Ophelia Essay Section 5

Section 5. Self-Portraits as Ophelia 

Apart from the discovery of the bath tub and the swimming pool as substitute locations for the brook described by Shakespeare and depicted so memorably in Millais's painting, many a contemporary would-be Ophelia has discovered in the Ophelia icon a vehicle for self-portraiture. As Carol Kiefer has pointed out, "Ophelia in any representation is a site of memory, fantasy, projection, and desire. . . . she continually takes on new forms because she is what one brings to her" (12). Kiefer also notes that "The theme of Ophelia has been particularly compelling for women and girls," and that not surprisingly "many women artists have treated the subject or have created images alluding to Ophelia" (32). On Web 2.0 sites, the prevalence of self-portraiture that uses the Ophelia icon may partly be explained by Kiefer's comments. But more is involved. As the cultural anthropologist, Michael Wesch, noted in an address at the Library of Congress in 2008, when individuals use their webcams to create videos of themselves, they tend to become deeply aware of self and enter a deeply self-reflexive mode.[39] Wesch noted at the same time that although those creating videos of themselves see only the webcam as their audience, the actual audience is the world wide community of Web 2.0 users. Members of that audience discover that online they are permitted to stare unrestrictedly at their fellow human beings in ways not otherwise socially acceptable. The result is often the development of an appreciation of the beauty and humanity of others. There is a new and potentially beneficial kind of communication involved in this process. If Wesch is correct, we have perhaps a further indication of why Shakespeare's Ophelia, the beautiful, and misunderstood young woman, solitary in her final moments, is so popular an icon for the expression of the female inner self.[40] However, it should be noted that while Wesch offers a positive interpretation of the viewing process, the more skeptical critic will no doubt see the viewer as engaged in an unhealthy voyeurism, and the objects of that voyeurism as narcissistic, self-promoting, and engaged in behavior that reduces the self and agency to sexual object.

    Commentary by those who create self-portraits as Ophelia is rare, but it can be very revealing. One Flickr user, for example, discusses the archetype of the submerged woman, referring to the first known mermaid stories of Assyria, and medieval trials by drowning in witchcraft trials. For her, "the mythos of the woman imprisoned underwater is a powerful archetype." Of her set of Ophelia self-portraits she then explains:

I like to think of these images as semiotic dreamscapes, which offer more questions than answers. My visual interpretation of Ophelia is one of the confrontational ghost, the alienated soul and the avenging siren song. I wanted to give strength and voice to her character's perceived madness and dispossession. While most interpretations of her archetype focus on her tragic death, mental state and victimization. I am focusing on her resurrection and her search for answers. For me, she is both the demanding and the contemplative ghost.

Also working with a resurrection motif is the very evocative acrylic painting reproduced by another Flickr user (in her blog, she gives her name as Leah Piken Kolidas). This depicts Ophelia with her naked back to the viewer. She is waist deep in the water. On her back is a complex tattoo. The digital copy of the painting is accompanied by the following statement: ". . . my re-telling of the story of Ophelia, where instead of drowning herself, she goes into the water as a ritual of renewal and rebirth. The tattoos on her back also symbolize this. Blogged about it here: www.creativeeveryday.com/creativeeveryday/2008/07/i-reall... " This blog comments much further on the painting and the inspiration that gave rise to it.

    Familiarity with both Shakespeare's character and the process of self-portraiture lies behind two extraordinary YouTube video clips of a young woman hiking into the woods, stopping by a stream, and taking from her backpack a white dress, flowers, and a camera. Later, we see her on her back in the stream. She wears the dress and is surrounded by flowers. Her pose carefully imitates that of Elizabeth Siddal in Millais's painting. In one of her raised hands, however, she holds the trigger that permits her to take photographs of herself with a camera attached to a tripod on the bank of the stream. Although a fictional creation rather than an actual exercise in self-portraiture, the video clips wonderfully evoke the self-reflexive psychological state referred to by Wesch.[41] At the same time, when looked at as a performative expression of Ophelia's psychological condition in the last moments of her life, the video returns us to Shakespeare's description of Ophelia's death and what we know of her from the play.

[This self-portrait is included here by kind permission of  its creator, Chelsea Groves]

Quite different is a self-portrait by Chelsea Groves (foftychel), one of a group of 132 images of herself (as of 04/09/10) that she has uploaded to Flickr, her group title being "Me, Myself, and I."[42] What distinguishes this particular portrait is that she has posed herself full-length on a couch immediately below a large print of Millais's painting, in effect mirroring Millais's work. Her commentary below states: "I love having this Millais print above the couch because it's like I have an accomplice in laying around and zoning out. From what I understand, Millais had the model pose for hours in a bathtub full of freezing water while he was working. I am glad she was so obliging." Although grateful that she avoided any physical discomfort, Ms Groves does not offer any explicit commentary on the ways in which her self-portrait differs from Millais's Ophelia. However, there are telling differences. Unlike Millais's model, she gazes towards, though not directly at the viewer, her bright hazel eyes disarmingly intense. Whereas the erotic message of Millais's work is muted or easily missed, here the erotic message is direct. Not only is the viewer's gaze drawn in by her eyes, but the message of her bright red dress and exposed arms, legs, and feet employs a familiar erotic code.[43] Those like Stuart Sillars who have commented upon the latent eroticism of Shakespeare's Ophelia, and those that have consciously foregrounded it in theatre performances will recognize the cognate commentary implicit in Chelsea Groves's highly evocative work. 

[By permission of Amanda Keeys]

Two other self-portraits may suffice here to indicate the considerable richness and variety of this kind of Web 2.0 self-reflexive version of Ophelia.[44] The first example is by the Australian children's photographer, Amanda Keeys. Posted on both DeviantArt and Flickr, the 2003 self-portrait shows her head and shoulders only.[45] She is in a bath tub and only her face is not submerged in the water. A garland of purple flowers arches around her head, their color matching the shade of her lipstick. Her pale hands rest just below her throat. She appears to be nude and the pallor of her skin and her closed eyes are suggestive of death, something encouraged by the title, "Ophelia Drowns." Her pale skin, combined with her choice of makeup, have distinctly goth characteristics that add, perhaps, to the tensions underlying this image. The finely crafted photograph offers the viewer an image of the subject's inner repose, even serenity, but it is an inherently disturbing one because, as so often with the Ophelia icon, we find ourselves immersed in an aesthetic enjoyment of a dying or dead female. The icon retains both its attraction and its mystery,[46] drawing one in to contemplate not just Amanda Keeys but the line of adaptations stretching back to Shakespeare's original.     

My final example of a self-portrait is by Mary Elise Tomczak. Uploaded to Flickr in 2009, it shows only the face of the subject.[47] The face is white and is almost completely merged with the white background. Only the faintest details of hair, partially closed eyes, nose, and lips are discernible. The submersion in water is suggested by the droplets of water that cover the entire image (perhaps created by placing over the subject a sheet of glass sprinkled with water or by photographing through a glass shower door). 

          [By permission of  Mary Elise Tomczak]

Entitled "It can't come soon enough," the image transfers the dying Ophelia's merging with nature into a metaphoric merging into total whiteness. Because of the beauty of the face and its serene repose, the image remains true to the nature of the Ophelia icon: Ophelia is beautiful in death, and death itself is seen as beautiful, however tragic. The work has been warmly received by its bloggers, one of whom expressed his appreciation as follows: "I like this work . . . so delicate, soft . . . a soul portrait, an inner journey . . . and the drops like sweet tears caress the evanescent face . . . Art, inspiration, a pure creation." Referring to Mary Elise's posted stream of 71 other self-portraits, another admirer remarked: "love how your selfies are always a mysterie . . . nicely done." What is striking about this work is that Ophelia's merging in death with the natural environment is rendered so exquisitely and is at the same time so in harmony with critical commentary on this aspect of Ophelia's death.

Go to:
Section 1. Introduction: Ophelia and Web 2.0
Section 2. Ophelia Images and John Everett Millais
Section 3. The Appropriation and Remixing of Ophelia Images
Section 4. Ophelia in Bath Tubs and Swimming Pools
Section 6. Fragmentation and Absence: Postmodern Images of Ophelia
Section 7. Some Concluding Thoughts on Ophelia and Web 2.0
Section 8. Principal Video- and Photo-sharing Websites Consulted

[39] "An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube," presented at the Library of Congress (23 June 2008). The podcast of Wesch's address is available on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPAO-lZ4_hU (accessed November 24, 2009).

[40] In Hamlet, there is, of course, a living witness to Ophelia's death (usually assumed to be Gertrude), but the operation of a webcam or a camera with a shutter delay mechanism requires no additional human presence. A very popular Flickr image group pool is known as "365":http://www.flickr.com/groups/365days/ (accessed November 24, 2009). Its members are required to post one self-portrait per day. The majority of the members appear to be women. Among their self-portraits are a number that draw upon the Ophelia icon. As of 24 November 2009, there were 15,590 members of this pool. Collectively they had posted 882,045 self-portraits. Fifty-eight of these were "Ophelia" images.

[41] See, http://www.youtube.com/user/Ophelia5489#p/u/3/tJSDNBcVUF4 (accessed November 24, 2009) and http://www.youtube.com/user/Ophelia5489#p/u/2/hUa7f5XEzGE (accessed November 24, 2009). The clips are from Fire with Fire, a 1986 movie, directed by Duncan Gibbons. See, http://www.just-movies.org/component/option,com_jmovies/Itemid,28/task,detail/id,91053/ (accessed 24 November, 2009). The "Ophelia" figure (Lisa Taylor in the movie) is played by Virginia Madsen.

[42] http://www.flickr.com/photos/foftychel/2183453047/ (accessed 24 November, 2009). The playwright Geralyn Horton in her one-act Jenny Does Shakespeare has a young woman speak about the importance of Ophelia to her and about the fact that she has a print of Millais's painting in her room.

[43] In the commentary for another self-portrait in which she wears the same dress, Chelsea Groves (foftychel) describes it as "my infamous red Holiday dress." See, http://www.flickr.com/photos/foftychel/2183389493/in/set-72157594473555286/ (accessed 24 November, 2009). The dress elicited a number of laudatory comments in the attached blog.

[44] Searching in Flickr using the combined terms "Ophelia" and "Selfportrait" produced 138 hits on 17 November 2009. However, not all self-portraits are tagged "Selfportrait".

[45] http://www.flickr.com/photos/kittynn/357897867/ (accessed 24 November, 2009).

[46] Perhaps in response to this, a number of Flickr users have re-posted Keeys's portrait, some of them even claiming it as their own, something that has provoked an angry retort from Keeys in her Flickr blog: "I'm bloody sick and tired of seeing this photograph, a SELF PORTRAIT no less, all over flickr accounts with other people claiming it is theirs. It is MINE and I alone hold the copyright."