There is no place for grief in a house which serves the muse

'The Muse' in Tim Walker's short film and Dante Rosetti's Siddal Portraits

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Beata Beatrix, ca 1864-70 Source: Wikipedia Comons

Open: the rusting steel cage around an empty free-standing tank, the water is turning green in the absence of life, ivy is curling around the frame. The figure of the artist, a muted silhouette at first, comes into sight standing between the open shutters of an empty house. The wind laments through the long grass as he walks away, through the trees everything is unstable, moving around and away from him. He reaches a letterbox; takes out a returned letter, addressed ‘Elizabeth Siddal’.

So opens Tim Walker’s 2013 short film ‘The Muse’. Walker creates a figure like that of Dante Rossetti in modernity, taking him out of the confined studio of London and into his own house, a dominion to serve the Muse, the figure that enamoured him throughout his career. Walker begins to tease the threads between experiences of the Muse for his artist and the figure of Rossetti – both artists find and take their muses; Walker’s narrator describes scouring through waters until “then, I found you”, Rossetti discovered Siddal after she was working in a hat shop in Cranbourne Alley. The search for the muse ends with the artist’s taking – of her, her likeness, her image.

The relationship with the muse is defined by obsession. Walker’s film follows the artist from the fields to the house to the studio, where the walls are shrines to her image: negatives drying, portraits, prints, projections of light-shrouded, forgotten summer film. She becomes an icon, worshipped over and over again by the artist. Creating once again a link to Rossetti, Walker visualises the repeated nature of artistic obsession – Rossetti began to paint Siddal to the exclusion of almost all other models in 1851, and the number of paintings he created of her are reportedly in the thousands. She became his only image; he surrounded himself with her creations. Their relationship was drawn upon by Rossetti’s sister Christina for the poem ‘In an Artist’s studio’; she writes “One face looks out from all his canvases… He feeds upon her face by day and night… Not as she is, but as she fills his dream”. Rossetti enlightens the relationship: the muse’s multiplicity, the artistic sustenance, the idealisation. Walker’s artist watches her with a hunger, he closes his eyes in an ecstasy as he watches her. The artist takes the muse both as an inspiration and as a body to take and fill his own.

Both women are hybrids – they are created from multiple sources of inspiration and mythology. Walker’s creation is descended from Hans Christian Anderson’s 1837 creation ‘Den lille havfrue’ (The Little Mermaid); the text was adapted by Walker for the W Magazine shoot ‘Far Far From Land’ (2013) which Walker later extended into ‘The Muse’. Visually, the muse is created from Anderson’s suffering youth, religious depictions of female martyrs, and from the modern fashion creations of Alexander McQueen. Rossetti’s muse is the creation of his every desire, artistic and otherwise: she becomes a demure bride, a goddess of love, a female nude and the haunting portrait.

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Both muses are water women, the sirens of the artist. For Walker, this is a very literal creation – the artist’s muse is an imprisoned mermaid, confined to a standing tank which she fills with her flowing blonde hair and a pale blue tail. The film is awash with the sound of rushing water; she thrashes in the film, emerges in the still images. There is a moment in his studio; he projects her onto the wall, a myth that fades in colour with the film and blurs from focus. He stands as the camera follows the silent thrashing of her tail, opening his arms into wings, rising with her through the frame. A desire to become both divine and remain her idolater. Elizabeth Siddal began as Millais’ ‘Ophelia’ (1852) – modelling for the painting of the forsaken lover who takes her own life, she is confined to the dark water as a figure of drowning lover. For Rossetti, she would become a human siren but changeable in her form – she became a goddess in oil, a saint in chalk, a mortal woman shrouded in shadow in his pencil. The muse is painted in obsession, the grey-dawn light of trying to capture a constantly changing and eventually withering essence.

The artists try to capture the muse in her movement. Some of the most emotive drawings of Elizabeth by Rossetti are fast ink drawings; Rossetti’s ‘Elizabeth Siddal Seated at an Easel’ depicts her form created by ink and white space, shadow and light, leaning into the canvas. The muse is a constantly changing entity; she moves and flickers, gives memory and takes it away. This transience is explored by Walker: the film flickers between the grey dawn where the artist stands bereft, and past moving colour images of the mermaid in sunlight. Showing the mourning artist and the transience of human memory, the clips consistently blur, fading in and out, like the mind which tries to recall certain moments when they are past and we are left with only our grief.

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As the film draws to a close, the artist’s voice overlays the figure leaving the house and walking towards the empty tank: “What becomes of the human man? What becomes of him, when her spell remains but she is gone.” Both Walker and Rossetti seek to understand this final state of being for the artist. Walker’s artist leaves the studio, the sepulchre of his muse in all her depicted forms, and submerges into the remaining water, clasping withering flowers. There is something resonant of Ophelia in his final moments, the closing image of a being submerged in water, fully-clothed and holding gathered flowers in different colours. The film fades away on the sight of the artist, finally consumed by the memory of his muse. As for Rossetti: he reached heights of desperation after the death of his muse. After Siddal’s overdose on Laudanum, Rossetti sent for four doctors until he accepted she could not be saved. He became increasingly depressed and prone to erratic behaviour, burying the poems dedicated to her with her in Highgate Cemetery, which he later had exhumed for publication. “When her spell remains but she is gone” was depicted by Rossetti in his posthumous portrait of Siddal, entitled ‘Beata Beatrix’ which now hangs high on the walls of the Tate Britain. Siddal becomes Beatrice Portinari from Dante’s ‘La Vita Nuova’, The painting is an incredibly moving, visual haze of lover’s grief; she lifts her face slightly upwards to an absent sun, the only sources of light being the distant horizon and the yellow glow of the fatal poppy (symbolising the cause of Siddal’s death). Her hair feathers at the edge like muted flames, glowing with the auburn colour Rossetti was so obsessed with. She is an idealisation of grief, the transfiguration of the living muse to a spiritual figure of memory. The muse eventually becomes a living memory which the artist struggles to remain with; her image remains but she herself is gone. They love what they can see; when she is gone, there is nothing to consume their sight, there is nothing to create from. Sappho’s words “there is no place for grief in a house which serves the muse” form the closing still of Walker’s film: they encapsulate the impossibility for the two states of grief and artistic worship to exist together: once the muse is gone, grief consumes the artist and his dominion, which yearns for their missing icon as the walls become remaining memorials to her image.