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‘Rossetti’s use of instruments appears at first glance to be the idiosyncratic approach of an artist with a magpie-like attraction to visually arresting objects.’[1]

The exotic instruments in D.G. Rossetti’s paintings have frequently been remarked upon.[2] A vertically positioned Japanese koto, a harp-lute with exaggerated curvature and a lute with two extra strings are but a few examples of his somewhat whimsical employment of musical instruments amongst his compositions. It is easy to dismiss this as ignorance, but Alan Davison’s fascinating article stresses the intention behind these discrepancies. Drawing largely upon the thesis of Lorraine Wood, Davison examines these often bizarre depictions from a new perspective.

Wood’s thesis asserts that ‘the very unplayability of Rossetti’s instruments is deliberate rather than accidental, and is central to his goals’.[3] This is Davison’s point of departure. He argues that Rossetti prioritised the physical form of the instrument, ‘as symbolic parallel with non-musical associations’.[4] Extracting the instrument from context, Davison examines its function within the pictorial composition of Rossetti’s works, and constructs two rationales which form the basis of his argument:

1. Musical instruments as ‘symbolic physiognomy’

What does the physical form of the musical object contribute to the musician who wields it? Davison draws upon the 19th century practice of Physiognomy to examine the instrument as a physical extension of the musician’s body.

Fig.1
Rossetti, ‘Girl with a musical instrument’, c.1870
Pen and Brown Ink on Paper, 21.6 x 14.9 cm
Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, UK

In Girl with a Musical Instrument (Fig.1), Rossetti demonstrates the symbiosis of player and instrument. His model cradles a harp-lute in a manner which, while giving the scene a tender feel, is wholly impractical for playing. Davison examines the excessive curvature given to the instrument’s neck, which echoes the long and graceful neck of the model:

The oneness of musician and instrument underlies the composition, and the resulting strange instrument is a direct reflection of the physiognomic – and so inner – qualities of the player.[5]

This a convincing example of Davison’s ‘symbolic physiognomy’ in which the instrument serves as an extension of the musician’s body. My own thoughts turned to the maternal aspect of the model’s demeanour. I felt – with reference to the revelation of inner essence – the model’s posture and the cradling of the harp-lute resembled the cradling of a baby by its mother. An additional layer of tenderness, perhaps, to an already sensual image.

2. Displacement of desire

Davison argues that Rossetti’s depiction of musical instruments allowed for metaphorical suggestions of tactility and erotic desire.

He likens the plucking of strings to stroking, touching and weaving; all actions which are overtly linked in Rossetti’s poetry. The juxtaposition of the playing of strings with an amorous subject, Davison argues, provided a visual tool for the artist to represent agonised desire.

Fig.2
Rossetti, ‘Morning Music’, 1864
Watercolour on Paper, 29.5 x 26.7 cm
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Morning Music features a musician playing a lute-type instrument with two additional strings to the left of the soundboard (Fig.2). Physically, these strings add nothing to the instrument’s playability. Davison argues that by juxtaposing the instrument, abundant with evenly spaced, golden strings with the long, golden hair of the woman, Rossetti displaces the musician’s desire onto the instrument itself. As his hand tenderly strokes the strings of the lute, we catch a glimpse of his longing to stroke the woman’s hair.

Davison asserts that this displacement not only constructs meaning, but endows the image with power. It becomes ‘about’ the music:

… the overall scene becomes a macrocosm of the instrument and presumably the power of its player.[6]

Fig.3
Rossetti, ‘A Sea Spell’, 1877
Oil on Canvas, 109 c 91 cm
Fogg Museum, Cambridge, MA

Sea Spell from 1877 encapsulates both Davison’s rationales (Fig.3). It features a Japanese koto incorrectly positioned vertically, while the musician’s fingers look as though they are more likely to be weaving than plucking. The poem accompanying this painting refers to weaving, causing this image to echo ‘The Lady of Shalott’ in its union of artistry and agony:

Her lute hangs shadowed in the apple-tree,

While flashing fingers weave the sweet-strung spell,

Between its chords; and as the wild notes swell,

The sea-bird for those branches leaves the sea.[7]

This painting substantiates Davison’s (and Wood’s) claim that Rossetti deliberately depicted instruments conversely to their proper use. The koto has adjustable bridges, which enabled him to imitate the strings of a loom, combining plucking with weaving. Not only does this play upon the sensuality of the poem’s assertion, ‘…flashing fingers weave the sweet-strung spell between its chords’, it also alludes to Davison’s first rationale: ‘the loom/weaving motive [is] now embedded within the physiognomy of the instrument’.[8]

Davison concludes that Rossetti’s attraction to associating music with action reveal in his works an underlying desire illustrated by the stroking and plucking of strings. The incorrectly positioned and often bizarrely adapted instruments do not expose the artist’s carelessness, but rather his penchant for visual metaphor. In the author’s words, ‘the instrument plays a much greater role than merely a decorative prop; it provides both the compositional and symbolic backbone of the painting.’[9]

* * *

A. Davison, ‘Woven Songs and Musical Mirrors: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘symbolic physiognomy’ of Music’, The British Art Journal, 13.3, 89-94

Dr Alan Davison is Senior Lecturer at the School of Arts, University of New England.


[1] A. Davison, ‘Woven songs and musical mirrors: Dante Gabriel Rosseti’s ‘symbolic physiognomy’ of music’, The British Art Journal, 13.3 (2013), 89

[2] E. Helsinger, ‘Listening: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the persistence of song’, Victorian Studies 51.3 (2009); D. Macleod, ‘Rosseti’s Two Legeias: Their relationship to visual art, music, and poetry’, Victorian Poetry 20.3 (1982); K. Powell, ‘Object, symbol, and metaphor: Rossetti’s musical imagery’, Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 2 (1993), are but a few examples.

[3] Davison, ‘Woven songs’, 89

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. 90

[6] Ibid. 91

[7] Rossetti, quoted in Ibid., 92

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 91

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As part of Bristol’s Festival of Ideas, T. J. Clark returned to the city of his school days to discuss the subject of his new book, Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica. In his previous examination of Picasso’s classic Cubism between 1909 and 1913, Clark argued that the aim of Cubism was not to display an object from all angles upon a two-dimensional surface as we are taught, but in fact to do the exact opposite. In Farewell to an Idea, Clark’s preoccupation with Picasso’s works stemmed from the argument that he played upon the bourgeois desire to see illusionism in art: representation of familiar objects and bodies.[1] He now returns to Picasso with a different agenda, seeking to ‘re-frame’ a familiar artist through examining a neglected period – the 1920s – and his method in doing so requires the complete rejection of biography.[2]

Clark is well known for his radical thinking (indeed, he was introduced to us by Paul Gough as ‘the bad boy of art history’), and the moment he referred to Iconography as the ‘curse’ of the discipline, I was hooked. His latest research sets out to re-examine our perception of Picasso as an artist through his lesser studied works, rather than through anecdotes, as so frequently incorporated into ‘trivialising celebrity literature’. As he argued, Picasso has frequently been painted as a madman in ‘a frantic parade of eroticism’, but when we glance at his works from the 1920s, we are given a very different picture of the artist. Clark rejects the hero worshipping, biographising of the artwork, simply asks us to look at Picasso’s paintings, and question how this transition came about.

Picasso, ‘The Three Dancers’, 1925
Oil on Canvas, 215.3 x 142.2 cm
Tate Britain, London

Picasso, ‘Guitar and Mandolin on a Table’, 1924
Oil and Sand on Canvas, 140.7 × 200.3 cm
Guggenheim, New York

With regard to the two works above, Clark’s emphasis was not upon the representation of the female body, nor the depicted objects in relation to the twentieth century. His preoccupation was with the notion of proximity. In both paintings, the subject is depicted in front of a window (in fact, Three Dancers also went by the name of Jeunes filles dansant devant la fenêtre). Through both windows all we glimpse of the twentieth century world outside is a plane of vibrant blue. Behind the dancers, it bursts through the window; although supposedly a receding colour, the outside world is utterly penetrating. What does this tell us about the way in which Picasso was coming to terms with the rapidly changing world outside his window? The subjects of these paintings are undeniably framed by the windows behind them, and moreover founded within a framework of the twentieth-century world: riddled with anxiety and, in Clark’s words, ‘lacking a culture of truth’.[3]

Clark refers to Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, in which he reflects upon the end of the ‘ascetic ideal’ – the human need for purpose – and what this means for the artist.[4] According to Nietzsche, the ascetic ideal encompasses the artist’s need for some sort of ideology to rely upon. Clark questions what function art was to play within Nietzsche’s predicted ‘spectacle’, in which we no longer feel this need to have a purpose. Where would this leave art?

Clark’s conjecture is that Picasso was the artist Nietzsche was waiting for – he is the revealer of Untruth in a world where artists strived to reveal Truth. For Nietzsche, Truth was unobtainable, and we couldn’t handle it even if we could access it. For him, this is what led us to worship a God and seek salvation. But with Christianity’s golden age coming to an end, where would we be left? For Nietzsche, existence is appearance: he refers to ‘that bloodless Plato’ as the ‘enemy of art’ and indeed makes frequent references to the Republic, in which the artist is condemned as a deceiver, and an unreliable guide to the natural world.[5] Art’s didacticism is emphasised, and its effect is perceived as damage.

For Clark, Untruth is the recognition of the world as fragile, lacking structure, and Picasso’s paintings reveal a world in crisis. Examining the works following the First World War, we see how they are steeped in intimacy, proximity and nostalgia. He presents Cubism as a ‘backward-looking’ homage to the intimacy of the nineteenth century; even the artist’s seemingly radical collages derive from a nineteenth-century bourgeois feminine activity. Through examining Picasso’s pictorial arguments and leaving biography behind, he presents paintings such as Three Dancers and Guitar and Mandolin on a Table as a registration of the dramatic changes taking place during the 20th century. His approach is admirable, his writing beautiful, and his argument is wholly convincing.


[1] Clark, T.J., Farewell to an Idea (1999)

[2] Clark, T.J., Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica (2013)

[3] A brief reference to Victor Stoichita’s examination of the window frame within paintings would be useful here. According to Stoichita, the depiction of a frame, be it the frame around a painting, a door or window frame, or even a niche or embrasure, puncture the picture’s surface and demonstrate its self-awareness. Through the depiction of a frame, the painting becomes aware of its own status as a work of art. By framing the three dancers, they become part of ‘A Picasso’, itself being a declaration. This self-awareness greatly relates to the Nietzschean argument to come. See: Stoichita, V., The Self-Aware Image (1996).

[4] Nietzsche, F., On the Genealogy of Morals (1887)

[5] Plato, Republic (380 BC)

i Goat ii Feet iii Mirror iv Stairs

  • William Holman Hunt, ‘Scapegoat’ (1856)
  • Robert Rauschenberg, ‘Monogram’ (1959)
  • John Everett Millais, ‘Isabella’ (1849)
  • Stanley Spencer, ‘The Last Supper’ (1920)
  • Edward Burne-Jones, ‘Mirror of Venus’ (1875)
  • Salvador Dali, ‘Narcissus’ (1937)
  • Edward Burne-Jones, ‘The Golden Stairs’ (1880)
  • Marcel Duchamp, ‘Nude Descending a Staircase #2’ (1912)

The wrath of a dying patriarch, the chilling screams of a mother in panic, and the revelations wrought by siblings with very different upbringings. The Ithaca Axis is a promenade performance taking place in the heart of Bristol’s city centre.

The Ithaca Axis

Based loosely upon The Odyssey and echoing Hamlet at times, The Ithaca Axis is an immersive and interactive theatrical performance which takes place in various locations in Bristol. Congregating in the city centre, the audience is divided into four groups who then embark upon their own journeys, occasionally encountering each other.

Odysseus, ruler of Ithaca (now modern day Bristol) has at last returned from his epic travels. In his absence his wife Penelope has been ruling, cleaning up the streets and creating order in what was once a chaotic place to live. Their decadent son Telemachus, and his mysterious sister Cassandra are about to make discoveries and reveal truths of their own, and the audience is grounded in the centre of this fascinating family. The reaction to Odysseus’ return is a mixed one: the reasons for which are explored in depth as each journey reaches its climax.

Participatory theatre is a powerful medium, and The Ithaca Axis is utterly consuming. You are among the characters, glimpsing snippets of their everyday lives. You witness the building and breaking of relationships. You laugh with them, cry with them. At times you may end up running through the streets of Bristol, pretending to be pigeons with them. You want desperately to rush to their aid when danger looms; you are one of them.

The Ithaca Axis deconstructs the boundary between stage and stalls, between actor and audience, and provides an engulfing experience which will leave you feeling charged with emotion. Voyeuristic at times, the performance is wholly immersive and allows you to forget yourself. You construct a rapport with your peers: actors and audience alike. It will also encourage you to visit parts of Bristol you have never seen before: caves, churches, and cobbled streets. This site-specific performance not only envelopes you within its cast, but within the city itself.

It pulls you in, and claws away at your very core. When the show is over, there is a terrible feeling of loss: the figurative curtain is drawn, the actors have departed, the applause has ended. Yet simultaneously there is an immense feeling of involvement. Having taken part in an incredible journey, we once again return to our normal lives, forever wondering how Ithaca will fare in this new dawn.

The Ithaca Axis is running until Sunday 5th May. Please see here for more details.

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