28 September 2012

The Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain

BBC2 has now finished screening an adaptation, by no less than Tom Stoppard, of Ford Madox Ford’s novel quartet Parade’s End, lavishly filmed at numerous locations no doubt made affordable by HBO backing. Despite the strength of its themes of war, love and social standing and much excellent acting, Parade’s End fails to be as engaging as it should be. Something similar applies to Tate Britain’s Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, which, as it happens, features numerous works by Ford’s grandfather, Ford Madox Brown (The Last of England 1860, left).

Perhaps the exhibition, like Parade’s End, suffers from putting forward too many characters and events while not always explaining their relationships and development. At this point I must own up to having been to The Pre-Raphaelites at the Tate Gallery (as it then was) in 1984, and that, if the PRB only appear en masse in London at 28 year intervals like a mutant species of cicada, I’m not expecting to see them again. In 1984 an educational approach was still considered appropriate, so, as well as the main catalogue, informative guides were available (right). This is the text of the first section, “The Group”:
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a secret society of seven artists, or aspirant artists, founded in London in September 1848. Its members were, in alphabetical order, James Collinson (1825- 1881), William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), John Everett Millais (1829- 1896), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828- 1882), William Michael Rossetti ( 1829-1919), Frederic George Stephens (1828-1907) and Thomas Woolner (1825- 1892). Of these, the original creators of the group and by a long way its dominating personalities, were Hunt, Millais and D.G. Rossetti. All three were brilliantly gifted and very young - twenty-one, nineteen and twenty respectively at the time of the Brotherhood's foundation. Five of the seven were painters, Thomas Woolner was a sculptor, and William Michael Rossetti (Dante Gabriel's brother) quickly dropped the practice of art to become a writer and critic who acted as the group secretary and for a time (1849-1853) kept a journal of its activities. He was also the editor of the group's short lived magazine The Germ, of which four issues appeared between January and March 1850. The Germ was sub-titled Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature and Art and reminds us that in general the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had a strong literary flavour right from the beginning. Dante Gabriel Rossetti in particular was as distinguished a poet as painter.  
William Holman Hunt was the son of a London warehouse manager who enjoyed art but had a low opinion of it as a means of earning a living. Hunt records that his father treated with 'measured toleration my passion for art', a passion developed after a visit to an artist with his father at the age of five. At twelve Hunt became a clerk to an estate agent but continued to practise drawing and eventually entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1844 where he supported himself by making portraits and copies.  
In 1844 John Everett Millais had already been four years at the R.A. Schools. At entry in 1840 he was its youngest ever pupil and became a star, winning a silver medal for drawing in 1843 and a gold for painting in 1847. Millais was born in Southampton, his mother's native town. His father came from an old Jersey family and was well off. Millais was brought up in Jersey, and Dinan in Brittany, but when by the age of eight his exceptional gifts as an artist had become clearly evident his parents moved to London in order to further his career. In London he continued to enjoy full parental backing. He and Hunt met at the Royal Academy Schools, becoming close friends sometime about the Spring of 1846.   
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born in London into an academic and intensely artistic family. His father was an Italian political refugee, a poet and Dante scholar who from 1831 taught Italian at King's College, London. His mother was a teacher. One of his two sisters, Christina, became a well known poet. Rossetti entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1844, at the same time as Hunt, but the two only met and became friends in the early Summer of 1848 after Rossetti had admired Hunt's painting of a subject from Keats (No.9) in the Royal Academy Exhibition of that year. Hunt then introduced Rossetti to Millais. The three began to meet regularly at Millais's house where they carried on intensive discussions about art. It was out of these discussions that was born the idea of a revolutionary group of artists: '...our talk is deepest treason against our betters' said Hunt one day.
which was followed by another eight equally didactic sections and some “Further Reading”, all with 30 illustrations in black-and-white. Quite a contrast with the first sections of the smaller but colourful leaflet visitors are given currently:
This exhibition presents the Pre-Raphaelites as an avant-garde movement, a group with a self-conscious, radical project of overturning artistic orthodoxies. Boldly original in style and conception, the Pre-Raphaelites made a profound contribution to the history of modern art.  
The movement coincided almost exactly with the long reign of Queen Victoria (ruled 1837-1901). The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was founded in 1848, a year of revolution across Europe, in a recognisably modern world. Steamships plied the globe. Railway networks linked expanding cities. Science challenged traditional beliefs. Photography offered new ways of seeing. Pre-Raphaelite art distilled the energy of the world's first industrial society into striking new forms.  
The leading members of the PRB were the young painters John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. Their older friend and mentor Ford Madox Brown never formally joined the group. They believed that art had become decadent, and rejected their teachers' belief that the Italian artist Raphael (1483-1520) represented the pinnacle of aesthetic achievement. They looked to earlier art whose bright colours, flat surfaces and truth to nature they admired.  
But rather than imitate the early masters, they espoused a rule-breaking originality. Whether painting subjects from Shakespeare, the Bible, landscapes of the Alps or the view from a window, the Pre-Raphaelites brought a new beauty and intensity of vision to British art.  
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in September 1848 at a turbulent time when ruptures in the new industrial society became visible. Hunt and Millais witnessed a Chartist demonstration in that year.  
Many Victorians felt that in the machine age, beauty and spirituality had been lost. Gothic Revival architects like Augustus Pugin turned back to medieval styles. The German Nazarene painters rejected modernity and adopted historical styles of painting and of dress. John Ruskin described in The Stones of Venice the 'freedom' of medieval times in contrast to the 'slavery' of the modern factory. The invention of photography in 1839 profoundly changed the way people perceived the world. All these influenced the young Pre-Raphaelites.  
At first, they formed a tight-knit, conspiratorial group, refusing to explain the initials PRB on their canvases. Their early works caused critical protest. The sharp outlines and bright colours derived from the early ltalian paintings at the National Gallery. The PRB published a journal, The Germ, which acted as a manifesto, planting the seeds of artistic revolution.  
The Pre-Raphaelites managed to be both historical and contemporary in their approach. They adopted the freshness of early-Renaissance art, but their work is essentially modern.
- more accessible, but less assured in its handling of facts – we get Raphael’s dates but not those of the Brotherhood. The Guardian’s Fiona MacCarthy in her article, Why the pre-Raphaelites were the YBAs of their day, clearly prefers the new way:
The Tate's last exhibition of pre-Raphaelite art, held in a now distant 1984, was a rather dully chronological affair. According to one critic, the treatment "seemed to symbolise a newly conservative reading of the pre-Raphaelites". Greenery-yallery to Laura Ashley. A press photograph shows Margaret Thatcher at the opening alongside Arthur Hughes's April Love. With 250 exhibits this was a catch-all survey. I remember emerging from it reeling with exhaustion. It succeeded in what one might have thought would be impossible. It managed to make the pre-Raphaelites bland.  
The current exhibition will be altogether different: leaner, more thematic, more politically charged. Women will be better represented. (Not difficult, considering that only two paintings by one woman, Elizabeth Siddal, were included in 1984.) Alongside pre-Raphaelite paintings and drawings will be sculpture, photography and prize examples of pre-Raphaelite furniture and textiles, emphasising the wide reach of a movement that was fiercely revolutionary in its aims.
The organisation of the two exhibitions provides a similar contrast. In 1984 the sections were resolutely chronological, eg: Early Work, 1845-48, The Critics Attack, 1850; Success and Dissolution, 1852-1854; After 1860, Rossetti and Burne-Jones. But the 1984 exhibition was intended to be a milestone in the revival of interest in the Pre-Raphaelite movement at a time when, unlikely as it may seem now, there was far less public awareness of the painters or the sequence of their works. One could argue that in 2012 the Tate has correctly assumed a level of familiarity sufficient to allow the works to be distributed into themes according to their subject, eg: Nature, Salvation, Beauty. But after these chronology becomes implicit with Paradise given over to William Morris and Arts and Crafts and Mythologies to works by Burne-Jones and late Rossetti (Astarte Syriaca 1877, banner above).

What the visitor does get is a chance to see somewhere in the exhibition most of the significant works we think of as Pre-Raphaelite without having to go to Manchester (Ford Madox Brown, Work, below).

Or Birmingham, or Tyneside or even Delaware (Rossetti Lady Lilith, below).

In practice the allocation of works to Nature as opposed to Paradise can seem arbitrary when they have such a high metaphorical content and are full of details of imaginary historical settings, many out of doors. Perhaps this makes remembering exactly what you have seen more difficult than usual. My favourite art critic, Jackie Wullschlager, remarked in her FT (£) review:
Rossetti, infatuated with William Morris’s wife Jane, attempted suicide, then developed a proto-symbolist oeuvre whose high point is a depiction of Jane as “Proserpine” (1874), goddess of the underworld. The 1984 catalogue acknowledged this as Rossetti’s outstanding work; disgracefully, although it belongs to Tate, and is Rossetti’s most beloved painting, this show omits it. Is it too personal, distinctive, exceptional? Its absence will not only disappoint – it also renders less meaningful the show’s trophy loan, Hunt’s dense final painting “The Lady of Shalott” (1888-1905), borrowed from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut.
A fair point, but if you look up Proserpine on the Tate website, you are advised “On display at Tate Britain Exhibition: Pre-Raphaelites”. I’m not sure I can now definitely remember its being there, but one imagines that the Tate knows the whereabouts of their pictures.

Rossetti's Prosperine and Hunt's Lady of Shallott
The exhibition’s thesis that the PRB was an avant garde movement which made a profound contribution to the history of modern art seems unarguable. MacCarthy’s equivalencing of the PRB with the YBA (Young British Artists) is more doubtful. In fact all her article offers in support of its headline is:
If we can compare 1850s PRBs and 1990s YBAs (and in terms of shock value we definitely can) then [Hunt’s] The Scapegoat finds its obvious parallel in Damien Hirst's shark.
To those of us who are just looking, as John Updike put it, the big difference between the YBA and PRB might be that those boys could ‘paint’, in the traditional sense, exceptionally well. Whether the girls could is something that the visitors in 2012/13 can decide for themselves.

Anyone who wants to see the finest Pre-Raphaelites in British collections during the next 12 months on home territory will need to get to Tate Britain by 13 January. Without any of the various concessions it will cost £14. After that Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde will be at the National Gallery, Washington, from February to May and the Pushkin, Moscow from June to September.


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