Ophelia 2022

surrealist painting ophelia

or Ophelia 2.0 22

When most art lovers hear the word Ophelia, they probably think of one of the most famous Pre-Raphalelite paintings. Ophelia is a painting by British artist Sir John Everett Millais, completed in 1851 and 1852 and in the collection of Tate Britain in London.

Of course, the picture of Millais also played an important role for me. For a while now I’ve been toying with the idea of creating some kind of abstract surrealism and I’ve put together some of my previous work on one page new surrealism concepts.

surrealist painting ophelia

The works of the Pre-Raphaelites are not explicitly surreal images, but in my view there are still some aspects that refer to later surrealism. Anyway, I wanted to approach the subject of Ophelia in my own way. Of course one can interpret questions about the environmental pollution of our time, but that was not my original intention. Actually, among other things, thoughts on transience and change were the focus of my considerations. Or should the viewer ask themselves questions like: Where is Ophelia? What happened to the beautiful pond?…

All serious futurologists agree that our future will be shaped by AI (artificial intelligence) – to a degree that most cannot even imagine. This will certainly bring improvements in many areas, such as medicine, and I don’t want to go into these areas at all. What interests me in particular is painting. A co-blogger who is also an art critic and a notable painter himself recently wrote a very interesting article on this [link].

Staying with Ophelia, if our future reading is increasingly written by computer programs, it of course will change our reading habits. In addition, in times of Tik-Tok, in which many people’s ability to concentrate is in the range of minutes, sophisticated literature by Shakespeare & Co is increasingly becoming a minority reading. And with that, Ophelia as we know her is increasingly disappearing from our cultural pool. Or, like Goethe’s sorcerer’s apprentice, she will become Disneyized.

When I painted the picture I didn’t have the original in mind – actually I haven’t seen it for very many years. I was then surprised at how similar my version to the top part of the original Ophelia is in terms of composition.

After the article about me in the Guangming Daily


Yesterday I received an email and I really was very happy about it! My Chinese fellow student Little Yang from the early days of my first stay in Beijing (Foreign Language Institute 1978-79) read the newspaper article mentioned in the Guangming Daily and remembered me. He attached an old photo of the two of us (my side of the room then). He’s also coming to Vienna soon so we can chat about the old days. This is one of the remarkable sides of the internet.

杨治梵, Yang Zhifan and Friedrich Zettl foto


At the time, I was lucky to be the only Western student to have a Chinese roommate. This worked extremely well because Little Yang was an extremely smart and nice fellow and I don’t recall there ever having been any disagreements between us. He also emailed me a photo of a painting I gave him as a minor memento that he obviously hasn’t thrown away yet.

painting for Yang Zhifan 1980

In the meantime I know that he had a steep carriere in the USA – not surprising.

Zettl Friedrich

alive and well and having fun

25 comments on “Ophelia 2022

Whenever I’ve seen a picture of “Ophelia” I’ve felt uneasy. Perhaps that is the painting’s surreal aspect. That uneasiness is not repulsive, it’s more like not being able to turn away from tragedy.

Thanks! Yes, there is so much tragedy in many Pre-Raphaelite paintingss. But for a long time I felt a strong attraction to them. Part of my morbid soul….

Wow. Fabulous pictures. Loved all of them.

Thank you very much! You are very kind!

Wondrous work, both the original Ophelia and the abstraction you compare to it.

Thank you very much for your kind words! I am happy you like it!

The ability to reconnect with people we have loved and known in other lifetimes is a great charm of the internet.

If Hamlet is ever Disneyfied, I think that will be the end for me. Although thinking about it right now, a comic version starring Mickey Mouse would be pretty wonderful, especially the death scene at the end where Hamlet keeps saying, “I die, I die,” and then doesn’t for a long time and many more times “I die, I die.”

The character of Ophelia is — well, she and Gertrude both bring out my latent feminist, and it doesn’t really matter. 900,000,000 million people have interpreted them and Hamlet (which I usually type hamelt). I had seminar in graduate school that was exclusively on the CRITICISM of Hamelt.

Mel Gibson’s Hamelt came out while I was teaching English as a Second Language. My students wanted to understand the play. We all went to see the movie and then they wanted to put on the play. I don’t know how we did it, but over the span of a month, meeting twice a week, we did the whole play as a very extravagant role play. It was fun and pretty amazing. Shakespeare’s obsession with iambic pentameter challenged the students (and me) but I guess we didn’t care. I gave them synopses of scenes and they acted them out in their own English. It was a real high point of my career teaching.

I think my favorite “version” of Hamlet is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

I like your painting. It (for me) depicts the treachery of water. Amazing how it somehow evokes Millais’ picture.

Thanks again! Of course, I am aware that what I say can be taken as stupid – as always. Nevertheless: in the past I would have tried to depict a pond, as a painter would do. In this picture (as well as in others) I tried to be the pond myself. When I am the pond, I ask myself what story can I, as a pond, tell. And the story/lamento goes along these lines: Where are you, Ophelia, why are you gone. I have left nothing but you, robbed of all ornamental green. Or something like that….any story. Designing Ophelia’s place as an empty space would be too trivial, so I tried it with sensitive shading in the water.

First of all, thank you very much for your feedback!
In the past I would have tried to imagine a pond and then paint it like painters do. In this case (as in many others over the years) I tried to become the pond myself. And then to ask me, as a pond, the question: what story do you have to tell? In that case: where have you gone, Ophelia? Why are you leaving me behind, deprived of all green ornaments already. Any story.

Designing Ophelia’s place as an empty space would be too trivial, so I tried it with sensitive shading in the water.

I would give my third arm to be able to attend your seminar on Hamlet. Was that in China? That would make it doubly interesting. No, Ophelia and Hamlet will never be Disneyized: too little action for the young audience and hardly anyone knows the protagonists anymore…

My class was a “conversation” class at a private language school in San Diego. My students came from Italy, one from Brazil, a couple of Arabs and probably a couple of Japanese. I don’t remember what else. The Brazilian girl had studied Shakespeare at school in Brazil and was completely infatuated with him. It was the preponderance of kids from highly verbal — even extroverted — cultures that made that experience possible.

A lovely and thoughtful post. Your posts and pictures are always deeply satisfying.

You are always very kind! Thanks for reading my posts.

Indeed, a very thoughtful post! I am also afraid that sophisticated literature will lose a large part of its readership in the coming years (when the boomers die out) and will eventually vanish, as there will then be no one left to read nor write it.

The compositional similarites between Millais’s “Ophelia” and yours are astonishing!

Sometimes I think, maybe only a few people care that there is good quality literature. But when there is no more enduring literature, there will soon be no more enduring art and music. Instead, we adore soul-less mass-produced stuff because we don’t know any better.

And that’s exactly the future we’re in for, I’m afraid.

Loving this article for the connections you pave and the bits on which to dwell ❤️.

Thank you very much! You are very kind!

A fascinating conception of “Ophelia” that makes total sense for our times of ecological degradation and forgetfulness. Well done!

Thank you so much! So happy to hear you like it.

Thanks for sharing your interpretation and new direction. Zetti and what a rewarding note and picture to receive from one of your students. That is a huge testament and affirmation of your work! 💖💖👏

I thank you! Yes, an interpretation it is – but that’s what art is good for, to be reinterpreted and thus become immortal 😄❤️

yes yes so true!!! 💖👏👏👏

Fabulous pictures.💙💙💙

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