Love them or hate them: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the marmite of art history have landed centre stage at the Tate Britain this season. The YBA’s of the 19th century: John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt formed in 1848 in a bid to break away from the high renaissance art favoured by the Royal Academy, and create paintings in the style of the artists pre-Raphael. The huge 180 work show spread across 7 rooms of the London gallery covers everything to myth to romance, in what was to be the Victorian avant-garde.
The show begins with portraits of the three main players of the brotherhood, all of which were constructed by one another. A close knit group with just three founding members, they chose to use their own social circle as models in their work. Rossetti’s wife Elizabeth Siddall is often depicted among the paintings as are the female companions of the others. Miss Siddall herself is the sitter for Millais’ Ophelia, which has long been Tate’s best selling postcard and is probably the first image that springs to mind when the words pre-raphaelites are uttered. Millais first painted the background by the river in Surrey before asking Siddall to lay in a bath full of water so that he could get the floating hair just right. The immense detail in the work is utterly stunning and the background is almost, if not more striking that Ophelia herself. The painting’s narrative is from Shakespeare and the artists took much material from the Bible, poetry and other literature in their art. In fact, Rossetti was a poet before he turned to the visual arts, and his sister Christina was a published poet. The majority of paintings had a strong narrative – not static images – they tell a story, often full of drama, as is Henry Wallis’s The Death of Chatterton.
Unlike many artists that we are familiar with today, that pre-raphaelites were more concerned with looking back than looking forward. They were trying to get to a purer form of art, less polluted with modern ideals of the time. In a juxtaposition of this, while the brits were looking to the past, the French were beginning to delve into impressionism. The art world overseas was on the steady path to abstraction and simplification of form while our work was becoming more and more detailed. In this way we do not have to try so hard when faced with a painting from the period, we merely need to observe and admire its beauty. Similarly, while the brotherhood was looking to history aesthetically, so too were they in subject matter, depicting biblical scenes for the first time in Britain since the reformation. This is also controversial in part as the Tractarianism and the Oxford movement were just getting underway and the Anglican church in Britain was not completely stable. The brotherhood looked back further more from the Christian art tradition in their portrayal of myths and have depicted The Perseus Cycle, The Golden Stairs, and one of my favourite works, The Lady of Shalott by Holman Hunt.
For me, where the brotherhood excels in its presentation of nature. The hyperrealistic backgrounds are spellbinding. My personal favourite is Charles Alston Collins’s Convent Thoughts where the artist has applied bright green pigments directly onto a white background, giving us a striking lush green background. Similarly William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay is so photorealistic that if it weren’t for the victorian costume worn by the figure in the foreground, it could easily be a picture taken last week in Kent. Probably most memorable is Holman Hunt’s Scapegoat which seems a far juxtaposition from his heavy outlined figures, the detail on the animal and its surroundings look surreal – from another world. The acute close observation employed by the artists is where they truly excel.
The curators at Tate Britain have tried to show work by women artists too, mostly relatives and lovers of the principal characters, although this has been with little success. While a feminist critic may applaud the inclusion of female artists, their male counterparts overshadow their efforts. However, this is not to say that the men did not admire the women. The pre-raphaelites were famed for their colourful love lives and the painters, unlike most victorian men, show an appreciation for women in a more sexualised way, which is most visible in Holman Hunt’s Awakening of Conscience, a tongue in cheek image which also proves the men were not always so concerned with being serious. In fact the gallery dedicated a whole room to beauty full of portraits of idealised women in pairings like Rossetti’s Lady Lillith.
The exhibition also shows the later works of Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris: the decorative arts and the beginnings of the Arts and Crafts movement. We are shown examples of tiles, tapestries and stained glass. During the middle ages and renaissance such forms of art would have been worth more than paintings and whilst industrialisation was beginning, Morris shows the revival of traditional art forms: block priting, tapestry weaving and hand crafted chairs and cabinets. Here I am reminded of the divine William Morris exhibition at Two Temple Place last year, and to be honest, I was left wanting more at this point.
For those with a love of both literature and aesthetics this is the show for you. This show is so inherently British celebrating our beautiful landscapes, literary traditions and victorian costume. The exhibition is full to the brim with treasures and in my eyes Holman Hunt in particular has the ability to make anything and everything beautiful. It proves that the victorians knew about beauty and narrative and were not at all bad at depicting it visually. A stunning display of drama, victorian costume and hyper realistic beauty.
Pre-Raphaelites: Victoria Avant-Garde is on display at Tate Britain until 13 January 2013