Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde
Tate Britain, London SW1
Saturday 17 November 2012
Reading between the lines of a major Pre-Raphaelite art retrospective
All the turmoil, vanity, tragic woe, passion and invented histories of the pre-Raphaelites are laid bare in this exhibition at Tate Britain.
The sheer volume of work might initially overwhelm, yet while there are a colossal number of exhibits covering painting, sculpture, tapestry, photographs, book illustration, furniture, glass and print this collection offers the chance to get up close, move between the works and make connections of meaning in new ways.
It is perfectly possible to rekindle the faded fascination for one of the most popular of British art movements, perhaps best known for the sensual allure of the rehashed medieval and renaissance styles of the pre-Raphaelite “brotherhood,” with their chaste – and not so chaste – love scenes and mythical content.
That’s reflected in the categories of history, nature, beauty, paradise, mythology and salvation and it is the latter room that proves to be the most exciting, overlooked at it is at one end by the exhibition’s best painting.
Technically accurate, realist in execution but much derided at the time Christ In The House Of His Parents by John Everett Millais is, once stripped of its religious symbolism, really about family, the workshop, and the child being tended to with a parent’s bended knee and a craftsman’s fatherly touch.
Resting inconspicuously among the paintings of torment and fictional love, pious religiosity and falsified histories derived from myth, there are three paintings by Ford Madox Brown that give the exhibition its strongest and only point of real contact between art and social reality.
In Last Of England it is the gaze of a husband and wife that tells a foreboding story of economic migration.
Both stare into the distance, their trepidation masked by resolution on his part and resignation on hers.
Both are setting out to make a better life with their child, away from England’s pretty but unyielding shores.
In Work, another Madox Brown canvas, the toil and to a certain degree the dignity of road workers is given credence. Albeit in a grotesque style, this busy scene comes alive with the paymaster, the exploiter, lurking in the shadows.
A poverty-stricken child lies on the road and a theologian and writer observe the spectacle, no doubt making ready to give earnest comment from pulpit and page about the navvies and their hard labour.
These works are laden with the artists’ symbols and signs all present in one image. This makes the “reading” of a particular painting less like the linear experience to be found in most poetry, novels or films. It’s more akin to the process of digitally decoding a screen where all the symbols are instantaneously present in a single frame.
A prominent feature in the exhibition is the representation of the “women of the brotherhood” as variously empowered, exploited or victim.
The powerful and wonderfully unfinished Take Your Son, Sir, also by Madox Brown, begs the question of how the ashen-faced woman, in the near-death exhaustion of childbirth, opens herself and gives the child to the “Sir” of the canvas’s title.
There are water colours too by Elizabeth Elenor Siddal, in themselves an empowering and unique inclusion, as are the works of other female Pre-Raphaelites, substantiating the claim that there was an active Pre-Raphaelite “sisterhood” running alongside the “brotherhood.”
Typically John Everett Millais‘ tragic and ethereal Ophelia, with Siddal as the suffering muse and model, is an example of the brotherhood’s obsessive fear of the passive, tragic female and this is echoed in William Holman Hunt‘s The Awakening Conscience as the “disobedient” kept woman rejects the lap of a bemused “gentleman.”
Gabriel Dante Rossetti‘s Mary in The Annunciation recoils and turns her hips away from the symbol of God’s intent and in Lady Lilith and Beata Beatrix female strength is captured in powerful neck lines.
But in Found the control fetish reasserts itself as the “caring” male wrests the fallen woman, a victim of city life, away from the compassion of her former man from the countryside.
For Edward Burne-Jones the effect of female presence in Doom Fulfilled is manifest in the demure skin tones of the woman subject, with her nonchalant gaze set against the coiling violent rapture of a shining armour-clad Perseus attacking a sinuous, erect and snarling serpent of the same colour as his armour.
What impresses in this exhibition is how it demonstrates the value of fine art as an enabling form of visual literacy for all to experience and use as a tool to decode society with.
That education may be currently be a middle-class preserve but this exhibition eloquently demonstrates why an understanding of visual language is of value to all.
Runs until January 13. Box office: (020) 7887-8888.