Uncanny Art for Uncanny Times

Which eerie Rossetti couple are YOU? Take this quiz to find out! 

Art can help us process the strange feelings inside, the ones that we can’t even articulate, but are lurking under the surface of our conscious mind. I know I’m not the only one to have noticed this: suddenly the whole internet is full of art and art history, as people finally slow down enough to appreciate the role it can play in our lives.

Like most of you I have been stressed beyond reason for weeks. I’m so grateful that my stay-at-home life is comfortable, and that I have my husband and daughter with me. However, there’s something unsettling about this time. Uncanny in its most literal sense. Familiar and unfamiliar. Everything looks the same, but quietly, everything has changed. I look at the birds in my garden, hopping round the newly churned up dirt, looking for a snack. I can’t help but envy their ignorance of a worldwide pandemic, though it’s silly of me, I know. (I’m sure birds have a much harder life than we do anyway!) 

Was I talking about birds? Sorry. I meant to be talking about art. 

  While exploring the weirdness that is our new normal, I often find myself thinking of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s strange and beautiful watercolour, How They Met Themselves

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, How They Met Themselves, c.1860-64,
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

It depicts a medieval couple strolling through the woods who happen upon…themselves. The only difference the viewer can see is that the couple on the left is bathed in a golden, unearthly aura, while the couple on the right are certainly of this world. And that couple’s reaction is quite mortal as well— the man draws his sword, a confused look on his face. The woman swoons* and reaches out to her doppelgänger as her knees buckle underneath her. 

The composition feels crowded. The trees seem to press the two couples into each other, as if the forest was bringing them together purposely. 

This watercolour has a fascinating history, depicting as it does the artist and his new wife, Elizabeth Siddal. Though seeing your doppelgänger was apparently an evil omen, he painted this on his honeymoon. What a romantic. 

(Learn more about that from Robert Wilkes, and check out his excellent Pre-Raphaelite blog.) 

But aside from Rossetti and his macabre sensibilities, my main question is a simple one: which couple are you right now?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, How They Met Themselves (detail)

Are you the earthly couple, caught unawares and frightened out of your mind? Do you want to swing your fists (or sword) at COVID-19 and the new lockdown life? Do you find yourself unable to cope, reaching your flailing arms out, trying to hold onto something solid? Are you confused? Are you freaking out?

Or, perhaps you are the unearthly couple, looking serenely at their other selves. The look on the woman’s face is almost pitying, yet she does not move to help her doppelgänger. The man looks slightly annoyed at being challenged to a fight, but he does not remove his hands from his lady. They are much more peaceful in this strange encounter, as if they are not shocked to see copies of themselves walking in the woods. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, How They Met Themselves (detail)

Perhaps you’ve looked back on your former self lately, and pitied that person and their naivety. Perhaps you’d like to go back and warn yourself (buy toilet paper! Don’t go to that concert! Buy shares in Zoom!) but as the past cannot be reached, you can only look back in pity. 

Personally, I oscillate between the two. Yesterday was a mortal couple freakout day. Biscuits were eaten. Duvets were hidden under. Today I’m feeling more like the unearthly couple: serene and accepting of the compete chaos and WTF-ery that our lives have become. I’m even sewing face masks as a relaxing craft project. 

Whichever couple you are, Rossetti reminds us that we cannot escape the forest which inevitably brings these unlikely pairs together. The strangeness, and the strangers, must be faced. 

Just remember to be kind to yourself as you meet yourself. We’ll get through this forest, somehow. 

* This is a Victorian painting. Of course she swoons.