Pre-Raphaelite Mystery Solved
Newspaper Photographer Captures Classic Style
Actually, the "Pre-Raphaelite face" isn't the work of any of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood or any other nineteenth century artist. It is the work of modern newspaper photographer, Craig Ambrosio, one that illustrates valuable lessons about art and the world.
The Pre-Raphaelites generally drew their subject matter from Arthurian and classical legends. By contrast Ambrosio's photo is contemporary, somewhat gritty reality. Still, the strong emotional content of the picture, the model's classic beauty and her tousled red hair all echo the work of the Pre-Raphaelites. By evoking their style, Ambrosio gives his subject something of a legendary feel. We are reminded that this very real and weary woman is also a romantic and heroic figure.
This reminder is, I think, of major importance given the state of things these days. The notion of heroism is far too often dismissed, denigrated or ignored. Cultural relativism tells us that values and mores differ from culture to culture, that there are no absolutes. Without absolutes, without an objective good versus evil, the notions of heroes and villains tend to lose their meaning. Because of this we lose our ideals and our heroes.
Incidents like the Watergate break-in, the beating of Rodney King, the treatment of the VD victims in the Tuskegee incident, continuing revelations of governmental corruption, and the United States allying itself with or supporting totalitarian governments have eroded our national pride and diminished our ability to view valiant warriors and diligent lawmen as heroes. As sports figures draw astronomical salaries, become involved with drugs, sex scandals and are seen as getting away with rape or murder, we seem to be losing our sports heroes as well.
Ambrosio, however, has managed to remind us of the simple truth that heroism does exist. Here we have a fire fighter, hot, exhausted and drained. We can see how much she needs the cool of the snow against her skin. We can infer that moments before, just as tired, and face to face with the blaze of the fire, she persisted, endured and fought the fire. We can sympathize with her suffering and admire her courage.
Here we see the same courage and the heroism that the Pre-Raphaelites and the Romantics portrayed in the figures of Arthurian and ancient myth. Here we see strength, courage and heroism in the guise of a woman, a woman that looks very much like the figures of those earlier artists, except that then, she would much more likely have been the damosel in distress, the betraying seductress, the tragic figure, or the hero's heart's desire. Here she is the hero.
It seems to me that Ambrosio reverses part of Rodin's message of the Caryatid Who Has Fallen Under Her Stone. In that sculpture Rodin ridiculed the ancients who carved the supporting columns of huge buildings in the forms of maidens. This Rodin shows us was unfair, asking a girl to do a man's work. He did, however, show us the Caryatid's heroism as she struggled in vain, refusing to give up even when she could not bear her burden. Ambrosio's woman, though, shows us not only courage, but strength. This woman can and does do a man's job. She is a heroic figure we can all admire and is a suitable role model for boys and girls alike.
I admire the skill of this photograph, and its place in relationship to the history of art in the last couple of centuries. I hope you have enjoyed it, too.
Note: Please don't think that I dislike either Rodin, or his Caryatid. I think he was one of the true greats, and I share the admiration for the Caryatid that Robert Heinlein had Jubal express in Stranger in a Strange Land. It's just that over the years I've come to see the "no job for the delicate flower of womanhood" message as tainting the one about victory in defeat and the courage of the small and thankless. Also, after seeing first hand his work next to that of Camille Claudell, I wonder if Rodin may not have stood on the shoulders of his own Caryatid just a bit.
Photograph Copyright ©1996 Craig Ambrosio & The Nashua Telegraph.