Ophelia exhibit floats into Mead

Kiefer began preparing for the show over a year ago. She wanted to make use of the Folger Library and explore the many portrayals of the character of Ophelia in the world of art. Ophelia was not a major character in “Hamlet,” but she appears more in visual art than does any other Shakespearean character. “She’s become more important as time goes on and with the feminist interest in Shakespeare over the last quarter of a century,” Kiefer said.

In addition to the display in the museum, a series of lectures and movies have been presented at Amherst. “The Myth and Madness of Ophelia” opened with “Sweet Rose of May: Ophelia through Victorian Eyes,” a lecture by Georgianna Ziegler of the Folger Shakespeare Library. At the reception, flowers described in “Hamlet” were used as decorations, and an ice mold of Ophelia’s face and hands floated in the punch bowl.

Kiefer wanted to trace the evolution of how Ophelia has been depicted in visual art from the middle of the 18th century to the present. The earliest visual representations of Ophelia appeared in illustrated editions of “Hamlet” in the 1740s. The exhibit begins with one of these editions from the Folger, in which Ophelia is sitting to the side during the “play within a play” scene. Here, Kiefer noted, Ophelia is “not really a central focus.” However, by the end of the 18th century, Ophelia played a much more prominent role in art. “She’s a principal player-kind of center stage-by herself in the images,” added Kiefer.

Devil or angel

Gertrude’s (Hamlet’s mother) vivid description of Ophelia’s death resulted in many depictions of Ophelia falling into, or already dead, in the water. Ophelia has also been represented through portraits of actresses who portrayed her. Sarah Siddons, a British actress who played Ophelia in the 1780s, was one of these subjects. “The image of Ophelia that dominated at the time [was] very innocent, pure, beautiful Ophelia, kind of gentle, almost kind of angelic,” according to Kiefer. During performances, Ophelia’s more sensuous lines were often censored to preserve that virginal stereotype.

As the century progressed, other images of Ophelia emerged. According to Kiefer, artists became more captivated by both the madness and the sexuality of Ophelia. This change was reflected in the work of artists such as Benjamin West and Eugène Delacroix, who are featured in the exhibit.

Even while some artists began to place an emphasis on the madness and sexuality of Ophelia, the Victorian conception of her remained, according to Kiefer. “This conception of her is the very virginal, the saintly, the pure … she almost looks like a Madonna, a virgin.” William Michael Rosetti painted a series of “Beauties” prints that reflect piety and sharply contrast the bare-breasted and crazed images of Ophelia.

Picture perfect

The Mead exhibit also features a selection of photographic images of Ophelia. Hugh Welsh Diamond’s “psychiatric photography” explores the madness of Ophelia. He used a subject in a mental institution as his model and dressed her in a cloak and garland, both garments that were strongly associated with Ophelia. According to Kiefer, Diamond wanted to document forms of insanity through photography. His work depicts female hysteria, erotomania and suicidal lovesickness-disorders associated with Ophelia. “Art imitates life; life imitates art,” said Kiefer.

Kiefer also felt that some of the exhibit’s female artists took up the subject of Ophelia “because they identify with her in some way.” Feminist Marie Bashkirtseff wrote of how difficult it was to succeed at art in a man’s world. She, like Ophelia, was a victim of patriarchal society. Gwen John, Auguste Rodin’s lover, did a projected self-portrait of Ophelia. She felt that she really wasn’t getting the attention she needed from Rodin, much as Ophelia longed for Hamlet’s attention.

Visitors can also watch a dance film by Jean Erdman, an independent choreographer who did a Jungian interpretation of Ophelia. Photographs from the various “Hamlet” movies as well as “Vertigo” are also on display. Hitchcock drew from both Shakespeare and visual art when making many of his films, and the character of Madeleine had Ophelian traits. The scene in which she jumps into the water alludes to the famous John Everett Millais painting.

Other allusions to Millais’ painting include a disturbing photograph of a woman in a bathtub staring blankly at the observer. His model was actually posing in a bathtub heated by candles underneath. When the candles burned out, she didn’t say anything, so as not to disturb the painter. The model then became sick from waiting in the cold water, an eerie parallel to one of the themes in “Hamlet.”

Living artists

Louise Bourgeois’ “Hamlet and Ophelia” was one of the pieces the museum acquired for the exhibit. Kiefer was going to borrow a print from the Museum of Modern Art, but it would have cost an additional $700 to frame it. A search for an already framed print led her directly to the artist. Bourgeois, now in her 90’s, offered to sell the Mead the framed print of the work. According to Kiefer, “Hamlet and Ophelia” is the only Bourgeois piece in the Pioneer Valley. Bourgeois’ interpretation is abstract and sexual, but also plays on the idea of male domination. Ophelia is both under the water and under Hamlet.

The museum borrowed Linda Stark’s “Ophelia Forever” from the artist’s personal collection. Stark chose to take a more optimistic stance towards Ophelia and womanhood. Ophelia’s breasts take the shape of an infinity symbol, surrounded by blue bubbles of water. Ophelia’s relation to water and nature are also apparent in Edward Steichen’s photography, in which she takes on the form of a tree.

Lectures and movies include H.R. Coursen ’54’s “Ophelia in Perfor-mance” and various movie versions of “Hamlet.” The director, Michael Almereyda, will be present for a discussion following a showing of his movie on Dec. 3. Admission to the Mead and all related events is free.