CULTURE & ARTS
06/14/2016 10:37 am ET

Nude Photographs Explore 'Ophelia' As A Symbol Of Women's Oppression

Why is popular culture so obsessed with beautiful, lifeless women?

Warning: This article contains nudity and may not be appropriate for work. 

John Everett Millais's 1851 painting "Ophelia."
Wiki Commons
John Everett Millais's 1851 painting "Ophelia."

A woman's body floats through a brook, her gossamer dress ballooned at the sides. Her hair is a tangle of red, as wild as the shrubs and bushland surrounding her. A garland of multicolored flowers -- crow flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples -- rests in her loosened grip. Her pale face is turned upward, as if suspended between life and death, the physical world and whatever is beyond.

She is Ophelia, one of literature and art's most iconic female characters. A symbol of hysteria; driven mad by her lover's violence, she eventually ended her misery by taking her own life. 

Although written into being by Shakespeare in the iconic play "Hamlet," Ophelia's image is perhaps best remembered thanks to painter Sir John Everett Millais. His 1850s painting of Ophelia depicts the unconscious woman in a liminal state, her body almost inseparable from the natural wasteland swallowing her. A pre-Raphaelite artist, obsessed with illustrating the limits of perception as influenced by nature, dreams, drugs and art, he was drawn to her, a character at the nexus of wakefulness and eternal sleep, in a sort of supernatural trance. 

Gloria Oyarzabal

The fetishizing of dead and dying women is a long and troubling trend in the history of both literature and art. There is an eerie misogyny embedded in the artistic obsession with pretty, dead girls, sleeping beauties who never wake up. As Edgar Allen Poe perspicuously phrased it: "The death then of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world." And yet, despite the brazenly disturbing nature of this obsession, there is something oddly magnetic, almost enchanting, about Ophelia's floating form.  

The opening quartets of an Arthur Rimbaud poem perfectly capture the creepy gaze with which centuries of cultural consumers approached Ophelia's dead form:

On the calm black water where the stars are sleeping
White Ophelia floats like a great lily;
Floats very slowly, lying in her long veils...
- In the far-off woods you can hear them sound the mort.

For more than a thousand years sad Ophelia
Has passed, a white phantom, down the long black river.
For more than a thousand years her sweet madness
Has murmured its ballad to the evening breeze.

Sweet madness? Like a great lily? There is something undeniably disquieting about the way Ophelia's madness and death are glamorized, immortalized and exalted. 

Gloria Oyarzabal

For artist Gloria Oyarzabal, Ophelia is the ultimate symbol of women's oppression. She is the embodiment of suffering translated into self-inflicted pain, only then to be objectified as a "hysterical woman." Oyarzabal has been intrigued ever since she saw Millais' painting, then read Shakespeare's play, then began creating Ophelia-centric works of her own. 

"I started drawing and tracing all the Ophelia versions that I could find," Oyarzabal explained to The Huffington Post. But she soon found the project unfulfilling. "I needed something more forthright, strenuous, powerful. I needed to feel uncomfortable." 

Instead of illustrating Ophelia, Oyarzabal resolved to become Ophelia. And to increase the elements of suffering and intensity she hoped to communicate in the work, she got naked while doing so. "I picked up my old Mamiya [camera] and got into nature, into places where I could 'smell' tension," she said. Oyarzabal took nude self-portraits in what she described as "forbidden places" -- locations with high mountains, freezing temperatures, snow. "It was like screaming silently."

Gloria Oyarzabal

In her photographs, Oyarzabal plays with the concept of a beautiful, inanimate woman, inviting viewers to be disturbed, enraptured, or a bit of both. By placing herself behind the camera and in the frame, Oyarzabal subverts the trope of the powerless muse, as valued in death as in life. Instead of floating expressionless through the water, Oyarzabal goes through extreme and strenuous lengths to immerse herself in the surrounding natural landscape, working hard to play dead. 

Oyarzabal considers the photography project a work of "docu-fiction" -- a merging of reality and imagination that seems just in line with pre-Raphaelite artists' concerns. The artist folds herself into Ophelia's long legacy, posing important questions along the way: What changes when a woman artist takes control of her own image? Can an image of oppression become one of empowerment?

"I feel satisfied if I can convey this idea of oppression, anxiety, and the breathlessness of some women," Oyarzabal concluded. "If I can open eyes, I would be pleased."

  • Gloria Oyarzabal
  • Gloria Oyarzabal
  • Gloria Oyarzabal
  • Gloria Oyarzabal
  • Gloria Oyarzabal
  • Gloria Oyarzabal
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