Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde

The Pre-Raphaelites were a rebellious bunch, valiantly and self-consciously breaking away from the staid artistic traditions of the mid-nineteenth century to form the first modern British art movement. At least, that’s what this exhibition promises to illustrate, establishing the PRB as an early example of the avant-garde. Victorian avant-garde? The phrase sounds like an oxymoron to a contemporary audience, acclimatised to the shock of the new, and more used to thinking of the Victorians as grey faced and sexually repressed.

Certainly, there is nothing grey or repressed about these paintings. The bright, jewel-like colours at times border on the psychedelic, particularly in the works of William Holman Hunt. In The Triumph of the Innocents, 1876-87, gaudy, glowing putti, bedecked in garlands like flower children at a music festival, lead the Holy Family through the desert. Even more bizarre is The Scapegoat, 1854-56, an image of a dying goat faltering beneath a yellow sky, in an eerie, empty landscape, surrounded with animal bones and framed by violet hills. Despite the intensely religious nature of the work (the scapegoat was a prefigurement of Christ, sent in to the desert to atone for the sins of the ancient Israelites) it is easy to see, in the symbolism and sense of foreboding, a precursor to the Surrealist landscapes of Salvador Dalí and Yves Tanguy.

The Pre-Raphaelites were likewise precocious in their treatment of (female) sexuality, a theme that went on to have great resonance in twentieth century art. In a room entitled ‘Beauty,’ the viewer is confronted by a veritable bevy of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s muses, from elegant Alexa Wilding, shown here as the haughty Monna Vanna, 1866, to the voluptuous Fanny Cornforth, unleashing her luxuriant tresses as Lady Lilith, 1866-68. Perhaps most powerful are the paintings of Rosetti’s wife Elizabeth Siddal, who as a bride in The Beloved, 1865-66, returns the viewer’s gaze with a startling directness, suggesting a certain sexual independence. The sway that she held over Rossetti is also poignantly referred to in Beata Beatrix, a posthumous portrait of Siddal as Dante’s great love. She is absent and ethereal, seeming to melt into the haze of Rossetti’s brushstrokes, although, unlike Dante’s Beatrice, she is not passive but an agent of her own destruction, here alluded to by the white poppy, symbolic of the laudanum overdose that lead to her death.

The Pre-Raphaelites were also innovative in their production techniques, executing paintings en plein air from 1851 onwards, a full decade before the Impressionist movement got underway in Paris. This allowed them to study nature in the most minute detail, replicating every crumpled leaf or blade of grass. At times this is used to great effect, as in John Everett Millais’ great masterpiece Ophelia, 1851, where the densely textured background envelops the drama, making it at once historical and timeless, like a medieval tapestry that has sprung to life. Elsewhere, it is less successful, as in Millais’ The Huguenot, 1852, where the close replication of a mossy wall detracts from the beauty and power of the couple in the foreground, illustrating exactly why artists had been neglecting background detail for hundreds of years.

Such detail may be innovative, but is it really modern? This, perhaps, is where the exhibition begins to unravel a little. It is certainly true that the Pre-Raphaelites were pushing the boundaries of Victorian art and society, moving away from the academic aesthetic and exploring sexuality and socialism. However, in many ways their work still seems retrogressive rather than modern – they may be looking further back, to the Italian primitives, but the conscious weight of Western art history still looms over their work, making a clean break impossible. In this way it is hard to see them as precursors to modernity in the same way as the Impressionists, for example. Despite all this, the idea of the Pre-Raphaelites as avant-garde is an interesting one, if only because it challenges the traditional, linear view of twentieth century art history, a narrative that all too often focuses on Paris at the expense of other artistic centres.

Altogether, the exhibition is thought provoking and well put together, offering insight into this often maligned group of artists. If nothing else, it captures the essence of the works, showing the viewer at once what the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to achieve, but also why this didn’t always lead to the most attractive paintings. As the unveiling of a modern art movement it is questionable, but as a celebration of a weird and wonderful, totally idiosyncratic slice of Victorian culture it works. Say goodbye to good taste, prepare yourself for some seriously ‘out there’ paintings, and you’ll have a great time.

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