life comforts she bestowed upon him without expecting anything in return.

Brought up in the film is the fact that his own mother was taken off to the asylum when he was a boy for being ‘a lunatic’. Wikipedia uses the enigmatic phrase ‘showing signs of mental disturbance’, a description wooly enough to imply menopause, depression or sheer frustration at her lot in life, though in those days that was often enough to lock you up in the horrors of Bedlam; which, in her case, it did! When I think of the woman sent mad by circumstance, I summon up Millais’ painting of ‘Ophelia’ (see header) every time. Turner grunts and spittles even more than usual at reference made to his mother on his father’s deathbed; one minute damning her then making spiteful fun of her but its an uncomfortable scene as you witness his total lack of understanding, love or respect for the woman who gave him life and the screenplay does much to demonstrate how such treatment of women became a self-perpetuating pattern by planting such loathing in the hearts and minds of young boys whose mothers were conveniently sidelined out of their experience at the first sign of ‘heightened’ behaviour, only for them to enter into an adult world both embittered by the so-called abandonment and clueless as to the role of women in their world. You can’t help wondering how different treatment of his mother and whatever issues she had, and less readiness to declare her insane, might have profoundly altered his own relationship with women – and so with life. Perhaps, at least, he might have discovered a little more light in places other than the sky and in circumstances that were a little less abstract and other-worldly than his later work suggests.

Interestingly Ruskin, of the ‘Effie Gray’ film, plays a part in ‘Mr Turner’ (along with a fleeting appearance by his wife) though the two could not be depicted any more contrastingly in this film if they had set out to be quite different; which is ample reminder that all films ever do is present just one of many possible interpretations of what ‘really’ happened. Ruskin, in this depiction, is a precocious, lisping buffoon rather than a withdrawn, wooden intellectual – in fact, this portrayal was so much like a comic parody of the other that it made me laugh out-loud and I couldn’t take this part of the screenplay seriously at all. In ‘real’ life, Ruskin was a great enthusiast of Turner’s work, his most outspoken champion during his life and afterwards, considering him to be the most ‘truthful’ of artists in the way that he portrayed a world so close to nature. Tying the two films together in a rather neat bow, the fact that ‘Effie Gray’ begins with a brief mention of Turner just as ‘Mr. Turner’ includes a sizeable cameo of Ruskin makes the two films pair-together particularly well.

By the end of Turner’s story, we are left seeing and feeling that times have well-and-truly landed in the Victorian era as he paints the hellish steam and fire of his first-seen locomotive, mentions that construction of the Crystal Palace ‘glass cathedral’ is well underway and goes off to get his photograph portrait taken, commenting wryly that soon everyone will be carrying boxes like these around, instead of their paints, on their travels; the art of capturing a landscape made available to all – how prophetic. As though to seal his belief that he has become a ‘nonentity’ in this new age, we get to see Turner’s face awash with bewilderment accompanied by the sound of another throaty grunt at first sight of Pre-Raphaelite paintings at the RA as the camera pans across Millais’ painting ‘Mariana’ – of a woman back-stretching at a window, waiting, waiting…waiting for her man to come, for life to start…but at last, someone has noticed her plight sufficiently to paint it, to capture the emotion, the frustration, the boredom, the sacrifice, the imprisonment, the unnaturalness, the waste inherent in it all when she could be free of her gilded cage, outside in nature, instead of embroidering its replica in a dreary room as the leaves of her youth turn to brown. With the Pre-Raphaelites, you get a first real sense that a woman’s lot is no longer swept under the carpet or used as nothing more than to embellish a painting but made the subject of art until, maybe, someone might notice. Art brought back to earth, to the ‘mundane’, to the world of men and women, to what matters in life; well, anyway, it was as promising start. My weekend was suddenly brought full circle.


Related posts

…and then the sun burst through

Two exhibitions and a day of unlikely marriages

Of peacocks and dragons

Where the circle meets the line


About Helen White

Helen White is a professional artist and published writer with two primary blogs to her name. Her themes pivot around health and wellbeing, expanded consciousness and ways of noticing how life is a constant dance between the deeply subjective and the collective-universal, all of which she explores with a daily hunger to get to know herself better. Her blog Living Whole shines a light on living with high sensitivity, dealing with trauma and healing from chronic health issues. Spinning the Light is an extremely broad-based platform where she elucidates the everyday alchemy of relentless self-exploration. A lifetime of "feeling like an outsider" slowly emerged as neurodivergence (being a Highly Sensitive Person with ADHD, synaesthesia, sensory processing challenges and other defecits overlapping with giftedness). All of these topics are covered in her blogs, written from two distinct vantage points so, if you have enjoyed one of them, you may wish to explore the other for a different, yet entirely complimentary, perspective.
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4 Responses to Painting backgrounds – a weekend of art films

  1. Pingback: …and then the sun burst through | scattering the light

  2. Pingback: Circles, squares and triangles | Helen White – Painting Light

  3. Amazing thoughtful writing and serious thinking make reading your post a delight! Thank you!–Carol

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