Written by Tanvi Dugar,
Images by Rahi De Roy, Astha Patel, Pranshu Thakore, Savitha Ravi, and Haritha Ravi.
Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais is an era painting made in the 1850, and completed by the year 1851-52. This painting could best be described as a personalized illustration based on the literature masterpiece, the play ‘Hamlet’ by William Shakespeare. To best understand this painting, we must take a deep dive into the history of it and try searching for ‘why’ and ‘how’ did this piece come to be. This piece made by Sir John Everett Millais was a part of the ‘Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’, this brotherhood took forward the 14th-15th century Italian art which was known for its ornate method of production, it followed a very individualist point of view when it came to art and literature, it can also be said that it followed on ahead with having humanist ideals and views. The art during this century saw a lot of character and personality in the portraitures that were made.
Now, coming back to Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and understanding what it was, this brotherhood was a group that consisted of English painters, poets, and art critics. It was founded as a reaction against unimaginative and impersonal historical paintings of the Royal Academy, this group sought out to express a new seriousness and conscience in their works. Being a painter of such a morally progressive group, Sir John Everett Millais made several pieces that proved to be very important paintings and addition to this era, academically as well.
A group of college students recently answered an open call initiated by the Tate group to recreate any chosen artwork from the list they provided. Rahi De Roy, Astha Patel, Pranshu Thakore, Savitha Ravi, and Haritha Ravi decided to to recreate Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais. When asked what made them choose this particular painting, they replied, “While conceptualising, we
intuitively agreed on the same painting, Ophelia by John Everett Millais. The Romantic aesthetic, and emotionally expressive quality of the artwork immediately drew us in. We have explored depiction of natural elements in our personal practices so the lyrical forest setting was really attractive to us. Rahi was familiar with the character of Ophelia as she has always had an interest in literature, and had written and directed a musical based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet during her school days.” . They also added that not only in Hindu mythology but also in many indigenous cultures of India, water bodies are often personified as feminine forms, stories of river goddesses and maidens born of water are prominent. “From an ecological point of view, this personification nurtures empathy and a creative relationship with these ‘bodies’, rather than a destructive one. Today, our water bodies are being choked by plastic waste and poisoned by toxic chemical effluents from industries. With our project, we embody the death of Ophelia, as a visual metaphor for a dying river”, they added.
When we see their photo submission, it is clear that there is a sense of duality so to understand that better we asked what was the duality and what was the intention behind portraying it, they said, “We were very clear that we wanted to ‘re-contextualise’ the work and not just recreate it. We discussed the dissonance between the serene and lovely visual and its tragic narrative, which is essentially about a woman being driven to madness and ending her own life. In Baroda we have the Vishwamitri river flowing through the city — in fact it is right next to our college, which is so full of plastic pollution and industrial effluents that it resembles a gutter, more than a river. And this is the case for many water bodies in towns and cities across India. In drowning Ophelia in contemporary Baroda, this was an inescapable visual and environmental reality that we incorporated in our imagined retelling. Riverine pollution is not unique to India, yet it presents a strong irony when juxtaposed with our heritage of worshipping water bodies as a form of the divine feminine.”.
Their work can we viewed on the Tate’s online gallery and is also on display on billboards around all of London! While covering and writing this article it made me think how this group of strong female artists have portrayed Ophelia in it’s all so feminine glory but also have brought forwards an ecological issue paired with a feministic point of view which honours the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood’s prerequisite of the entire art movement!