I am indeed a person of fairly strong opinion (to put it mildly). Certainly not closed minded, but generally responding to visual art instinctively. Liking or not liking. Interested or not. The Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain has caused me to buck that trend. To discover appreciation and excitement for something wholly unexpected, which must be one of the most rewarding means of discovery. It was this which I experienced as I herded my way around the exhibition at a (not very) private view at the Tate.
I must admit I knew very little of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. I have come across many of their paintings as individual pieces, but never happened to look at the group as a whole. The first room serves mainly as an introduction, linking with contemporary precedents such as William Dyce’s King Josh Shooting the Arrow of Deliverance, 1844. It’s bold clarity could be seen as using the subject as a vehicle for the painting of the figures and is in stark contrast to Lorenzo Monaco’s Adoring Saints 1407-9, sat firmly at the opposite end of the spectrum of influence.
The Pre-Raphaelites emerged at a time of dissatisfaction with the industrial era. A group of like-minded painters who met regularly to discuss political and artistic climate and to practise their craft. A selection of individual portraits of the group in room one give an impression of a close, intellectual clique, bright-eyed and passionate. As a woman standing behind me put it, ‘a rather incestuous looking group’. The group went on to weather a number of internal storms, much centred around the loss and acquisition of each other’s wives. Tales of romantic drama can be loosely traced through their work, such as in The Order of Release, 1746 where we see Millais using Effie Ruskin (later to leave John Ruskin and become Millais’ wife) as a model.
Aside from group politics, the Pre-Raphaelites’ artistic aims were to hark back to a time of simplicity and beauty, an era before commercialism and huge industry had dulled the senses of the nation. They deliberately rejected the idealised representative narrative; the tale of military might or the glorification of god through idealised beatific figures and faces. The group believed deeply in the the realistic portrayal of the human figure; their grief, agony and pain. Their love, passion and sex. To deny the truth of humanity is surely an affront to the god you believe created you in his image? It appears the Pre-Raphaelites believed so, and went on to shock those who believed otherwise. That eternal section of the art world who will forever be offended.
The group resurrected medieval styles, using great swathes of pattern throughout the paintings and imbuing them with rich, explicit colour. The treatment of the medium was in itself seen as shocking, which seems strange considering the high-esteem in which society held great masters such as Michelangelo, himself an advocate of luminous hues. It is perhaps more likely that the colour was considered insulting in addition to the perceived sordid treatment of the subject itself; enhancing the vulgarity of images such as Millais’ Mariana, 1856, which showed a female figure in an un-idealised pose, pushing her hips forward with erotic undertones.
Their desire for naturalistic representation fed through literally and metaphorically into their art, as they embraced unconventional settings amongst gardens and woodland. The group would spend much of their time outdoors, painting from real life rather than in a studio, dedicated to capturing a true likeness of the world around them; a pre-cursor to the Impressionists who were to come later. They travelled widely, particularly to grapple with the landscape of religious subjects, in which they portrayed the subjects as explicitly human, eliciting strong protest from high-profile critics such as Charles Dickens, who accused Millais of out and out blasphemy for painting Mary as ‘horrible in her ugliness’ in Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter’s Shop) 1849-50.
The Pre-Raphaelites insistence on challenging society’s conventions on what art should be (particularly attempts to gloss over human flaws in representation) resonated deeply with me. Their belief in the beauty of reality; that deliberately false vision is not beautiful but dull and meaningless, is something we would do well to realise in these days of airbrushing, plastic surgery and advertising. There is no true emotion, no true feeling in idealism. Attempting to deny what is visually true only serves to rob us of a layer of humanity we seek to ignore; age, disability, asymmetry etc. It seems to me we are due a Pre-Raphaelite resurgence – bring it on. In the words of those Groove Armada – “If everybody looked the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other”.