Thursday, 13 December 2012


Tate Britain, 12 September 201213 January 2013

Laus Veneris by Burne-Jones. From the Tate website.
Nature depicted with such intense moral significance: are we in purgatory?

Their typical style is distinctive: strong lines, bright colours, and lots and lots of realistic detail. Their typical effect is also distinctive, a hypercharged naturalism, as if every blade of grass were contributing to a message.

Many of their pictures indeed have an explicit moralising message. It is a relief when we come across a Holman Hunt painting without one, as his belated protestant reimagining of devotional christian works are usually hectoring sermons, sometimes unintentionally funny, as in the muscular pop star depiction of Jesus dominating one of the rooms in this exhibition.

Within their peculiar style, each of the principle members of this movement were able to distinguish themselves. Throughout this exhibition it is possible to guess which painter was responsible for which painting.

A detail from Millais' Isabella, taken from here.
Everett Millais, in particular, is shown achieving a dubious eminence. Technically, he was astonishing: the Isabella on display is as great as anything else shown, and he was a teenager when he painted it. But he appears never to have acquired gusto, so that his mature works are merely tasteful, or 'harmonious' albeit in an extremely refined manner.

Looking at Millais' famous Ophelia, a more fundamental ambiguity emerges. It is probably the extreme example of the pre-raphaelite tendency to make the background so detailed, so vibrant, that it overwhelms the foreground.

Only later in both the exhibition and in time, with the arrival of paintings by Burne-Jones, does this ambiguity seem to resolve itself, with compositions that balance subject matter and setting. But his paintings have as many points of contact with the broader Symbolist movement as with the pre-raphaelites proper.

The central artist here, appropriately, is DG Rossetti, the lynchpin of this amorphous movement. I'm perplexed that this great poet felt his true calling was painting. Yet he certainly possessed greater imagination than the others, shown by his hugely influential images of beatiful women.

Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) by Rossetti.
From the Tate website.
Something of the character of his poetry (and life) can also be seen in other paintings here, such as his Annunciation, in which Mary looks terrified of sexual abuse by the archangel. This is the most memorable and disturbing image in the exhibition.

Given this, I'm not surprised that Rossetti could not finish Found, with its piously misogynistic moral worthy of Holman Hunt.

Proper appreciation of this movement's achievement must also consider poetry and other works. In particular the poetry and prose of Rossetti and Morris significantly transforms the model of Tennyson, who might otherwise be falsely seen as the key pre-raphaelite poet, given that his poems provided many of the subjects for the paintings, though these were equally transformed.

And of course, several other major poets were associated with the movement, including Swinbourne, Meredith and Holman Hunt's poetic counterpart, the powerful Christina Rossetti.

The curators claim that these painting represent the Victorian avant-garde, which doesn't really guide the visitor through these earnest, intense pictures. A glance at the Turners in the Tate is enough to show where the the persisting 'avant garde' lies. How did his abstract late paintings, all created before any of the works in this show, fail to influence Millais et al?

The catalogue is a thorough reference work on the paintings and their reception.

No comments:

Post a Comment