|John Everett Millais, Isabella, 1849, Walker Art Gallery Liverpool|
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|
|Rupert Everett & Talulah Riley in St Trinians|
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|
'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|
'Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde' is at Tate Britain.