I was waiting by the staircase leading down to the ground floor, he was waiting under the pendulum. I insisted I was in the right place to meet to go to the ‘Red Star Over Russia’ exhibition: I was standing by the poster. But I was in the Tate Britain, he in the Tate Modern, and I had to concede my mistake. With just an hour free, there wouldn’t be time to get to the other side of the river and go to the intended exhibition, so instead I wandered round the Britain on my own, a gallery I hadn’t been to since I'd been researching my dissertation, anxiously stomping round the Pre-Raphaelites.
I don’t tend to go round galleries with any particular agenda. I’m not one for an ordered study of displays, or a determined reading of every caption. I like to wander. To absorb the feel and sense of the place, the touch of art as it filters through the dust in the air. To allow myself to be drawn or repelled from certain works, like an ebbing tide to the moon. In this way, I can avoid making opinions informed by external and preconceived ideas. It helps that I am not from an art background – I don’t know what is supposed to be ‘good’, what is significant or especially influential. Of course, the fact that a work is exhibited in a gallery at all suggests that there has been some form of communal, authoritative approval given, but for what reasons in particular I do not know, and largely do not care.
Hence when I found myself in the 1890s room (the decade in which the Tate was founded) I walked past the Aubrey Beardsley - although I have a print of his Venus and Tannhauser title page propped up in my room, his ‘Caprice’ didn’t catch my interest – past the Singer Sargent painting of Monet, and Arthur Hacker’s ‘The Annunciation’. But when I walked by Sir William Rothenstein’s ‘Parting at Morning’ (1891), I stopped. I stopped still and looked, caught in a kind of secular reverie.
The woman’s detached, heart-numbed gaze, her uncovered shoulders and hungering clavicles evoke a contemporary Mary Magdalene, or Mary of Bethany – devout in kind, yet degraded and ultimately discarded, discredited by social mores and the female shroud of history. The background of misty, roughed gold is reminiscent of recovered medieval alter pieces, gold framing the Holy Mother in an all-consuming halo. Or, like The Wilton Diptych, a visual testament to the divinity of angels; a proclamation of the glory of the fallen. There are echoes of Schiele in her form, glimpses of Klimt in the gold.
The display caption reads: ‘Rothenstein was a 19-year-old student in Paris when he produced this painting. The verse inscribed at the bottom [Round the cliff on a sudden came the sea, / And the sun looked over the Mountain’s rim: / And straight was a path of gold for him, / And the need of a world of men for me.] is a quotation from a poem by Robert Browning with the same title as the picture, suggesting a tryst followed by abandonment. Where the poem takes the man’s point of view, the painting provides the perspective of the woman left behind.’
The title is conspicuously ambiguous: although the verse is written from the female figure's perspective, the transitive verb 'parting' is passive, neutral: it does not qualify who is leaving, or the mutuality of the departure. Though the framing of the figure gives the suggestion of a doorway, as if she watching out onto the street, eyes following the other as they leave, her gaze is straightforward yet defiant, looking beyond her own now-solitude. The air around, the metallic haze, is hushed, yet the picture not quite silent. It has the ecclesiastical stillness of a near-empty church; of the sound of blood pulsing through arteries, its sea blankness reminding of your aliveness.
However, contrary to the Tate's caption, Rothenstein’s woman hasn’t been ‘left behind’. Alone she may be, yet she’s been left in front: left before the sight of the public, exposed to scrutiny and eyes far more interested and searching than her own. The path of gold, leading straight ahead in the poem, stretches behind her. She is a woman put against the ‘need of a world of men’, and manages to stay standing, resilient, in spite of the weight of all that she is positioned against. In the Paris Review, Marilynne Robinson wrote, ‘You have to have a certain detachment in order to see beauty for yourself rather than something that has been put in quotation marks to be understood as ‘beauty’ … Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.’
Rothenstein apparently claimed that the model reminded him of a phrase by Henry James – ‘the wanton was not without a certain cadaverous beauty’. The double negation of 'not without', used with the qualifying 'certain', implies that the woman possesses a beauty in spite of herself: that the fact of being 'wanton' - an adjective of promiscuity here used as a noun, swallowing her identity in the judgement of morality - defies the possibility of her possessing a purer, 'quotation marks' beauty.
Rothenstein's figure is literally uncovered, made vulnerable before the sight of the artist, of the onlooker. And yet - she stands in defiance of her own loneliness. Her eyeline is penetratingly parallel, neither cast down in acknowledgement of her social condemnation, nor directed towards the gaze of another. She is entire, in and of herself. In The Lonely City, Olivia Laing writes that, 'so much of the pain of loneliness is to do with concealment, with feeling compelled to hide vulnerability, to tuck ugliness away, to cover up scars as if they are literally repulsive. But why hide? What's so shameful about wanting, about desire, about having failed to achieve satisfaction, about experiencing unhappiness?'
The model's vulnerability is painted bare, her ugliness is translated into 'a certain cadaverous beauty' - but not erased. The figure's gilded determination and paralysed, yet communicable pain, feels pertinent, contemporary. Desire and abandonment, beauty and vulnerability and unhappiness swarm amongst each other, creating the friction of indeterminacy: the unsettled, homesick feeling of loneliness. It was this feeling, this recognition of a shared solitude, which made me stop, and stare. And through the prism of these contradictions: a ray of light falling on a brick wall. This is beauty.