The Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde
12th September – 13th January at Tate Modern, London
Befitting of its title, this exhibition at the Tate goes out to prove that contrary to popular belief, The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were not a kitsch clique, solely symptomatic of alabaster skin, auburn tresses, falling petals and fey romanticisms. They were quite capable of those things, of course, but only those things would be a gross underestimation of their capabilities and achievements.
This exhibition champions the notion that they were in fact Britain’s first avant-garde movement and makes us question why their influence on our modern art seems to have been over looked in favour of more continental lures. Why the general populous never thought of them as modern or progressive, but at most slightly controversial.
The Brotherhood was born out of its founding member’s William Holman hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (the latter and his model wife Elizabeth Siddal responsible for the majority of the aforementioned alabaster skin misconception) and their rejection of the prevailing idea that Raphael and his mannerist successors represented the pinnacle of artistic achievement. In their words this encompassed anything “sloshy” named after Sir Joshua (Sloshua) Reynolds, the founder of the Royal Academy of Arts and champion of art the Pre-Raphaelites deemed as “lax or scamped in the process of painting … and hence … any thing or person of a commonplace or conventional kind”. They favored the bright-colours, abundant detail and truth to nature found in Quattrocento and Flemish art, and would go about it in their own, idiosyncratic way.
The group was formed in September 1848 at Millais’ parents house on Gower Street in London. Millais and Hunt were students at the Royal Academy while Rossetti was a student of Ford Maddox Brown. Rossetti had met Hunt after seeing Hunt’s painting of ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, it’s namesake being the poem by Keats. As an aspiring poet himself, Rossetti had ambitions to develop the links between romantic poetry and art, an ambition that would ultimately be accomplished beyond all doubt. These three were joined shortly afterwards by Dante’s brother, William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner to form the seven-member ‘brotherhood’.
The founding of the ‘Brotherhood’ was during the industrialization and mechanization of Britain. A time of economic unrest, Chartist demonstrations and a disconnect with nature; it was the time of the machine. A time some Victorians felt abandoned beauty and spirituality, which is why, like Pugin with his Gothic revival architecture, the Pre-Raphaelites held medieval culture in such high regard, believing it to possess a spiritual and creative integrity that had been lost. There was a longing for something more intimate, sensual, considered.
In this respect I felt the timing of the exhibition rather apt in relation to our own, our continued disconnect with nature and anything spiritual or considered, all you need do is swap the words mechanization for virtualization.
My association with the Pre-Raphaelites was established in my early childhood. Before I became hypnotized by the thin, grey light of computer lords, I remember being fascinated by an enormous print of Rossetti’s beautiful ‘Proserpine’ (1874) that hung on our violet walls (the violet walls lay inside a maroon house, my mother obviously a latent member of the ‘Brotherhood’).
Until the age of about 14, my association with the Pre-Raphaelites was a little skewed, I knew them by a different name, back in the 1980’s at the Tate’s last Pre-Raphaelite exhibition my mother had asked a security guard for directions, to which the guard had responded “The Pre-Fabulites? Down there and on your left love”.
This exhibition, up the stairs and on your right, is partitioned in to 7 sections under headings most befitting to their works including – nature, beauty, history and salvation; and reminds us at the beginning that all of these subjects were influenced by the scientific revolution that was occurring at the time (including Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’) putting science and religion increasingly at odds.
The invention of photography was changing the way people looked at things and “realism” and “naturalism” became a la mode buzz words but were sentiments the Pre-Raphaelites truly embraced, from every blade of grass and curve of a fungus to every look in an eye or a clasp of a hand that their brushes stroked. The invention therefore, nicely complimented their love of the abundant detail of the Quattrocento but was rarely involved in the conception of their work. Evelyn Waugh once said “A camera is a mechanical device which records a moment in time, but not what that moment means or the emotions that it evokes. Whereas, a painting, however imperfect it may be, is an expression of… feeling. An expression of love. Not just a copy of something” The Pre-Raphaelites succeeded in photographic realism and in imbuing the emotion of the moment, which is agreed as one of their most appealing attributes.
Their embracing of realism and naturalism and the extent to which they differed from Raphael and his contemporaries in terms of style, is most obvious in their Biblical representations.
The Brotherhood treated Jesus as a man who had existed on this earth and they did this by employing historical and geographical accuracy. This realism caused great controversy at the time. Millais ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’ caused public outraged when it was first exhibited (1850) and was even blasted by Charles Dickens as being “blasphemous” merely for its logical realism, and therefore, the insinuation of poverty. Not a cumulonimbus or ripe cherub in sight, praise the lord.
Paintings such as Hunt’s ‘The Finding of the Savior in the Temple’ (1854-60) depicts Jesus in much more Arabic (and accurate) settings than we are used to seeing, even now. In Hunt’s ‘The Shadow of Death’ (1870-73) Jesus appears to be pumping with blood, he has hair on his legs, he looks full of life and dare I say it, even a little tanned; he looks like he lived. This was pretty groundbreaking stuff.
The exhibition explains that religion to the Pre-Raphaelites was more in the form of morality in this life rather than redemption in the next, which thanks to this scientific revolution that was occurring was dwindling. There was a new feeling of liberation, people were no longer necessarily constrained by the possibility of heaven and hell and therefore less so by morals. Paintings such as Holman Hunt’s ‘The Awakening Conscience’ (1853) appears to be a familiar image of a man and his mistress frolicking and having a jolly naughty time, until you look closer and catch the look in her eyes, which is the look of realization. Again, in terms of the general consciousness of our current society and its morals or lack there of, was something I rather sympathized with.
Wandering around this exhibition I found there was a lot I enjoyed discovering about the Pre-Raphaelites; their unprecedented inclusion of women and therefore female Pre-Raphaelite artists (such as Mary Morris and Julia Margaret Cameron), their conspiratorial roots, their morals and even their influence on science – Thomas Woolner’s little statue of Puck features little ridges on the top of it’s ears, a mutation he had noticed on some humans and was eventually noted as ‘Woolnerian Tips’ by Darwin in his seminal publication of ‘The Decent of Man’; but there was one wonderful thing in particular about the Pre-Raphaelites that I hadn’t quite clocked before this exhibition. Here I found the dots were finally joined and with that, a great feeling of what I’m pretty sure was, patriotism, started to wash over me. This sentiment originates as you walk from room to room, the writings of Shakespeare and Chaucer, the poetry of Keats and Tennyson, quotations of Christopher Marlow and other British greats are each complete with their own inspired masterpiece. The Pre-Raphaelites and therefore this exhibition showcase an amalgamation of British genius. The products of these painted as masterfully and with equal impact as those inspired by Dante Alighieri, Greek myths and Biblical tales; which not only shows the Brotherhood’s knack for capturing the nuances of intimate relationships within any story but also reminds us that Britain really has not just a couple, but many inimitable masters in it’s history.
The final two rooms of the exhibition are curated with the aim of driving home the argument that the Pre-Raphaelites were modern and influential. Throughout the exhibitions various sections we discover the Pre-Raphaelites did not restrict their work solely to canvas and also explored areas of stained glass, carpentry, and sculpture however the penultimate room ‘Paradise’ shows their influence specifically on their great admirer William Morris and subsequently his daughter. Which vicariously shows they had an interest in and influence on all forms of art, craft and design in 19th-century Britain, and were progressive in trying to break down distinctions between media.
Then there is the last room ‘Mythologies’ which focuses on the later Pre-Raphaelite works that developed along two fronts; the realist and the poetic/proto symbolist, the former championed by Hunt, Millais and Brown with large canvases here demonstrating their interest in the unconscious, anticipating artists such as Dali, Ernst and the likes who would be influenced by Freud and Jung. The later by Rossetti and Burne-Jones, Rossetti and Burne-Jones developed a visual language around the symbols of their composition which do not necessarily cohere to form an overriding narrative or moral message but communicate in more ambiguous terms, again anticipating, but not necessarily influencing the art of European Symbolist movement and artists such as Carlos Shwabe, Fernand Knoppff and Felician Rops.
Whether the Pre-Raphaelites were Britain’s first avant-garde movement or not, I’m not sure how important it is, or how much I necessarily agree with it. I understand they used different mediums, I understand that they included women and I understand that they painted with photographic realism. To me however, they reek of tradition, a reinvented renaissance, nostalgia, la doleur exsquise and feel about as modern as Time, but I love that. What is important I think, is that they are appreciated.
These paintings represent and embrace so many qualities we lust after in movements and artists from other parts of the world, movements and artists that may not be modern or progressive but are excellent and therefore greatly respected.
So, instead of Britain’s first avant-garde movement can we not just be proud that they are Britain’s?
Written by Jade Fitton, Features Editor
The Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde is running until the 13th January 2013.