Lizzie and the Pre-Raphaelites

 

lizzie 1

Today, July 25th, marks the birthday of England’s first Victorian supermodel, Elizabeth Siddal.

Over a century before Twiggy hit swinging London, and 150 years before Tyra Banks began her search for America’s Top Model, English beauty Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal was the new face that launched a thousand ships.  She was an artist’s model for a group of cutting-edge painters known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

‘America’s Top Model’ — a reality show which takes beautiful urchins from mundane backgrounds off the streets and somehow transforms them into stunning supermodels – may actually have a lot in common with the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood ( PRB.)

In the mid 19th century a group of young painters decided to defy restrictions, throw caution to the wind and break the ceiling of what they thought had become very boring, regulated and prescription art in England.  They were led by the  rebel stud Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

lizzie dante

The PRB left behind stuffy universities to begin their own style. Their new art hearkened back to a more naturalistic pre-industrial time, and resembled Renaissance works popular before the painter Raphael became the accepted standard. (Hence the name Pre-Raphaelite.)

To our post-modern eyes, the PRB paintings might look very staid and classic, but in their own time they were quite shocking. One innovative thing the PRB did was to find their models among common people in the streets. These women were often shop girls or prostitutes. The Brotherhood would transform them into magnificent goddesses.

Elizabeth Siddal was one such model. She was born on July 25, 1829 to working class London parents. In her late teens she took a job in a hat shop in Cranbourne Alley.  In 1849 Lizzie was ‘discovered’ by PRB artist Walter Deverall, who was working on a painting to depict Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night’.

Deverall needed a model to portray the cross-dressing Viola — in her boy role as Cesario.  Elizabeth apparently had the androgynous beauty that was needed for the role.

Lizzie

Lizzie was described as: “a most beautiful creature with an air between dignity and sweetness; tall, finely-formed with a lofty neck, greenish-blue eyes, brilliant complexion and a lavish wealth of coppery golden hair.”

As luck would have it, Deverall’s model for the role of Feste the Fool was fellow painter and notorious bad boy Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Here is the entire panel, Gabriel as the court jester and Lizzie on the far left.

lizzie 12th night

When Rossetti and Elizabeth met, sparks flew. Thus began their tumultuous love affair. They became engaged and defied convention by living  together for almost ten years. They finally married in 1860.

Elizabeth became Gabriel’s chief muse. Reportedly, he painted over a thousand portraits of her.  He likened her to Beatrice Portinari, the muse of 13th century writer Dante Alighieri (author of The Divine Comedy.)  Dante was also Gabriel’s namesake and he seemed to have recreated their courtly love affair, starring himself as Dante and Lizzie as Beatrice.

lizzie beatrice

As torrid as their relationship was, Gabriel’s antics and constant affairs with other models apparently made for a not so smooth ride.  Plus, Elizabeth suffered from ill health and eventually became addicted to laudanum.

Nonetheless, they were a fascinating couple!  The PRB were the revolutionaries of Victorian London and their beautiful models were the ‘it girls’ of the day.  Elizabeth was a poet in her own right, and although her poems were never published in her lifetime, I think they are pretty good.

Here is an excerpt, called Dead Love:

Oh never weep for love that’s dead
Since love is seldom true
But changes his fashion from blue to red,
From brightest red to blue,
And love was born to an early death
And is so seldom true.

Perhaps it is a rather revealing version of her relationship with rogue Gabriel…

Elizabeth posed for numerous paintings and eventually began studying art herself, under Gabriel’s tutelage. She produced many sketches and watercolors. Art critic John Ruskin became her patron, and paid her the modest sum of £150 per year for her work. (That is about £12,000 in today’s money. Still, it was a big deal for a woman to have her own income!)

Elizabeth posed for many character portraits, but perhaps her most famous one was Ophelia by John Everett Millais.  Here she stars as Shakespeare’s tragic character from Hamlet who committed suicide by throwing herself in a river.

The image is so lifelike, you almost expect to touch her hands or smell the fragrance of her flowers.

lizzie ophelia

In real life, Elizabeth also committed suicide.

She became pregnant in 1861, but the baby, a girl, was stillborn.  Elizabeth, who also had a long history of depression, then suffered from post-partum and entered a dangerous darkness.  She died of a laudanum overdose on February 11, 1862.

Although coroners deemed her death an accident, reportedly, Lizzie left a suicide note. Gabriel later destroyed it, as he knew killing oneself in Victorian England was both illegal and immoral, and would have brought scandal upon her family.

Here is an excerpt of one of Lizzie’s eerily prophetic poems, called Early Death:

Oh grieve not with thy bitter tears
The life that passes fast;
The gates of heaven will open wide
And take me in at last.

Then sit down meekly at my side
And watch my young life flee;
Then solemn peace of holy death
Come quickly unto thee.

Now here’s where the story takes a really weird twist!

Gabriel, overcome with grief at his wife’s death, buried in her coffin a book of poems he had written to her.

Seven years later, in 1869, Gabriel became obsessed with the idea of publishing those poems.  He, along with his agent Charles Howell, applied for an order to have Elizabeth’s coffin exhumed.

Gabriel, a heavy drinker, may have really gone off the rails at this point.  Supposedly he was going blind and was no longer able to paint, and therefore looking to write and publish more poetry.

The exhuming of Lizzie’s grave was done (creepily!)  in the dead of night, so as not to draw attention.  Gabriel was not present, but Charles Howell claimed that Elizabeth, lying in the opened coffin, was still well preserved with her beauty in tact!

Also her long red hair had continued to grow, and therefore, Elizabeth’s corpse retained much of her stunning charm!

lizzie grave

(This is how vampire legends got started.  Remember, it was Victorian Times, ripe with Gothic ghost stories of the dormant  undead, and other wild imaginings.)

To be fair, laudanum is known to be a great preservative, and Lizzie had plenty of it in her body.  Also, she was no stranger to alcohol and other formaldehyde-type drugs.  She was a “devoted swallower” of Fowler’s Solution, a so-called complexion improver made from diluted arsenic.

Could all these drugs have made for a well preserved Lizzie?  It is a scientific fact that hair and nails can continue to grow after death.

I cannot help but notice another similarity to Shakespeare’s Ophelia.  Hamlet — who was Ophelia’s lover — jumped into her grave at her burial, unable to let her go.

lizzie ophelia grave

Is truth stranger than fiction?

Whatever one makes of their personal lives, the PRB no doubt left their mark in the art world.  They produced some of the most stunning, radiant and thought-provoking works ever created.

Happy Birthday Lizzie!

The TV series Desperate Romantics was a fictional account of the PRB.  If you want to know more about them (or just be fabulously entertained by Aidan Turner as Gabriel and Amy Manson as Lizzie!)  tune into this episode. Running time is about one hour. Hope you like it! 🙂

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Jack Kerouac!

 

Kerouac quote 2

He was a wide spirit, a dazzling voice that revealed a landscape of art and metaphor, a believer in humanity, a dreamer, a doer and an explorer of metaphysical consciousness. He was also a recluse, socially awkward, a drug abuser, an alcoholic and a man who became so overwhelmed with his own fame it ultimately destroyed him.

Yet to my thinking there are two types of people in this world; those that ‘get’ Kerouac, and those that do not. I am in the first category, of course 🙂

Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac (aka Jack) was born on March 12, 1922 in Lowell Massachusetts to French Canadian parents who had emigrated from Quebec.  Little Jack spoke French as a child and reportedly did not learn English until he was six years old. Yet he went on to become one of the most prolific and controversial American  writers of the 20th century.

Kerouac’s childhood was a mix of working class roots and Catholic spirituality. When Jack was just four years old, he lost his older brother Gerard to rheumatic fever. He never quite recovered from the loss and believed Gerard followed him around as a guardian angel. After meeting  Neal Cassady in the late 1940’s, the two developed a close bond and Jack always felt that Neal was possibly the reincarnation of Gerard.

Jack played football and earned a scholarship to Columbia University. It was there he met fellow writers Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.

Jack-Kerouac (1)

Jack broke his leg playing football, lost his scholarship and dropped out of school but nevertheless he, Ginsberg and Burroughs became known as the founders of the Beat Generation. Jack went on to serve in the Merchant Marine and the Navy, later taking a series of odd jobs. All the while he was writing, writing and writing more. Some of his early books were not published until after his death.

Ironically, when people think of the word Beat, they associate it with Beatniks — those cool-cat-hip beret-wearing bongo players who eventually took over the poetry cafe scene. This idea was, however, not what Kerouac & company intended. The true meaning of Beat, Kerouac insisted, was the feeling his generation had after being ‘beat down’ by World War 2. It also referred to beatific, as in the Beatitudes of the Bible. The Beats were a marginalized segment of American society; leftover hobos, shell shocked veterans, ramshackle misfits — the exact types of characters Jack met during his cross country adventures. They shared a longing for the Divine.

His masterpiece novel ‘On The Road’ was published in 1957.  It brought him almost instant fame and success. That success was, in reality, hard earned, as Kerouac had spent most of his life as a poor drifter and outcast bum. Fame and fortune overwhelmed and eventually devastated him.

A restless heart, often accused of misogyny, Kerouac was married three times and had one daughter. His life followed a nomadic pattern that he could never quite resolve.  He made his home in various places around the country, never truly settling down. On The Road is a thinly disguised memoir of his trips between the East and West coasts. He often traveled with best friend Neal Cassady.

The Beat movement represented a certain type of freedom, patriotism and love for the land. Apple pie diners, Colorado cowboys, Frisco jazz clubs, purple mountains, red rock deserts and the tranquility of nature.  Jack began to study Buddhism in his quest for spirituality.  In later years, the peace loving Hippies of Haight Ashbury would pay tribute to  the Beats.

Jack may have had a guardian angel, but his demons never left him.

Jack-Kerouac

After he achieved literary success, his privacy became a thing of the past. He was now a celebrated author, the spotlight forced upon him.  Still socially awkward, Jack took to heavy drinking. He once told his friend and fellow poet Fran Landesman that he would have liked to commit suicide, but because his Catholic faith prevented him from doing so, he had decided to simply drink himself to death.

It worked. Jack Kerouac died on October 21, 1969 at the young age of 47.  The official cause of his death was internal bleeding due to alcohol abuse. Jack had once said he wrote his novels because “we’re all gonna die.”  Luckily for us, his words live on.

Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs wrote this musical tribute ‘Hey Jack Kerouac’:

This short documentary (30 minutes) captures some of the most important parts of Kerouac’s life. Hope you enjoy it!

 

 

 

The Train

 

train-suicide

Slicing a wrist was too messy. Besides, I had heard it was ineffective unless one got the proper angle of the vein. I imagined it as slow, tedious and painful.  Forget shotguns. I did not own one and even if I did I would not know how to fire. There was drowning. But I knew I was much too good of a swimmer.

What then? To put my head in the oven was not fair. It may cause an explosion leaving a mess for others to clean up after I was gone.  Pills? Again risky.  I’d have to take a boatload of something and even then they might not do the job.  Cyanide, I had read, was the most effective poison, but that was of course nearly impossible to obtain.

That left only two options: hanging or the railroad tracks. Hanging would be cleaner, no blood. But still it was atrocious. Someone must find me, neck bruised and face white, swinging from the stairwell.  They’d get the shock of their lives, a vision so hideous they may not be able to erase it from memory.

And so the train. It happened all the time. At least once a month I heard about suicides by train.  The Metro ran non-stop. The Metro can NOT stop. It’s not like it  would be anyone’s fault except my own.  Oh sure, it would be bloody.  But my blood would soak the land, maybe even seep to the grass as fertilizer, wild violets blooming relentlessly within cracks of the sidewalk.   Dead on arrival they could quickly do away with my body. Simple. A tiny blurb on the news, if that. I hoped not. I hated the news.

I sat on the tracks. Remembered my family. My friends. How I had given no inkling to anyone of my desire. They would be deeply grieved. But they would get over it. Maybe.

Then of course there was my cat. No one to feed him. No one to clean his box. Yet cats are resilient. Nine lives. I pictured him, wandering the house. He’d wonder where I had gone. He missed me when I went away, yet this time I would not be coming back.  I wondered if he’d howl in desperation. My cat, usually so quiet, only let out a yelp if in pain.  This would pain him.

cat-on-tracks

I heard the warning horn of the train.

The night was dark, tiny sliver of a moon glinting in the black sky.  The new moon, so they say, holds new beginnings. Oh but I had tried this beginning so many times before, all to no avail. My life closed in upon me. “Failure,” the voice said. “Failure! Loser! Burden! Not worth the ground you walk on.”

Traffic ran along the boulevard. Drivers stopped at the red light at the bottom of the hill. Cars parked at the Chinese restaurant, passengers staggering with bags of late night chow mein. Voices cackled, television blaring from open doors of the Blackthorn pub.  Were all of them oblivious to the grief of this world?

“Four thousand deaths in Chicago,” Mr. Trump had said in the candidates’ debate. “All by gun violence.” He was right of course. Somewhere in my city, someone was being shot  at that very moment.

I’d pay a banger to kill me if I had the money. If I thought he would do it. He would not. That’s the irony.

“Seven billion people and every single one has a problem,” my neighbor Mrs. Gotti had once told me.  I thought of Mrs. Gotti in her kitchen, apron dusted in flour, hair woven in a bun.  Homemade pasta, she made it from scratch through an old fashioned press. And Christmas cookies, wafer thin, laced with sugar.  I’d never learned how to make my own. What else had I never learned?

The second warning horn blared, deafening my ears.

My cat. Green eyes.  My friend Bjorn. Scruffy jeans, red wisp of a goatee. He had once told me,  “You are an inspiring person.” We’d read tarot together, walked in the woods at solstice, stopped to admire trees.  We played music till dawn, Bjorn beating his drums, me pounding my keyboard like the punk rock Carpenters.  But now. Inspired to die.

The third warning horn sounded, louder than the others.

My thoughts raced in synch with the horn. The shriek taunted.  Now or never now or never now or nevernowornevernowornever

Now.

dark-lady-10

I rose from the stones, gym shoes slipping. Laces untied, they could just as easily have bound me, wedged in the rails like that boy in Fried Green Tomatoes. Then I’d tremble in the few seconds before my self destruction became inevitable.

But no. Not today.

Maybe someday, but not today.  Suicide was a business best left unfinished.

 

to-anyone-who-has-had-suicidal-thoughts

suicide-quote-1

 

September is Suicide Awareness/ Prevention Month.

Please don’t kill yourself today.

 

Please Don’t Kill Yourself Today

 

Gothic-Fallen-Angel-gothic pd

Sometimes, in the throes of depression we can lose our interest in life. We forget that we are needed, wanted and vital in this world. We forget what we were once passionate  about. We may even forget the many reasons we have to stay alive.

The sun is always there although sometimes obscured by the clouds. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. (Blah blah blah. Those sound like old cliche’s, I know. However, they are true.)  Often, a good way to reconnect is to think in terms of simplicity.

When I find myself sinking to the lowest depths I try remember the simple things that I am passionate about.

Animals.  (Cats do not believe in depression. Have you noticed?)

jasper-2

 

Nature. (Flowers follow the sun.)

my-flowers-1

 

Books. (Always a potential happy ending. And if not, I am reminded that things could be a lot worse.)

MEDION DIGITAL CAMERA

September 2016 is suicide prevention awareness month.

Please don’t kill yourself today.

quote

 

 

 

 

 

Smile at Someone Today

 

flower-smiley-pd

 

Teetering on the edge.  Just what is needed to recharge the spirit?

Today, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention Day.

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is a popular suicide location. (Somehow  ‘popular’ seems an odd word to use in this case. It is like saying the “No.1 suicide hot spot! Get your tickets now!”)

golden-gate-bridge-pd

Other ‘popular’ locations include Japan’s Aokigahara Forest (aka the ‘sea of trees’ and or ‘suicide forest’) and England’s Beachy Head.  Suicide is so common in these places that signs are posted urging potential victims to seek help.

The jump from the Golden Gate Bridge is 250 feet. Most victims die from the impact of the body hitting the water which can instantly demolish the central nervous system, transect the spinal cord and rip blood vessels. Not the mention the terror of falling which can cause an immediate heart attack. Even if they make it to the bottom alive, there is always the chance of drowning and shark attacks.  Reportedly, only 1% of those who jump survive.

One suicide victim who died jumping off the bridge left a note saying:

“I’m going to walk to the bridge.  If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.”

He jumped.

skull-smiling-pd