Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Happy Birthday to Me! (again) (for the sixth time)

Birthday felicitations upon each and every one of you lovely people because today is the sixth anniversary of The Kissed Mouth!  It was way back in 2011 that I started this nonsense and haven't we come a long way?  A new edition of Stunner and two novels later, I feel we have all become such good chums.  I only regret that I can't have all of you round to tea for some cake today, but as I get 50,000 hits on this blog a month, I'm not sure I have enough chairs.  Anyway, I am grateful to each and every one of you for your support because without you I'd just be some strange woman, sniggering at her own jokes.  So what have we been up to in the last year...?

May 2016


Actually, in late April I featured a story about how Jane Morris helped some seamstresses in a time of poverty, which gave me a new respect for the normally silent Mrs Morris.  Into May, and I started with various images of St. Cecilia, playing her musical instruments and dying horribly.  I followed up with a piece about photographic genius Oscar Rejlander and his connection to Julia Margaret Cameron and Freshwater. One of my favourite subjects from last year was next, the story of the Silver Domino, which has to be my image of the month...
I must try and get hold of a physical copy of the book because that cover is so beautiful, but in the post I provide a link to download it for free. I followed it up with a post about singing, a subject dear to my heart, and of course you poor souls have been witness to my singing on this blog.  I finished the month with a review of the follow up film to Alice in Wonderland, Disney's Alice through the Looking Glass, which was even more bonkers than the first one and had absolutely nothing to do with the books...

June 2016


I thoroughly enjoyed the Tate's exhibition Painting with Light last Summer, reviewed here, so much so I saw it twice.   I also had the pleasure of reading the saucy Victorian shenanigans of Abigail Jones.  We chatted about 'The Gardener's Daughter' by Tennyson and its associated paintings.  Can I just repeat the phrase 'The lime a summer home of murmurous wings'? Goodness me, I may never get over how beautiful 'murmurous wings' is.  It was in June that I ruined my browser history by Googling 'golden shower' for my piece on Danaë, from which my image of the month comes...


Danaë (c.1900) Carolus Duran
Smashing!  Last on the list for June was a piece on hammocks and the delights of swinging in a garden.  It's such a lovely day today, I wouldn't mind a bit of that right now. Snigger.

July 2016


We started July wondering why Burne-Jones' paintings had people endlessly reaching for each other.  I followed that with a review of A S Byatt's new book on Morris and Fortuny. It is possibly the strangest book I have read this year, not really a biography but more of a personal relationship with the work of the men and their relationship to each other.  Interesting and beautifully illustrated.  It is a very indulgent book, but in a nice way.  It was in July that I found I had never done a post on kissing.  How is that possible?! That was swiftly rectified and much snogging ensued.  In fact, have a bit more...


The Kiss Henry John Stock
I also reviewed a tiny book on Julia Margaret Cameron which is a concise version of Virginia Woolf's sort-of biography of her great aunt. Not only that but I reviewed a marvellous novel by William Rose, about The Strange Case of Madeleine Seguin. I also reached my 600th post in July and marked it with a piece all about images of visually impaired people in honour of my gloriously blind-as-a-bat daughter, who absolutely needs no-one's pity.

August 2016


August seemed to be the month I rambled on about my love of Tennyson illustrations, as both this post on 1920s illustration of his work and this one on a 1960s 'Lady of Shalott' occurred this month. I also talked about pubic hair far more than was necessary with a post about hiding your naughty bits in Victorian art. Come on, let's have a bit more nudity, this time with the lady covered up and the gentleman with his winkle out. Makes a nice change...


Phyllis and Demophoon (1870) Edward Burne-Jones
Finally, heading into the bank holiday, we visited the exhibition of Georgiana Houghton and her spirit drawings, which was absolutely fascinating and I hope we get more information about her incredible drawings in the future.

September 2016


In September I took up swimming and so obviously did a post about Victorian swimming images. There were a plethora of bathing machines, winsome maidens on rocks and mermaids, which is splendid stuff all round.  I also revealed how Julia Margaret Cameron's maid, Mary Hillier (my current obsession) worked for Tennyson in the place of her sister for two months, and how different those households must have been...


Mary Hillier (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron
Many thanks to everyone who encourages me with my book on Mary and I can report it is coming along fine, although slowly.  Writing non-fiction rather than fiction is a difficult business but I am having enormous fun.  Hopefully I will bring you more news soon...

October 2016


In October my washing machine broke and I spent a short and miserable time being a scrubber.  I have never wanted a mangle so much in the whole of my life.  It was also the month we launch #RememberFanny, about which I hope to talk to you some more soon. Not far from where I live is a railway station in the New Forest which sports a fascinating collection of Julia Margaret Cameron prints in honour of when she used to cross from there to the Wight, so we went and had a look at them.  It was also the month that I published this piece about what should and shouldn't be talked about in biography (a subject I would return to).  It was in response to a piece I had written on Beatrice Offor, which had led to me getting some particularly nasty emails from an apparent descendant of the artist who didn't like the fact I had reported (from facts, you know me) that someone had died in an asylum and Offor herself had committed suicide.

'Dear Ms Stonell Walker, me and my mates are coming round to duff you up...'
 I removed my piece on Offor because honestly, I get enough hassle from overly-intense people about subjects I really care about, but the whole encounter would give me a taste of what was to come when I reviewed Victorians Undone.  Ho hum, we live and learn. Anyway, the last piece from this month was a review of the utterly splendid The Last Days of Leda Grey. Spoiler alert - I only ever review books I really enjoy or that fascinate me, so if you see me reviewing something it's because I have something positive to say.  I can never understand people who go out of their way to be mean and critical about someone else's work. As we say in our house, people can be terrible, I'm glad we're not people.

November 2016


I told you about my exhibition of drawings by Violet Manners this month, which was a great honour for me.  This is the first time I have ever curated an exhibition and it was a pleasure to see the utterly gorgeous drawings and get to handle things like Violet's daughter Diana Cooper's note about the collection that were given to the Russell-Cotes.  The exhibition is coming down shortly but has been an education indeed. At the same time, the Russell-Cotes ran an exhibition about modern art from their collection and as a firm Victorianist, even I feel utterly swoony when faced with pictures like this...


The Bather (c.1930) Thomas Martine Ronaldson
I rounded off the month by freaking us all out with a collection of dolls. Sorry. Dolly's secret is she will come for you in the middle of the night and the last thing you will feel is little cold, china hands.  Sorry again.

December 2016

This year's Blogvent went all classy with angels, a whole bunch of them.  What is the collective noun for angels? A flapping? A judgement? Apparently it is choir (predictable) or pinhead (oh, I like that one).  So I brought you a veritable pinhead of angels, my favourite being this one...


The Soul of the Forest (1898) Edgar Maxence
Such lovely parrot-y wings!  I also wrote a short story about murder, ghosts and avenging angels, which I enjoyed doing very much and so I think I might do that again this year, possibly around Halloween.... We rounded off the year with a collection of frankly odd New Year cards.  Happy 2017...

January 2017


We kicked off the new year in traditional fashion - with fresh fruit.  I finally got round to doing a post on pineapples in art, which is typical of how I work.  I get an idea then it might take me months to find all the images I'm after. I wrote a very personal piece about how lonely it can be to research and how it feels when the subject of your devotion becomes popular. It is hard to share, but in sharing, you find people who are like you in wonderful ways. Writing this blog has put me in touch with people who have become very special to me because although we live far apart, we share the same obsessions. Here's me and Fanny...




Anyway, I ended the month with a piece about the passing of Jane Morris, and I realised how many of the stunners died in the first couple of months of the year.  Strange but true.  Moving on...

February 2016


I started the month with a couple of reviews.  First, I visited the Lockwood Kipling exhibition at the V&A and discovered Mr Kipling and his exceedingly good art and design.  I also reviewed Victorians Undone which was an argumentative week of my life and I apologise to everyone who had to talk to me.  I still can be set off just by mentioning it.  It's both a great and disturbing book that says more about what we as readers want to know than it does about the subject of biographies. I also talked about the Keown family, subjects of Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs like this one...


The Whisper of the Muse (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron
Finally this month marked the second time we could remember Fanny Cornforth on the anniversary of her death. I talked about how you should always question everything you are told, especially if it makes no sense.  Fanny's contribution to Rossetti's life and memory is now being acknowledged and so my work here is done.  Actually, it probably isn't.

March 2017


In March, I shared some massively disturbing images of Medusa because I'd seen them and I felt the need to inflict them on you lot too.  Blimey, some of them will stay with me for a while... Also, I finally wrote a piece I'd been working on for absolutely ages, on the Celtic Revival artist Meave Doggett.  She brings us the image of this month...


The Lady Shinain at the Well of Knowledge (1905-15)
Remember, if you see a Meave piece in a collection, give me a shout, as I'd love to know of others.  Her story is very typical of women artists in the past, as her art was forgotten in favour of other, mostly male, artists.  The reasons women don't continue their work are many, but maybe Meave gave up art for love.  When her husband returned from War, his injury might have been the inspiration for her change of career into physiotherapy.  Either way, Meave's work is gorgeous and it was a pleasure to find out more.

April 2017


So here we are, April, this month.  I've brought you women hacking off heads this month.  What more do you want? I didn't realise there were so many images of Judith and Holofernes and they are so gorgeous!  We also explored the new exhibition at Tate Britain all about the history of queer art, from 1861 to 1967.  That century held some gorgeous pieces and brought me together with my new best friend, Gluck...


Self Portrait (1942) Gluck
Well, that's our sixth year together all summed up, so me and Gluck will leave you to it while I go off and write up a big post for May.  It truly is a pleasure and an honour to write my posts for you to read and love hearing from you.  Some of you have been here for six years, some might have joined us for the first time today, but all are welcome.  See you again soon...

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Review: Queer British Art 1861-1967

This will be an imperfect review because I have tons of questions which I can't answer.  We can have a discussion afterwards, or over on my Facebook page, but firstly I will do my best to tell you what I think. Here we go then...

It all started when I received a review copy of the Tate's new exhibition Queer British Art 1861-1967.


For those who didn't realise, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of sex between consenting gentlemen.  Before 1861, this could be punished by death and was charmingly lumped in with bestiality (we have Henry VIII to thank for that, making his laws after splitting from Rome).  In some ways, the removal of the death penalty in 1861 can be seen as a massive step in the right direction, but what followed was witch-hunt levels of hysteria around high profile cases.  Now, this is all just involving men, mark you.  Apparently women did none of this sort of thing until after the First World War (shortage of men?) which then caused parliament to try and criminalize lesbianism.  The House of Lords very sensibly refused to pass that because they felt women didn't know what lesbianism was.  Marvellous. With perfect timing, that decision was followed by the publication of The Well of Loneliness. 

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) Simeon Solomon
Anyway, I was always going to be interested in this exhibition, not least because of the timeline, and so with eager anticipation I awaited the catalogue.  Let's start with what I liked - it's a lovely size, which sounds like a strange plus, but being smaller than a traditional catalogue makes it more portable without sacrificing the quality of the images.  It is beautifully illustrated throughout and contains some fascinating works of art from people as diverse as Simeon Solomon, Gluck and Joe Orton, not to mention a delightful photo of Danny La Rue.  

Oscar Wilde (1881) Harper Pennington
This is a collection where the art is brought together by the aesthetic proclivities of the artists which is an interesting way of juxtaposing otherwise disparate figures such as Edward Burra and Evelyn de Morgan, brought together because of the intellectual process of their art rather than the pictures themselves. In some cases this is a perfect moment to showcase the glory of their work.  Simeon Solomon was always going to be celebrated this year, and rightly so, as an artist and man who could not hide what he found beautiful.  His art keenly mirrored his sexual orientation and he was punished for it.  His work is brave and beautiful and it is wonderful to be able to see him in semi-isolation from the Pre-Raphaelites, away from artists who were not facing the same struggle.

The Critics (1927) Henry Scott Tuke
 Similarly, the beautiful boys of Henry Scott Tuke get decent exposure.  Tuke is one of those artists I regularly use here on the blog but I'm damned if I remember him being in an exhibition.  He crops up in provincial collections and on Summer-y greetings cards.  Definitely homosocial if not provably homosexual, Tuke's world is all male, all sunny, mostly naked. Like a queer Bob Ross, he did a set of elements and he did them well - water, light, young men, rocks. 

Fanny and Stella (Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton) (1869)
An interesting inclusion in the exhibition is the story of Fanny and Stella, which some of you might be aware of, and their resultant trial.  A theatrical double act, Fanny and Stella seem to have been a more scandalous Hinge and Bracket, blurring their performance with their life, and getting arrested for being men dressed as women, women dressed as men, and inciting people to perform unnatural practices.  Due to the damn near impossibility to prove a person's sexuality unless you catch them at it, Fanny and Stella walked free from any jail time, possibly in their crinolines.

Quentin Crisp (1941) Angus McBean
The catalogue seems to be on surer footing once it reaches the 1920s and the next 40 years are a catalogue of the who's who of Queer Britannia:  Virginia Woolf's dalliances with Vita Sackville West, who slept with who in Bloomsbury, the ill-fated partnership of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell and the grimy canvases of Hockney and Bacon.  My favourite has to be Gluck, and her astonishing self-portrait...

Self Portrait (1942) Gluck
I would have seen a complete exhibition of Gluck because her work is so striking and uncompromising, as is she.  She refused all prefixes to her name, threatening to resign when the Fine Art Society referred to her as 'Miss Gluck'.  Look at that face! I would have gone out of my way for Gluck.  However, that leads me to the problems with the exhibition and its catalogue...

Hope Comforting Love in Bondage (1901) Sidney Harold Meteyard
It would be simple to do an exhibition that focused on a single queer artist or group.  This year could have seen a retrospective of Simeon Solomon, of Queer Bloomsbury, of my new best friend Gluck. These artists, with their uncompromising exploration of what it meant to be them, to feel what they felt, to be who they were, would be a fitting celebration of how far we have come in accepting that people are all different and as long as everyone is consenting it is all completely fine and gorgeous.  What the Tate has attempted however is a wider ranging view of art between that 1861 piece of legislation and the decriminalization of the 1960s (with its neo-Victorian interests).  The very obvious problems come with the artists 'outed' in the pre-First World War section, for example twice-married Sidney Meteyard and his Hope Comforted Love in Bondage. This work is included because 'the sensuous and ambiguous nature of this painting allows for queer readings' (p.36).  Similarities to Solomon's figures is noted in the figure of Love, and the fact that Hope is fully dressed led to some fairly strong hints that Meteyard was gay without any compelling evidence.

Aurora Triumphans (1877-8) Evelyn de Morgan
Similarly, by including Aurora Triumphans, it is inferred that de Morgan's repeated use of Jane Hale as model (seen on the right in the above) could be read as same-sex desire.  The same is implied about Laura Knight's famous self-portrait with her female model.  With de Morgan, no evidence is given for any sexual attraction between the artist and model, nor any named art historian having made the claim but there it is, or at least it is used to prove that people could say that sort of thing about that sort of painting.  This is jarringly lazy compared to the excellent work on Solomon, for example, and I feel cheapens or at least complicates the struggle of queer artists in a judgmental world.  If you want to explore the path of queer art in Britain from 1861-1967, why include artists who were arguably not gay?  If you want to explore the sexual-fluidity of the artistic muse, then that's a different matter.

Female Figure Lying on her Back  (1912) Dora Carrington
The problem is that the earlier you go in the time period, the more likely artists are to hide their sexuality.  Imagine if Oscar Wilde hadn't gone to court over the subject, he might have been one of those people we hint about but as he was married with children his secret would have been safe.  When same-sex attraction resulted in prison, male artists were not likely to do anything other than conform, marry and paint naked ladies.  Artists like Solomon are rare because they make no effort to hide their sexuality, but then he was also operating within the framework of Aestheticism which celebrated androgyny.  I wonder why Edward Burne-Jones was not included in this exhibition, as his art was claimed by one MP of 'unmanning' him when he had to sit in Arthur Balfour's office surrounded by the Perseus cycle.  Burne-Jones makes you gay!  Surely that is good enough to include?

Lady with a Red Hat (Vita Sackville West) (1918) William Strang
However gorgeous this exhibition is, the failing is that it tries to cover too many concepts.  It spreads itself over artists who were openly gay and art that can be used to explore ideas of queer attraction and in the end does neither well enough.  It seems a disservice to lump in people who have struggled to advance and expand the bounds of what is accepted in art with women who painted other women and men who painted nice looking men but showed no particular interest in sleeping with them. If we want to have a discussion about the relationship between artistic appreciation and sexual preference then brilliant, but that is quite a discussion to have. In the meantime, let's raise the profile of artists who have unfairly suffered due to love, who have been denied their rightful place in art history just because they fancied a person with the same frontal arrangement as them.  It's the least we can do.

Queer British Art 1861-1967 is on at Tate Britain now and here is the website, where you can buy the catalogue.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

If You Want A Job Doing...

One of my favourite paintings at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery is this one...

Judith (1887) Charles Landelle
Her smoldering gaze brings to mind a silent movie star, and in fact she has a somewhat androgynous gorgeousness, well in her face anyway, bringing to mind Valentino as the Sheik.  She's as threatening as she is sexy, as she pulls back the bed curtain, her massive sword at her side.  If you fancy paying her a visit in the Russell-Cotes, she normally resides up on the balcony on the first floor.  You can't miss her.  Giving some ponderings to the subject, I thought I'd have a look for more Judiths in nineteenth century art...

Judith (1845) Franz von Rohden
For those of you not familiar with the story of Judith, let me enlighten you - The Book of Judith is one of those Biblical text that isn't in the Bible but sort of is in some versions and also sort of in the Torah, but not in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and may be a parable or one of the first pieces of literary fiction, but in any case it is a rather modern story of a woman taking matters into her own hands.  The action happens in Israel which has been invaded by Assyrians, led by their general, Holofernes. Judith, a beautiful widow, has faith that God will sort it all out but her fellow countrymen aren't quite so sure, so she decides to paradoxically prove them both right and wrong...

Judith (1863) John Rogers Herbert
Being a stunner, Judith managed to seduce Holofernes, getting him steaming drunk, and then hacked off his head.  She took the head back to her countrymen and said 'Look, I told you God would sort it out!' and the Assyrians all clear off home.  Hurrah for Judith!  I don't think it's any wonder that this powerful, beautiful woman cropped up in paintings, because it is a rather handy excuse to show a seductive woman, being all seductive, but for jolly fine Biblical reasons.  She might be flashing a bit of skin but it's perfectly okay because she's doing it for God.

Judith (1900) Paul Albert Steck
You could hang that in a vicar's bedroom and no-one would object because those bosoms are working for the Almighty.  Mr Steck's rather more curvy Judith neatly shows the difference in approach to this subject.  On the one hand, you have the more traditional (and dare I say dull) approach, shown by von Rohden's Judith, who is full dressed and dignified.  She looks very attractive but she's not what we would call 'seductive' exactly.  Landelle's Judith has got all kinds of sexiness going on, whilst her gorgeous clothes are a bit 'falling off'.  However, she remains dignified and very impressive.  Steck's Judith seems to be wearing a net curtain and a sash which is direct, I'll give her that, but there will be no hiding a sword in that outfit.  Plus, the plan was to get Holofernes absolutely smashed and so I think she could have kept her vest on for that.

Judith (1870) Andrea Franzovich Belloli
Here's another one who has left her clothes at home.  She is rather cunningly pinching Holofernes' sword to chop his head off which is resourceful and saves carrying the damn thing around.  I think there is no question about how this Judith rendered the general unconscious.  Saucy.

Judith (1840) August Riedel
My favourite Judith is possibly the earliest of the bunch I found, this rather dignified one by August Riedel.  I wonder if Landelle knew it as I feel his owes a lot to this lady, with her beautiful gown and massive sword.  She manages to look both seductive and capable of hacking a chaps head right off.  That's not an easy look to pull off.  Although the golden fabric is wonderful, I adore the white cotton blouse with its stripes of thinner fabric showing flesh but in a classy way.

Judith (1924) Franz von Stuck
At the other extreme we have this young lady, whose headdress echoes bobbed hair and has no problems getting her frontage out for the Lord.  The inclusion of Holofernes in this picture is markedly difference from those of the century before, who tended to shy away from including the man himself (other than occasionally his head, obviously).

Judith and Holofernes Lovis Corinth
Oh, Lovis Corinth, I knew we could depend on you.  Judith doesn't look particularly devout in this one.  She's having far too much fun.  Pull yourself together woman!

Judith (1848) Alfred Stevens
There we go, far more restrained.  This is rather 'Joan of Arc'-y or even reminds me of someone like Galahad in a G F Watts painting.  You have no doubt that this lovely woman is doing the hacking for a greater good and not because she likes getting her boobs out of an evening and getting a bit stabby.  Stevens gives Judith a sweetness she is often lacking.

Judith and Holofernes Frank Brangwyn
Even rarer than a sight of Holofernes with his head on is the sight of him sans tête.  You can often glance his head in the background of a Judith picture but the drippy corpse is usually out of view.  Not so with Brangwyn's take, and Judith seems to be holding the head up on a tray.  I'd be suspicious of this picture - I wonder if it is Salome instead?  They do get mixed up what with the severed head and everything.  If it's a tea tray then it's usually Salome.  If it's a sack, or sometimes by the hair (nice), it's Judith.  

Judith Gustav Dore
There is always that problem when you severe a head - what do you do with it then? The answer obviously is to wave it around in front of some startled people, with a nice headscarf on. Dore's Judith looks very purposeful indeed.  I mean, for goodness sake, how else was this war going to end?  Let's just get it over with and then we can go back to doing more sensible stuff.  That is one way of sorting stuff out, I suppose.  A bit messy though.

Judith (1878) Jean-Jules Antoine Lecomte du Nouy
There are some artists who I think probably just picked a Biblical name and applied it to a picture of a woman in Middle-Eastern dress.  Lecomte du Nouy's woman looks thoughtful but not filled with seductive purpose or brandishing a sword.  She looks like she's trying to work out how to arrange the furniture in her front room.  Compare that with possibly the most famous image of Judith...

Judith Beheading Holofernes (1614-18) Artemisia Gentileschi
Over two centuries before, an artist knew how to show the story with unmistakable power.  The night-glow lighting shows us a scene of utter horror with our heroine hacking the head off a struggling man.  There is no coyly exposed flesh, no glamour, just a woman who looks more than capable of performing the task. Gentileschi was an artist who had seen the worst of life, had been raped and then participated in the prosecution of her attacker, and that tends to sway the way we see this very realistic scene.  This is in stark contrast to the mostly male depictions of a beautiful cunning woman who will distract a man with her breasts before relieving him of his head. You sometimes get the impression that Holofernes might even enjoy it.  The male artists seem to be saying that Holofernes probably thought it was totally worth it because he got to see some amazing boobs before his head came off.

Judith and Holofernes (1901) Gustav Klimt
Arguably by the fin de siecle, Judith was no longer a Biblical heroine, but yet another murderous femme fatale.  Look at Klimt's triumphant beauty, sparkling with gold, her eyelids closed in ecstasy. Casting aside her motivations, she falls into the same category as Lilith, Salome, Delilah and countless other destructive sirens who will bring men to their knees before hacking off bits of them.  She is an extension of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, a woman who just wishes to entrap and enslave men for sexual purposes and whom it is impossible to resist.  Well, that's a handy excuse.  In a time when women attempt to gain equality, we are stuck with the same problem that faced depictions of the gorgons - powerful women become monstrous.  In the celebration of the determination of Judith, she is often presented as a sexual woman, who used sex as a weapon just as assuredly as she used the sword. She does not outwit the general by intelligence or military might, she gets her bosoms out.  It diminishes her power because the inference is that you will be safe if you can control your urges in the face of such beauty.  By the end of the century, this resistance becomes the embrace of death, no longer resisting that fatal kiss.  In most cases she is pictured without Holofernes as if she is there for the viewer, who may or may not be her intended victim.

Well, all I can say is that if she comes round to dinner, don't drink too much.
And hide the cutlery...

Monday, 27 March 2017

Bad Hair Day

Occasionally, you are just casually looking at Victorian art and you are struck by a picture.  Possibly you are struck by its beauty, but sometimes you are just struck by the utter...well, striking-ness of it.  Sorry, that isn't explaining it very well.  This is what I am talking about...

Medusa (1891) Wilhelm Trubner
Well, flipping heck.

I don't know what disturbed me more - the snakes, the very odd eyes or the blood-stained, forked tongue.  Yes, it's probably the tongue. Yikes.  It was so far removed from the images of Medusa I was more familiar with, for example the Burne-Jones Perseus cycle...

The Death of Medusa (1882) Edward Burne-Jones
There is a graceful sterility to Burne-Jones' death scene, Medusa as pale as the stone figures she created, and Perseus and Pegasus both in tasteful pastel colours.  There are no weird tongues or rolling eyes here, thank you very much.

Perseus and Medusa (1898) Frederick Pomeroy
I have been fascinated by Medusa since I was about four years old.  I used to stay with a neighbour who had the Frederick Pomeroy figure as a lamp and I would stare at the severed head clasped in the naked man's hand while I ate fish fingers, wondering what on earth was going on there.  Probably around the same time I saw Clash of the Titans, with Ray Harryhausen's spectacular Medusa hissing and rattling her way around her lair.  Who could resist? Anyway, I got to thinking after seeing Trubner's gorgon, did any other artist share my fascination...?

Medusa (1895) Carlos Schwabe

I was not disappointed because there are a marvellous hissing bevy of Medusas, wiggling forth from the nineteenth century.  Given the chance of portraying a woman with a head covered with snakes, I think we'd all jump at the chance. It can't help but be dramatic.  I also don't think it's a coincidence that most of the images come from the latter years of the 19th century, around the time women were fighting for their rights, but I'll come to that in a minute...

Medusa (1867) Elihu Vedder
Perseus is a proper hero.  He has a flying horse, he kills a vile monster and uses it to save a semi-naked lady from another monster.  He then turned the rowdy elements at his wedding to stone too.  That's pretty good going.  Much of the portrayals of Medusa in the middle of the 19th century are based around her part in Perseus' story, mainly getting her head cut off.

Perseus and Andromeda (1874) Henri Picou
Often, poor old Medusa appears as second fiddle to the creamily naked Andromeda.  Who's going to be looking at the severed head when there are perky boobs in the room?  T'uh, typical.  We've all been there, metaphorically, obviously.

Perseus Showing the Gorgon's Head (1892) Walter Crane
It would be very easy to keep Medusa as just an incident in someone else's story.  She's like Excalibur, or the One True Ring, just the thing that denotes the greatness (or whatever) in someone else.  What is interesting is that artists started to explore Medusa and her backstory.  It's not pretty...

Aspecta Medusa (1860s) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Aspecta Medusa (1860s) D G Rossetti
For ages I couldn't work out why this beautiful image of Alexa Wilding would have 'Medusa' in the title until I realised that she is actually Andromeda, finally being allowed to see the 'aspect' or face of Medusa, by bending over a mirror surface.  Mind you, it did make me wonder if it is related to other images of Alexa as beautiful but evil women (such as Lilith), or some other part of Medusa's past.  How exactly did she get those snakes?  Had she always had such difficult hair?

Medusa (1896) Winifred Hope Thomson
Isn't that a beautiful painting?  Not what you would be expecting from something called 'Medusa' but then the snaked-haired girl was not always a monster.  Once upon a time there was a beautiful girl, according to Ovid, 'the jealous aspiration of many suitors' (Book 4 of Metamorphoses).  On such suitor was Poseidon, who raped Medusa in Athena's Temple.  For reasons best known to the ancients, Athena was so angry with Medusa that she transformed her into a monster that no man would ever want to look upon.  Well, that's a Daily Mail level of victim blaming that takes your breath away.

Medusa Elihu Vedder
Suddenly at the end of the century, images of Medusa move from strictly monstrous to something other.  Both Vedder and Thomson show beautiful women with qualities that leave you slightly uneasy.  There is something in Thomson's smile that seems to hint at a secret, like the snake hiding in her russet hair.  Vedder's woman has hair that is curling into snakes before our eyes as her face hardens.  Maybe Carlos Schwabe's scream-queen above (very reminiscent of the Bride of Frankenstein, I thought) was based on the actual moment when the woman became the monster. It's a cruelty upon a cruelty, a woman at the mercy of two Gods, who destroy her because of their whims.

The Gorgon and the Heroes (1890s) Giulio Sartorio
The snakes are not specifically a part of the Medusa myth.  In some versions of the tale, she remained beautiful and was just evil, like a siren, luring the cream of manhood to a terrible end. In some ways, snake-haired or red-haired, created or born, Medusa's grip on the fin-de-siecle had more to do with 19th century womanhood.

Medusa Erotica Simeon Solomon
By the end of the nineteenth century women were becoming monstrous.  They were campaigning for votes, they were pushing out of their sphere, they were threatening the place of men.  In times like this, I always turn to Idols of Perversity by Bram Dijkstra, who naturally touches on the subject and its sexual  connotations.  The snakes suggest the Garden of Eden and temptation.  The rolling coil of snakes is both sexual and threatening, each fanged mouth biting at a tail, consuming and being consumed in a futile, lust-filled, hungry struggle.  There is definitely the air of angry, destructive sex about Medusa.  Often Medusa is portrayed as opened mouth, screaming.  So many bitey mouths, no wonder men were worried...

Medusa (1897) Levy Dhurmer
Medusa is seen as mad, destructive, angry, powerful and most of all unhappy.  She is a woman crazy with power which seems to often cause her pain.  Women shouldn't be powerful, it only makes them angry.  Apparently.  If you start giving women equal rights they go all weird and turn people to stone.  Where will it all end.  Probably kinder to outsmart her with a mirror and cut her head off. No woman can resist a mirror...

The Blood of Medusa (1898) Fernand Khnopff
The severed head of Medusa is a symbol of conquered power.  Perseus doesn't just kill Medusa, he kills her in order to use her power for his own ends.  He uses the severed head of one woman to gain the heart of another.  That's not as romantic as it sounds.  

Medusa (1878) Arnold Bocklin
There is a sorrowful quality in Bocklin's Medusa that I can't quite find in other depictions.  Her head floats there, the snakes still wriggling, but she looks exhausted.  Her expression is an echo of her traditional screaming anger, the mouth open, but it is pitiful.  Compare that with Trubner right at the beginning of the post.  Is Trubner's Medusa licking her own blood off her lips?  For goodness sake.

Medusa (1909) Joseph Mullner
I suppose it is unsurprising that Medusa's head was a tempting subject for sculptors.  It was a chance to make a life-size piece that looked both fantastic and true-to-life all at once.  Mullner's snakes are especially life-like, with their oily-black coils of horror. Yikes.

Medusa (1900) Fernand Khnopff
Not exactly understated, Khnopff goes with more of a 'screaming' vibe for his severed head.  I suppose the head did have the same treacherous potency after severing so there is no reason why poor Medusa would be allowed to be all peaceful and quiet.  There is nothing human in Khnopff's imaging of her, either in 2D or 3D.  On paper, he renders her a monolith, a hard-faced slab of evil, possibly echoing the stone she will turn us to just by looking at her.  In sculpture, she is a dripping head of snakes, running like blood down the pedestal.  There is no pity for her as she obviously would have no pity for us.

Medusa (1854) Harriet Hosmer

So what do we take away from Victorian depictions of Medusa? The image of a beautiful woman destined to be monstrous held possibilities.  At what point did this beauty turn to evil, what happened to her, was it always in her?  Women and snakes are so tightly linked, the potential of woman to bring temptation and destruction, that it is almost impossible not to read male fear of the growth of female emancipation.  A woman can't have power without the corruption of men, a woman can't have power without the destruction of herself - the power in women seems to inevitably come at the price of everyone.  Power is rationed apparently, if one gender has it, it must be at the cost of the other. Apart form men.  men can have the power, that's all fine.  Don't get any ideas about equality now, it will all end in tears.

To some, for example Burne-Jones, she is merely a part of a greater story, an episode on the way to a triumph.  His Perseus cycle was painted during the decade after his affair with Maria Zambaco, a woman some found monstrous yet beautiful.  Could it be read that Burne-Jones conquered his own gorgon in order to save his love? That is not a fair depiction of Zambaco and Burne-Jones' actions were not exactly heroic, but the sadness that colours the cycle could reflect his state of mind.  For Georgiana Burne-Jones, the aspect of Zambaco in her husband's art was indeed horrifying. 

Maybe it's no coincidence that some of Burne-Jones' best known pictures contain the head of Maria Zambaco, after all that's where the power is...