Tate Britain’s big Autumn blockbuster, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, is the first major survey of this 19th-century movement in nearly 30 years. This may come as a surprise to some, considering the popularity of the work. The exhibition sets out to show that the Pre-Raphaelites were Britain’s first modern art movement and juxtaposes paintings with works in other media such as furniture, stained glass and textiles.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848 by the painters Dante Gabriel Rosetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett-Millais as a reaction to the art of their day. They sought to defy the conventions of art by painting brightly coloured, evenly lit pictures that appeared almost flat. They emphasized an almost photographic representation of even humble objects particularly those in the immediate foreground and chose subjects from Shakespeare, Tennyson to Keats.
The Pre-Raphaelites have always captured the public’s imagination whether as a result of the often-reproduced images such as John Everett Millais’ Ophelia or Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s Beata Beatrix or because of their controversial personal lives such as Millais’ marrying Effie Gray after the annulment of her first marriage to the critic John Ruskin for non-consummation. Their lives and loves are as fascinating as their rebellion against the art establishment of their day. Consequently, the story of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood has twice been televised. First in the 1975 serial The Love School starring Peter Egan, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Quinn and more recently in the 2009 serial Desperate Romantics starring Aidan Turner and Rafe Spall.
Looking round at the definitive works the Tate has borrowed from Britain’s regional museums, you can’t help wondering how sparse their walls dedicated to this period must look as a result, particularly the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford and Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery and even the Tate’s own Pre-Raphaelite collections has been moved to these walls.
The show is impressive with many of the periods best-loved works making an appearance with a few notable exceptions. For example, only two of the top five paintings (from a recent poll) on the Pre-Raphaelite’s society website are exhibited. The omissions include Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott, (yes we know this is a second generation work, but so is Burne -Jones) Rosetti’s Proserpine and Burne-Jones’s The Beguiling of Merlin.
Of special note is the William Morris room featuring his bed from Kelmscott Manor and a large carpet taking centre stage. This gives the show a new dimension and goes a long way to show the influence of the brotherhood. It is refreshing to see Tate Britain combine applied arts with painting and sculpture, an ethos deeply rooted in the Arts & Crafts movement. In addition, it was a pleasure to see works rarely seen in Britain such as Rosetti’s Found now in the Delaware Art Museum, USA and Burne-Jones’s Perseus series from the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart.
As a group the artists definitely deserved their reputation. As an impressionable teenager, they were the first artists I admired probably as a result of the afore-mentioned BBC serial The Love School and an envious admiration for painting such detail and colour plus a Romantic take on Henry Wallis’s boy poet Chatterton. The first view of the haunting colour of his livid skin stayed with me for months. Even though my tastes have changed and developed through the years, I can still understand what drew me in and fascinated me about these artists. Words/ Photo Sara Faith © ArtLyst 2012
Tate Britain 12 September 2012 -13 January 2013
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