Thursday, 13 September 2012

Pre-Raphaelite Moderns, or Trouble in Gallery IX

John Everett Millais, Isabella, 1849, Walker Art Gallery Liverpool
Love them or hate them, you have to say this for the Pre-Raphaelites: they have staying power. Year after year the shows roll out, each with its new take on the subject, and we dutifully read the reviews and trot along to feast our eyes on all that gaudy colour, the frocks that resemble an Austin Powers' suit and those lantern-jawed women who nowadays remind me of Rupert Everett playing the Headmistress of St Trinians.

This time around Rossetti and co. have been rebranded as Moderns, presumably on the basis that if Rex Whistler and John Betjeman can be Romantic Moderns then the Pre-Raphaelites can jolly well be Modern too. And why not? After all, the Pre-Raphaelites were new and exciting for a few years around 1850, although not in the same way as Manet a decade later. The powers-that-be in the Parisian art world launched tirades against 'Olympia' and 'Dejeuner sur L'Herbe' in part because of the subject matter but mostly because they hated the way Manet painted. What we now see as his distinctive style they saw as a dreadful departure from the proper way of doing things.

Rossetti, The Blessed Damozel
Adverse reaction to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood - or PRB - as they styled themselves, only erupted once it was revealed that they had formed a secret society (and this at a time when Europe was in revolutionary turmoil). When 'Isabella' was exhibited in 1849 it was widely admired, but once the whole PRB scandal kicked in there was a period when not even the supremely talented and not particularly radical Millais could do anything right. Incidentally, I read a wonderful piece in the Guardian the other day about phallic symbols in this painting, which I would urge people to read if only because it shows that the academic world is still merrily turning, even in these straitened times.

Rupert Everett & Talulah Riley in St Trinians
The boys were young and feisty, and they weren't too keen on the more conservative elements of the art establishment. But it takes a leap of faith to call their response radical, either artistically or politically. Blake, Constable and Turner were all more interesting as artists, and if you want a sense of what Victorian politics was like at mid-century, have a look at Thomas Carlyle. Victorian society may have aspired to respectability, but 19th century cities were plagued by cholera and other diseases, by appalling labour conditions and abuse of the young (children over 9 could work, while the age of consent was 12), and by grinding, unrelieved poverty.

In this context, portraying Christ as the son of a lowly carpenter, as Millais did, was a fairly mild comment, even if it did arouse the ire of Charles Dickens.

But though the Pre-Raphaelites were, generally speaking, God-fearing, patriotic and conservative in their influences (I'm sorry, but Tennyson?), their work was and remains wonderfully, compellingly odd. Every provincial museum has (or ought to have) its Pre-Raphaelite, hanging among the tedious old landscapes and portraits like a camp elderly relative who has turned up for the wedding in a fantastic velvet tunic, clasping a lyre.

What I struggle to understand is how a group of artists set out to record nature, to represent only what they saw, and ended up producing pictures with the verisimilitude of 'The Wizard of Oz'. Whose idea was it to paint in those extraordinary colours? How are we expected to take seriously the plight of Mariana, take one example, when she's wearing such an outrageously gorgeous dress? 
William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott, 1886-1905, Wadsworth Athaneum
In 1934, the Royal Academy held an Exhibition of British Art from about 1000 to 1860. Tasked with reviewing this mammoth show, a critic in The Times noted 'the extraordinary homogenousness of the exhibition as a whole'. Out of this vast enterprise, which included everything from medieval illuminated manuscripts to work by Gainsborough and Constable, only two rooms seemed not to fit, one of which was Gallery IX, the room devoted to the Pre-Raphaelites.

'To put into a sentence,' the critic wrote, 'the chief reason for the disconcerting effect of Gallery IX, as a whole, it is because decorative colour, at full pitch, is here applied to realistic modelling.'

I love the silent scream in that phrase 'at full pitch'. He went on, 'Most of the Pre-Raphaelite pictures would be improved if they were flattened out, a la Gauguin...'

Was John William Waterhouse included in Gallery IX, I wonder? To my mind he showed best what could be achieved by adopting the mood and subject matter of a classic Pre-Raphaelite picture but working with a less insane palette. I've loved his version of 'The Lady of Shalott' for years, since I studied Tennyson for A-level, while Holman Hunt's take on the subject could be retitled 'The Great Rococo Spaghetti Factory Disaster'. There's so much going on in Hunt's picture that the tragedy of the woman's plight is buried in incidental detail, whereas Waterhouse tones the decoration down and provides a sombre but beautiful background to the scene.

John William Waterhouse, the Lady of Shalott, 1888, Tate Britain
Anyway, I will definitely be making the trip to Tate Britain to revisit some old friends. In the meantime what I'd like to know is not how revolutionary the Pre-Raphaelites were, but what their real significance has been since those heady days of 1849. If a group of artists has a lasting importance then surely it will be seen in the work of those who come after them, so is it in this case? Is there a Post-PRB tradition? I'm going to try to find out, but let me know if anything comes to mind.

'Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde' is at Tate Britain

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