Were the Pre-Raphaelite’s groundbreaking modernists or bound by tradition? This is the question that critics are tackling after visiting the exhibition, Pre-Raphaelites – Victorian Avant-Garde currently on view at Tate Britain. ArtSmacked is here to break down the argument:
First things first, Victorian and avant-garde – do these terms really go together? Can an artistic movement reject the Academy, that is, the standards and practices approved by the Royal Academy of Arts, whilst adhering to traditional subjects and fundamental Victorian stylistic cannons?
If we examine the themes presented in the exhibition, The Pre-Raphaelites painted subjects such as religion, nature, mythology and literature (particularly Dante, Shakespeare and Tennyson). Fairly traditional, wouldn’t you say?
They were influenced by early Italian Renaissance artists (Pre-Raphael) and even more strongly influenced, thanks to Victorian art critic, John Ruskin, by the Middle Ages for its simpler lifestyle and ‘hand-crafted’ art.
But here’s the twist, their fascination with the past was their way of re-inventing the present, according to their mantra. Thus, their approach was to scrap the idealisation of the human body and forms perfectly formed by mathematical ratios and instead opt for flat surfaces, bright colours and “truth in nature”.
Some of their techniques were innovative, for instance they were painting in the open air about a decade before the Impressionists.
Painting outdoors did have its limits, for example, though Millais captured the natural surroundings for his Ophelia beside the Hogsmill River at Malden in Surrey, the painting was completed in his studio and his Ophelia was poised in a bathtub for her ‘close-up’, but we won’t hold that against him.
They travelled near and far to achieve accuracy in depicting the world around them. For instance Holman Hunt ventured to the Holy Land seeking authentic context for the picture The Light of the World, but this alone did not reinvent religious paintings. Further, the overall look of the work is perfectly in tune with its Victorian counterparts.
Their attention to detail in nature is undeniably exquisite, but not unique. (The Hudson River School boys in America, many whom toured works in Britain and Europe, certainly had a claim on depicting nature with scientific accuracy).
On the downside, the obsession with perfecting their settings doesn’t seem to carry over to their depiction of figures, which appear stiff and lifeless.
The Pre-Raph’s did revive the old standard for history paining by replacing traditionally dark, drab hues with bright, vivid colours. They were also interested in the new art of photography, though they were certainly not alone.
Then there’s the rebellious symbolism. For example, Tate curator, Dr Carol Jacobi contests that Millais’ Isabella (1848) contains several cleverly hidden phallic symbols.
The strongest case for positioning the Pre-Raph’s amongst ‘the modern’ can be made with regard to their late works, which are heavily imbued with symbolism and some say, flirting with Surrealism. For example, Edward Burne-Jones’s interest in myth and the unconscious as demonstrated in his composition, King Copetua and the Beggar Maid (1880), focuses on the human figure seemingly frozen in time but strays from a formal narrative or moral message and instead relies on an array of disjointed symbols strewn throughout the canvas.
But is this enough to support the Tate’s argument?
Or did modern British art really start with artistic schools such as the Bloomsbury Group, who rejected the traditional distinctions between fine art and decoration or the Camden Town Group, who were heavily influenced by European modernists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin?
Still confused? So is art critic Brian Sewell, check out his review in The Evening Standard.
Pre-Raphaelites – Victorian Avant-Garde is on view at Tate Britain until 13 January
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