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Avant-garde: that which is in advance, experimental with regard to art, politics or culture, pushing the boundaries of what is the accepted norm, eccentric, on the edge. Such is the focus of the current ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’exhibition at Tate Britain.
An exhibition brings together minds, the minds of those who created the images and the minds of those who seek to discover their original context, and to revisit and recast the works in the light of current knowledge. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was founded in 1848 and lasted only five years. The last major survey exhibition of the their work was in 1984. The Tate’s show presents the PRB as a defining movement in both British and European art.
The manifesto of this group of three artists, John Everett Millais (1829–96), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–82) and William Holman Hunt (1827–1920) was simple. They wanted to understand through art how to handle the technological changes and social upheavals that were sweeping their world, the political, moral and aesthetic problems of their modern life. They rejected the received opinion in the art world of their day, that the works of painter Raphael (1483–1520) represented the peak of aesthetic achievement, the Neoplatonic ideal of human grandeur where correctness of drawing and purity of taste and composition were combined with the beauty and majesty of the characters.
The PRB reached instead for something more, a time before Raphael when bright colours, flat surfaces and truth to nature were held in high regard, when artists of the mediaeval world pursued thought rather than execution, and veracity rather than beauty. The emergence of the PRB into Victorian society occurred at the same time as Karl Marx was completing his manifesto, and whenrevolution was sweeping across Europe. The PRB’s work laced this revolution into its form, colour, imagery, philosophy and content to create the painting avant-garde of this exhibition’s title.
The curators, Tim Barringer, Jason Rosenfeld and Alison Smith,have laid out the exhibition across seven rooms. Each room encapsulates a different theme and each theme is reinforced by wall colour. Thus Pugin red for Rooms 1 (Origins and Manifesto) and 2 (History) captures the fiery force with which the PRB burst upon the Victorian scene. The pale grey of Room 3 (Nature) reflects their exploration of the natural world. Dusky purple for Room 4 (Salvation) echoes their investigation into forgotten typologies and religious iconographies that they placed into a secular, not church, context. Dusky purple is repeated for Room 5 (Beauty) celebrating beauty as an end in itself, devoid of narrative or meaning. Dark grey is used for Room 6 (Paradise), commemorating the decorative arts, chairs, cabinets, wallpaper designs, bed linen, tapestries, printed pamphlets, books, stained glass, and artefacts from the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century, which flowed from the PRB’s influence. Dark grey is also used for Room 7 (Mythologies). In this way we become privy to the emergent pattern of the PRB’s thinking; we become observers of the quality of their thought and how it changed over time.
In this exhibition we find many friends, images that have been continually reproduced and have thus become timeless, such as William Holman Hunt’s extraordinary goat standing on a salt-encrusted Dead Sea inThe Scapegoat (1854–6). Here too are Burne-Jones’ cluster of 18 women descending a semi-circular staircase in The Golden Stairs (1876-80), and the wild colours and powerful imagery of The Lady of Shallot by Holman Hunt (c.1888–1905), a woman caught in the web of time and curse.
There are also many new encounters, such as Burne-Jones’ series of paintings based on the legend of Perseus (The Rock of Doom 1885–8, The Doom Fulfilled 1885–8, and The Baleful Head 1885–7) and Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (c.1864–70), a woman lost in ecstasy.
Part of the PRB manifesto was to paint the known world around them. Thus often it is their sisters, daughters, wives, and mistresses who confront us from gilded ornate frames. But these are not women palely loitering. They are forceful, bursting with strength, gazing directly at us with attitude. The curators have positioned these women in what many would call their rightful place, as ‘co-creators’ of these works with the men who painted them, a Pre-Raphaelite ‘sisterhood’ whose names live on with those of the PRB artists: Fanny Cornforth, Jane Morris, Maria Zambaco, Maria Spartali, amongst others. Some, such as Elizabeth Siddall, who began life as a cutlery maker’s daughter and eventually married Rossetti, became artists in their own right and her works, along with those of many other artists influenced by the PRB, are included.
Indeed, it was the metaphoric children and grandchildren of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the women they painted, who became the suffragettes of the early 20th century. This is a glorious gathering not to be missed by those interested in the movement. A full catalogue accompanies the exhibition.
Media credit: The Trustees of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham