In which our Diva has been missing the obvious
the whole Lizzie Siddal thing started for me with her self-portrait. It's been a solid twenty years now, but I still vividly recall flipping through Jan Marsh's Pre-Raphaelite Women in the bookstore at Okemos Mall (a relatively convenient bus ride from my Michigan State dorm) and stopping short at this image with a near-physical shock of something very like recognition.
Over the years, I've pondered where that reaction came from. It's not that I actually think she looked that much like me (though it's also not hard to figure out how a pale, skinny, redheaded dreamer promptly developed an enduring fascination for her). It's the expression that reached out and grabbed me, eloquent of concentration and minute examination.
Lizzie painted herself... painting herself. Studying, perhaps even criticizing. Descriptions of the portrait -- just nine inches in diameter, and Lizzie's first and most successful known work in oil -- usually contrast its directness with the downcast gazes and romantic glamor of Rossetti's many portraits of her. It's part of the reason my work-in-progress finally acquired the title Unvarnished.
The easy conclusion to draw is that Rossetti (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the other artists she sat for) projected a particular image onto her, and there's a lot to be said for that conclusion (hey, look, it's another Beatrice, and another, and Gabriel, honey, this is becoming an issue), but it doesn't necessarily follow that she painted The Truth in counterpoint to his romantic embellishment.
In fact, as occurred to me in a headsmacking moment the other day, it wasn't physically possible for her to do so. Which I knew, of course, but I hadn't quite thought through the implications this way before.
This train of thought brings to mind this blog post I read a year and a half ago, in which Cleolinda (who writes the sidesplittingly funny "Movies in Fifteen Minutes" recaps as well as the best good-natured skewering of Twilight you will ever encounter) states, quite clearly and cogently, what should be obvious but isn't necessarily, about what we see in the mirror vs. what everyone else sees.
And that's just in the purely physical sense, before you get into the mindgames we play with ourselves. And oh, do we play them. My own relationship with the mirror remains largely that of a dancer -- it's a tool for finding faults, but also for fixing them, and most of all for practicing and adjusting what I show to the world. I get along much better with my reflection than with most photos of me (which is probably why Cleo's post stuck with me), but still... Well, there's a reason that searching, critical look in Lizzie's eyes is so very, very familiar.
It's funny that, as Kirsty Stonell Walker pointed out in a post a few months back over at The Kissed Mouth, there's a metric truckload of Victorian art assuming women's relationship with the mirror to be all about vanity. But I'm inclined to think that then, as now, it was a whole lot more complicated than "Oh, look at how pretty I am!" I can't help but imagine that within each painting where the viewer sees a glamorous nymph admiring herself, the nymph herself sees something a bit more stark looking back at her.
Jane Eyre painted Blanche Ingram as imagined perfection, on ivory with her finest pigments, before ever meeting her in person -- and depicted herself on plain paper with every flaw laid bare. All those dudes painting the girls in love with their mirrors should have checked with Miss Bronte or Miss Siddal for the real score.
(And on that note, back to my reflection of Lizzie, coming soon to a stage near you. Just as soon as it has a whole script. I'm getting there. This thought process is distilling its way in as we speak...)