A Bacterial Ophelia

I’ve worked at the fertile intersection between and art and science for over ten years now. During this period, I’ve collaborated with nearly fifty artists and now also produce my own work. The outcomes of these many projects have featured at such venues as The Natural History Museum, The Science Museum, The Royal Institution, The Science Gallery (Dublin), The Wellcome Collection, The Eden Project, in many news sites and on the BBC One Show.

The project outline below was my first art and science project, and thus that starting point and inspiration for my journey. It was a SciArt project funded by The Wellcome Trust, and was a collaboration between myself (a bacteriologist) and JoWonder, an artist.

Our idea was to paint an interpretation of Sir John Everett Millais’s famous pre-Raphaelite painting using living and brightly pigmented bacteria as the paints. By making a striking and beautiful painting from life forms which are usually viewed with repugnance and which generally evoke disgust, our aim was  to challenge the public perception of bacteria.


Painting in progress

Painting in progress

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,

That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;

There with fantastic garlands did she come

Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples

That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,

But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:

There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds

Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;

When down her weedy trophies and herself

Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;

And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:

Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;

As one incapable of her own distress,

Or like a creature native and indued

Unto that element: but long it could not be

Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,

Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay

To muddy death.

Hamlet, Queen Gertrude, Act IV, Scene VII

The words above end Ophelia’s tale in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet,  in which Ophelia, driven out of her mind when her father is murdered by her lover Hamlet, drowns herself in a stream. These words inspired Sir John Everett Millais’ depiction of the drowning Ophelia is one of the most visited pieces at Tate Britain and perhaps the most famous Shakespeare painting of all time. Made over a two-year period in 1851–52, shortly after Millais co-founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, it’s full of the languid calm and bejewelled colour that became his hallmark. Strictly speaking, the scene is imaginary: in Hamlet itself Shakespeare keeps Ophelia’s death by watery misadventure offstage, and Millais makes the most of the strange poetry in Gertrude’s description (‘Her clothes spread wide, / And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up’) to create a paragon of passive innocence who we watch being absorbed into the landscape that surrounds her. Millais’ model, the 19-year-old Elizabeth Siddal, wasn’t so lucky: after hours lying in an inadequately heated bathtub, she caught a cold and left the artist with a heavy doctor’s bill.

Thus ends Ophelia’s tale in Shakespeare’s play, with her body floating in a muddy pond. Sir John Everett Millais painted her thus; his Ophelia hangs in the Tate Britain in London. Reproducing such a masterpiece would be difficult, but how about doing so using bacteria as your medium? Artist JoWOnder did that and photographed the result as it changed over six days; all six versions can all be seen in the Microbial Art gallery online:

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/picture-of-the-weekophelia-microbial-art-19953881/#rX5C55sizaQhWOiz.99
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