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October 08, 2007

Millais is shown at Tate Britain at both his unexpected best and also at his all too dreadful worst, finds David Wootton: Millais at Tate Britain

Posted by David Wootton

Tate Britain, London
26th September 2007 - 13th January 2008
Daily 10am - 5.40pm (last admission 5pm)

What to make of Millais? He was a precocious genius, producing wonderful work by the age of eleven. In the course of his life he explored almost every genre of painting - portraits, landscapes, historical narratives, and works that look as if they ought to be narratives, but one doesn't know what the story is. He did illustrations for books, and he pioneered, with paintings like Bubbles and Cherry Ripe, paintings intended for mass market reproduction - Bubbles even became part of an advertising campaign for Pears soap.

Millais painted important people and rich people - prime ministers, poets, and society hostesses. When young, he played a crucial role in an important art movement, that of the pre-Raphaelites, and later he became a sort of proto-impressionist. He made a lot of money, but what does he amount to as an artist?

Two things stood out for me in this striking, vexing, and at moments wonderful exhibition. First Millais begins his career just as photography is being invented, and one of the things he does throughout is play with our expectations as to how a picture should be composed. In classical painting - let us call it post-Raphaelite painting - our eyes are led to a limited number of places in the painting which seem of heightened importance. But in Millais' pre-Raphaelite work everything is of importance, as if one were to take a photograph where everything was in focus. A woman stands by a window, but what you see through the window is painted in every exquisite detail, every leaf every petal seems as important as anything about her. Ophelia drowns, but the water and the weeds are as important as she is.

Often the way in which the background seems to force itself forward creates a strange effect: figures look as they have been cut our and stuck on top of a previously existing painting, the lines around them are so sharp, the relationship to the background so unmediated.

Then in later work Millais tries the opposite tack - in portraits such as Bright Eyes or Louise Jopling. The background becomes completely abstract and tells us nothing about the sitter's location or context, as if the figure was emerging, bold as brass, out of a mist. It is as if he had gone from imagining a photograph with perfect depth of field to imagining one with almost no depth of field at all. And at times one finds him trying out other photographic tricks - in the "abrupt cropping" as the caption calls it of Waking.

Even Millais' preoccupation with ghostly and supernatural effects reminds me of what photography can achieve. So if I was looking for something in this exhibition that I wasn't finding, it was an account of the relationship between painting and photography during Millais' long career, 1840-96. Millais seems to me at every moment a post-photographic artist.

Second, a large number of Millais' paintings - for me much the most interesting of his paintings - speak of a very particular idea of women. There is a whole range of history paintings, such as The Order of Release, where an injured man relies on a strong woman, and others, such as The Proscribed Royalist or The Black Brunswicker where the painting is much more about the woman than the man. There are strange fragmentary narratives, such as The Vale of Rest, where two nuns are digging a grave - man's work, if ever there was any. There are portraits of women who seem hopelessly trapped by the demands of conventional femininity, such as Hearts are Trumps.

But most of all there is an astonishing series of paintings who seem to have the strength of character, the forcefulness of expression, the physical resilience to triumph in a man's world the most striking, for me, is Meditation (owned by King's College Cambridge), which I have been unable to find on the web, and which is poorly reproduced in the catalogue; but there are numerous others: Isabella, Bright Eyes, Sophie Gray, Lalla Rookh, Esther, Louise Jopling, Kate Perugini. The caption to Esther refers to

a new idea of female beauty and power
and that seems exactly right. It would be wrong, I think, to claim him as a feminist artist, but right to say that he responds with pleasure to strength in women - and there does seem to be something new in this. One might compare Louise Jopling with Gainsborough's remarkable portrait of Mary Countess Howe at Kenwood. Gainsborough's countess may be exciting, but she is also a rather nasty piece of work; Jopling may have been horrified that Millais had painted her with a defiant, rather than a sugary-sweet, expression, but she was also rather pleased - and thought the painting was one you would want to live with (see here for both the picture and her account of sitting for Millais). Gainsborough's painting always seems to me to hint at sado-masochism; Millais' does not.

Is Millais a great painter? There are paintings here I couldn't bear to spend time with (one study, for example, of two little girls in red dresses); others that seem to me merely exploitative (Cherry Ripe for example - I don't suspect Millais of being a Charles Dodgson, but I do suspect him of exploiting a market consisting in part of men like Dodgson). There are works that seem inseparable from a jingoistic history of empire (I rather think The Boyhood of Raleigh was reproduced in my childhood copy of Our Island Story; but the early Isabella is a breathtaking example of historical narrative).

But then there are some quite astonishing portraits, almost always of women. And there is one work, The Blind Girl, a passionate hymn to the wonders of sight, in which Millais plays with the pre-Raphaelite conventions of realism (he went to great lengths to paint in situ) while stretching and distorting them: here Millais seems to step outside himself and become someone else entirely, for this painting is quite unlike any other in the exhibition. Yes, he was a great painter; but much of the time he was just exceptionally proficient. The strength of the Tate exhibition is that it shows him at his unexpected best, and at his all too dreadful worst.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York. He is the author of Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates.

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