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Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde – Tate Britain


(Disclaimer: I know the square root of buggar all about “art” and I dont pretend otherwise.)

A fascinating and rewarding exhibition.  Didnt have a clue who these artists were, or why they were regarded as so influential.  I’d heard of the movement, “pre-Raphaelite” but knew nothing of its significance or its influence on Art.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of English artists who rejected the then commonly held view of acceptability. In essence, artists who rejected the current state of “acceptable” art, as based on “post-Raphael” principles, and wanted to explore, re-visit, and re-interpret art from the  “pre-Raphael” period.

The brotherhood was inaugurated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti: John Everett Millais: and William Holman Hunt. (I’m sure theres a theory about people with three names being killers)

There was an immediate sense of familiarity with the works, even though I’d not seen any of them before.  A sense of grand tradition and classical representation, yet these works were seen as “avant garde”, as pushing the boundaries and leading a new intepretation of art.  Probably a mark of how successful this short-lived brotherhood, and the grand Italian works from which they were inspired, has influenced public recognition of “art”.

What stood out most was the forensic detail of these paintings.  The clarity and brightness, the vivid colour palettes, the intensity of the detail: all gave an impression of captured reality, yet they also were somehow, unreal.  The romanticism and idealised beauty, almost worshipful idolatry, of the many portayed women, contrasted with the earthy, “documentary” paintings of say, “Christ in the House of His Parents“.

“Christ in the House of His Parents”: Millais

Of course, all art can be said to “idealise” (my dad never touched me lovingly on the shoulder when I fell through a fact, I got a right bollocking!), and is always full of symbology.  What struck me about this painting was not just the clarity and definition of detail and vibrancy, or its “true life” depiction of a rural Christ, but the deciphering of the detail.  The small vignettes that carry the narrative elements of the story depicted, yet are also heavy with significance to those aware of the cultural context.  The story is “revealed” by looking.

A young boy, having cut his hand in the workshop of his father, is comforted by his mother.  Another young boy brings water to clean the wound.  The setting is established as rural, with penned sheep outside the carpentry shop and green hills in the background. An idealised peaceful rural scene, depicting motherly love, the value of family, the beauty of work and artisanship.

For those with an understanding of Christian religion however, the scene takes on more sinister and forboding tones.  The boy is Christ.  The wound he carries is in the centre of his palm, and blood drips on to his foot.  The places where he will be nailed to a cross in a gruesome act of pain and torture.  Having established the fated boy is Christ, we can assume the boy bringing the water to bathe the wound, is St.John the Baptist.  John would be imprisoned and then have his head severed from his body and delivered on a plate to appease a vengeful wife and an incestuous King.

Knowing the fate of these two small, innocent boys, fills the peaceful idyllic scene with a sadness and melancholy that the brightness and clarity of the colour pallet belies.

The paintings of Millais and Rossetti were, to me, clearly the stand out paintings.  The vibrancy, detail, and “reality” of the images is astonishing.  It struck me that during the time of the brotherhood, photography was just starting out: was this drive for forensic detail and accuracy influenced by early photgraphy? .

The brotherhood are claimed to have a “declaration”:

  • to have genuine ideas to express
  • to study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them
  • to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote
  • most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures…

These seem like sound principles on which to develop creative thinking.

For a proper review: Brian Sewell

Categories: Exhibitions
Posted by lostolmos on October 21, 2012

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