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John Everett Millais – Mariana 1851. Image courtesy of Tate

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.

William Dyce – King Joash Shooting the Arrow of Deliverance, 1844. Image courtesy of Fine Art America

Lorenzo Monaco’s Adoring Saints 1407-9

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.

John Everett Millais – The Order of Release, 1746. Image courtesy of Tate

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.

John Everett Millais – Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’) 1849-50. Image courtesy of Tate

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”.

Ford Maddox Brown - The Pretty Baa Lambs, 1851. Image courtesy of Tate

Ford Maddox Brown – The Pretty Baa Lambs, 1851. Image courtesy of Tate

William Holman Hunt - The Scapegoat, 1854. Image from Wikipedia

William Holman Hunt – The Scapegoat, 1854. Image from Wikipedia

John Everett Millais - A Huguenot, on St. Bartholomew's Day, Refusing to Shield Himself from Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge, 1852. Image from Wikipedia

John Everett Millais – A Huguenot, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, Refusing to Shield Himself from Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge, 1852. Image from Wikipedia

Henry Wallis – Chatterton, 1851. Image from http://www.echostains.wordpress.com

rossetti_ladylilith_Tate

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Lady Lilith, 1866–68. Image courtesy of Tate

Sitting on the bus in traditional Central London traffic, I mused upon my recent visit to the Picasso and Modern British Art exhibition at Tate Britain and tried to decipher what had transpired to be a distinctly underwhelming experience. I already knew of course; I had been feeling it build as I walked around, like a volcano preparing to erupt situated deep in my soul. I was filled with frustration and annoyance at the disjointed narrative portrayed through the curatorial choices. The exhibition has been laid out as a study of Picasso in relation to other artists and historical context. In principle, as an art history student, you would think this is completely up my street. Seemingly not so.

Whilst walking around the show I had a strong sense of emotive deja vu and was struck by the realisation that this exasperated sensation was not a new one. Indeed, I felt like this throughout much of my degree course. A word of warning for those preparing to step into the art historical world – being interested in art and interested in history does not necessarily mean you will be at all interested in art history. For me personally, my flame of interest was extinguished when a large proportion of the subject began to revolve around collectors, collecting habits and the so-called connoisseurs and critics; tales of rich aristocrats spending their limitless stash of spare money on new art to show off to their peers and the celebrated elitism of a select few who really know what art is about . As someone of socialist values I found the whole thing left a sour taste in my mouth.

Unfortunately, the Picasso exhibition revived my distaste for this capitalist academia and it did rather put me off. To make matters worse the text was not only captioned for the room summary but also for each individual image and I was heartily encouraged to hire an audio guide – thankfully I had the insight to decline. Had I not, I do believe my brain may have exploded on a white minimalist wall somewhere between Bacon and Moore, through sheer insipid fact overload. I do realise a good many people will disagree with me on this. In fact, everyone at the Tate seemed blissfully submerged in their audio-guided universes as I gaped, incredulous, at their baffling zen-like calm.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the exhibition at all. I found the links with other well-known artists, often significantly different to Picasso in style, quite engaging and was not aware of many of the connections beforehand. However, I think one room would have sufficed to explore this point. From Picasso to Duncan Grant to Ben Nicholson to Francis Bacon to Henry Moore (and others), all the while referencing back to Picasso in fits and starts, resulted in a decidedly stilted journey through British art history. On the other hand it was intriguing to see how Picasso experimented with and played with different styles, often in relation to contemporaries he admired; never before had I seen Flowers ‘1901, an unusual foray into Impressionism.

Flowers 1901

Of the Picassos on display, three in particular shone through the dreary narrative and proved yet again what an astounding communicator of emotion he is; The Frugal Meal ‘1904, Nude Woman in Red Armchair ’32, and Weeping Woman ’37, (which, once viewed, usually turns me into just that). The frugal meal is a beautiful and understated etching, the restraint of colour and medium mirroring the sparsity of the situation depicted – a poor and starving couple with only a small piece of bread to eat. The form of the figures echo works from his blue period such as The Blind Man’s Meal ‘1904 and Old Man with Guitar ’93.

The Frugal Meal 1904

The Blind Mans Meal 1903

Nude Woman in Red Armchair ’32 is at first glance a total contrast to this, however the two pieces both utlise Picasso’s ability to convey high emotion through form, structure and colour (or lack of it). Sweeping curves and pastel shades speak to me of sexuality, fertility and femininity, channelling the African influences often favoured by Picasso, and could be seen to represent the womb, the life cycle and the moon. It is an astounding piece which still looks like nothing else I’ve ever seen. The first time I saw Weeping Woman ’37 I accidentally stumbled across it whilst coming around a corner in a small gallery and was metaphorically floored by its impact. Picasso has used his unique device of depicting a viewpoint from many angles to maximum effect in this piece. The juxtaposition of different perspectives create the illusion that the piece is moving; the woman looks to me as if she is actually weeping in front of our eyes. The force of the painting is intensified through the sharp angles and almost garish colours, which convey extreme, mixed emotion and grieving hysteria. The painting bleeds anguish.

Nude Woman in Red Armchair 1932

Weeping Woman 1937

If you had a desire to categorise them, I’m sure there are infinite gradations of art lover types, but for this exhibition it seems prudent to pinpoint just two. Neither is better or worse than the other, just different. The first likes to understand the context and background to a piece; what the artist meant, what they were experiencing. The history and life of the work since its creation has primary significance and interest to them and having this knowledge serves to enhance their experience of the artwork. The second, in contrast, create stories and feelings in their mind as they take in works of art. By using the artwork as a starting point, the end point is wherever they want it to be. The thoughts, feelings and intentions of the artist sometimes matter and sometimes not. They define the work according to how and if it touches them and to define it by the opinions of another person, critic or artist, is to lose all joy from its observation. I know for sure now that I am one of the latter. Which are you?