GALA, LIZZIE, DORA | Ella Ackroyd flips the narrative of three women previously known as ‘muses’.
by Ella Ackroyd
Gala, Port Lligat, Catalunya, 1950
Gala glides over the rocky surface that makes up the seabed below, grabbing on to rocks, pulling herself closer to the shore. She bobs there momentarily, like a starfish, her limbs moving with the gentle push and pull of the water. On the beach, a fisherman prepares his wooden boat, as she stares up at him. They both smile suggestively at each other. As she emerges from the water, he speaks to her in Catalan. She walks towards the large rock that flanks the cove and steps up onto the hard, hot surface; an oasis of flatness amongst the many curves that dot the landscape. Gala gazes over at the fisherman as she pulls her bikini top over her head. He stares hard at her almost naked body. As she lays down, she recalls the last time they had been together, his hot body heavy above hers. She closes her eyes, hearing the lapping of water against the shore and feeling the hungry gaze of her admirer warm her skin.
She breathes heavily in and out, satisfied by the exertion of her swim. Through her daily efforts, her body toning and tanning; strong and healthy as the summer creeps on and a long winter in Paris falls into distant memory. Sitting up on her forearms, she lets out a sigh as she spots the fisherman’s boat floating out to sea. Frustrated yet still determined to enjoy her not so secluded surroundings, she settles into the warm rock beneath her. She can still make out the tanned skin of the fisherman watching her from his boat, surrounded by the blue water reaching out to the Mediterranean and flanked by the jagged rocks that make up Dali’s dreamscapes. The large egg sculpture that sits above their house at Port Lligat casts its bulbous shadow alongside her.
She traces along the contour of her right breast with her left hand, feeling its weight and shape. It is warm and full, swelling with the heat. Her other hand slides down over her stomach and into her bikini bottoms, the stretchy fabric easily allowing her to enter. Rubbing her hand back and forth, her breathing deepens with each movement. She closes her eyes hard, until all she can see is a bright red light penetrating her eyelids. The rays of sunlight fill her body, the droplets of water caress her skin. Her body collapses into the hard support of the rock beneath her.
Her cheeks flush red and she reaches behind the rock to fetch her wide-brimmed hat and deck of tarot cards. Under the shade of her hat with her knees folded into her chest, she draws a tarot card, The Empress: the creator of ideas. Collecting her belongings, she makes her way up to the house, climbing over a familiar set of uneven rocks, rising and falling beneath her. She winds her way into the house and into the bedroom that she shares with Dali. Two beds like thrones meet her, watching over as Dali paints in front of the large window that looks out to the bay and the rock where she has been sat. He signs a mixture of their names in the corner of a painting that he has just finished.
Elizabeth Siddal, 7 Gower Street, London, 1852
She knocks hard on the door of the imposing house, awakening it to her presence. A young woman appears on the other side of the threshold, tiny in comparison to the large wooden frame. She recognises that they are probably the same age. Having just turned nineteen she no longer exists solely within the dichotomy of child and adult but is beginning to understand the specificities of age. They walk up the stairs, one after the other. As they arrive at the door of the artist’s studio, it swings open. The room is dominated by a large canvas. Its surface overcome with green foliage, leaving only a small, empty space in the centre. This will become her space, carved out for her drowning body as she morphs into Ophelia. John Everett Millais introduces himself, stating his three names, confidently in a row. She replies with her two names, Elizabeth Siddal and her one nickname, Lizzie.
Fully dressed, she steps carefully into a bathtub that is positioned behind the canvas. The water is piping hot, scolding her skin until she becomes numb to the sensation. She crumples her body downwards until she is uncomfortably seated within the ceramic container. She sinks backwards, emerging her body within the water, leaving just her face and breasts bobbing above the surface. Her long red hair draws out in every direction, creating a halo or a crown. Her ears are submerged, and she can only hear the faint instructions from Millais. The water cools and she can feel the muscles in her body relaxing. Her jaw softens, parting her mouth slightly as her eyes roll shut. She is under water and out of sight.
As she lays there, she recites one of her favourite Tennyson poems in her head:
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea …
She feels as if she is drifting out to sea herself, washing out with the waves whilst peacefully staring into the great expanse above her. She imagines smearing teals and indigos and cobalts onto a canvas, layering darker tones for the sea and lighter tones for the sky. She pictures the composition of these blues contrasted with an array of greens; a bright emerald laid over a dark moss, depicting some unknown land, where women stand watch at the edge of a cliff.
She continues to lay in her watery world, floating from her painting to her poetry, basking in this time to herself. She recites the last three lines of a poem that she is composing:
Then who shall close my lady’s eyes
And who shall fold her hands?
Will any hearken if she cries
She cannot think of the last line, needing a word that will rhyme with hands. She thinks back to the women standing on the cliff in her imaginary painting and it comes to her:
Up to the unknown lands?
Suddenly, she notices that she cannot feel her feet or hands. Her lungs take a deep inhale, and it causes her to gasp activity back into her body. She hauls herself up from the ice-cold water in which she is submerged, her long hair attempting to drag her back down again. She coughs and splutters as she holds tightly onto the rim of the bathtub. She is yanked upright and wrapped in thick cotton towels. She sips quickly from a cup of tea that appears in front of her. As soon as the hot liquid begins to warm her, she uncovers her notebook within the mound of her belongings. She flicks through the colourful multitude of drawings and text and scribbles down the last line of her poem. The young maid helps her change out of the weighty wet clothes into the heavy layers in which she arrived. Millais explains that the candles heating the water had gone out, whilst he had been so absorbed in his own work. She hurries her goodbyes and bounds down the steps and out into Gower Street. She walks fast, every few paces becoming a skip. She smiles widely with the thought of her imagined painting and holds tightly to the final line of her poem, buried safely within her coat pocket.
“She can’t stand to look at it, the deformed face and jagged lines. Full of suffering and pain, it feels so distant from herself at that time.”
Dora Maar, Ménerbes, France, 1958
The bird song begins loudly at 5am, tweets and twirls circling from the outside in. The day warms and rises with the ascending noise. Dora rolls over, her head pounding with surreal dreams and unwanted thoughts, brought to the surface through her daily sessions of psychoanalysis. She rolls to one side and reaches for her gold cigarette holder. Gripping it tightly between her lips, she lights the cigarette and inhales deeply. Holding her breath, the world momentarily stops, and encases her in a deep silence.
Dora kicks off her thin cotton sheets, sticky with sweat. The morning nausea rising up within her empty stomach. Downstairs, she cuts open the flesh of a grapefruit. Enjoying the contrast of the light pink fruit against the dark green ceramic as she places it onto a plate. She roughly chops some cheese and rips off a thick slab of bread, squashing them together as the juices of the grapefruit moistens the hard crust. The contrasting colours and jagged lines create a crude composition, reminding her of the cubist paintings that Picasso would coerce her into making. She separates the food between two plates, removing the memory.
As she walks through the house, she passes her old photographs; some framed, some stacked sloppily along the walls. Surreal compositions she had once collaged together; hands poking out of shells, glamorous legs walking atop the Seine. As usual, she avoids the room in which Picasso had hung his works, especially an early sketch of The Weeping Woman, a portrait of her. She can’t stand to look at it, the deformed face and jagged lines. Full of suffering and pain, it feels so distant from herself at that time. A thirty-year old woman still in the throes of love but steady in the heady cloud of creating. From dawn to dusk they would spend every day of the week locked in Picasso’s studio. Painting and photographing as they created Guernica together.
Pushing open the door to the garden, she steps out into the bright light. As she places the food down, she notices a spider crawl over the patterned table towards the grapefruit. She watches the surreal composition it makes; animal flesh atop fruit flesh, the appetising food turned repellent by the hairy black creature. It reminds her of her own surreal photography. Yet she has not touched her camera since secluding herself to her countryside surroundings. The silence of the house rings heavy in her ears, a sharp contrast to the vibrant memories of her old studio and former life in Paris. She raises her hands to her temples in an attempt to soften the pulsating electricity that still rings through her, hot from her electroshock therapy. She holds on to her head as wet tears drench her face, turning into violent sobs. The weeping woman, she thinks to herself. Determined not to satisfy Picasso’s vision of her, she inhales deeply and wipes her stained face of tears.
She eats the bread and cheese hungrily, leaving the grapefruit to the spider. Leaning back in her chair, she kicks her feet up onto the table. The heat warms her, as the sharp rays of the sun form colours and dots beneath her eyelids. They assemble into abstract landscapes that she recognises as the hills and rivers that encompass her. Painting each morning as she does in her mind’s eye, she begins building compositions and selecting palettes. She leaves her plate and walks back through the house, slinking past cameras and light-exposing chemicals, before closing the door behind her as she settles into her studio to paint.
Ella is a writer and translator, originally from London. After living in Madrid for 5 years, she is currently relocating to a life by the sea in Hastings. Ella is embedded in the literary and visual cultures of London and Madrid. She keeps inspired by immersing herself within different industries and cultures, whilst continuously writing and recording. Ella is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and is also preparing to embark on a PhD in gender studies.