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Intensity and truth

OCA tutor Jim Cowan reports back on the Victorian Avant-Garde blockbuster.
The Pre- Raphaelites have always been massively popular among the gallery going public and this exhibition, the first for a number of years, is no exception. It attempts to explain how the Brotherhood saw themselves as modern reformers who adopted a realist approach in order to depart from the academic convention of the time and then went on to influence the later aesthetic movement.
It is hard to imagine from this vantage point that the lovable Pre- Raphaelites were revolutionary artists. Their argument was against the classical generalities taught at the Royal Academy, which centered on the lectures and ‘discourses’ of S Joshua Reynolds and his promotion of Raphael as the ideal painter. They instead looked back to the time before Raphael and more importantly to the work of the Flemish Primitives such as Hans Memling and Jan Van Eck.

Millais's Ophelia
The intense realism of the Pre- Raphaelites paintings reflected the Victorian scientific and industrial age. They were inspired by the study of nature in all its detail and saw this as a more honest and truthful approach.  Their work was a combination of Historicism and Naturalism, which meant working directly from nature. They would work in the countryside surrounding London and then, back in the studio, would add the figures,  so that the whole picture was painted with the utmost fidelity and precision.  Their search for female models produced a recognizable type and these ‘Stunners’ as they were called would be celebrated in a series of paintings.
Rossetti's Monna Vanna

As the outlets for selling work were limited, the Royal Academy was still important to their careers and in this they were helped by the supported of the most influential critic of the day John Ruskin.  He encouraged them in their pursuit of scientific realism and also became embroiled in their colourful personal lives.
The Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde is an exhibition that attempts to remind people of the importance of this Victorian art movement and to look again afresh at the masterpieces associated with the group that have become so well known.  It shows to a new audience that there can be content in art beyond art itself and that subject matter can include narrative, humour, sex, pomposity, religiosity, social commentary, and an engagement with the world, a joie de vivre, a demonstration of skill, intelligent enquiry, historical subjects and of course passion. Indeed the bustling complex, hypocritical Victorian world comes alive like the episodes of a modern soap opera mixed with a goodly amount of mediaevalism and knights in shining armour who are forever rescuing maidens.
Brunes Jones' The Doom Fulfilled

Contemporary realist painters will find much to admire in the technical brilliance of these artists. John  Everitt Millais (1829-1896) was a child prodigy who entered the Academy schools aged 11 and  is best known for his ‘Ophelia’,  the watery scene painted on the banks of the Hogsmill Pond in Ewell Surrey  and featuring Elizabeth ( Lizzie)  Siddell as the doomed heroine. Lizzie was Rossetti’s first Muse and in the interests of equality, her paintings make an appearance along with other female artists such as Julia Margaret Cameron who was a photographer and the tapestries and embroideries of Jane and May Morris.
The stars of the show are undoubtedly Millais (1829-1896), Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Ford Maddox Brown (1821-1893), Rossetti (1828-1883) and Burne-Jones (1833 -1898), all with iconic paintings to their names but you will also find furniture, carpets, tapestries, stained glass and book designs from William Morris’s design company Morris and Co.
The paintings that reflected the Victorian world may have been relegated to the basement to make room for more contemporary art faire, but when they resurface they bring out the crowds. This exhibition teems with visitors examining the pictures for information and detail, hungry for an appealing aesthetic visual sustenance that is hard to find in today’s art climate. Popular blockbusters art shows are never comfortable events, with so many people clustering around every item, but with The Pre-Raphaelites: the Victorian Avant-Garde, if you persevere it is well worth the effort.

Posted by author: Jim
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3 thoughts on “Intensity and truth

  • “Go to Nature in all her singleness of heart,
    and walk with her laboriously and trustingly,
    having no other thought but how best to penetrate her meaning,
    and remember her instruction,
    rejecting nothing,
    selecting nothing and scorning nothing;
    believing all things to be right and good,
    and rejoicing always in the truth.”
    John Ruskin – Modern Painters, vol I (1843)

  • The Pre- Raphaelites get a hard time in most ‘serious’ art circles. Perhaps it’s all these knights in armour and maidens with flowing locks. When I was at college you couldn’t admit it if you liked them. This article and, no doubt, the exhibition will go some way to redressing this.

  • Thanks Jim, a nicely balanced review. I’d guess part of the reason for “serious” art circles dismissing the Pre-Raphaelites is our oversimplification of the “Victorian” era – seen by some as no more than a time of of hypocrites who used child prostitutes whilst covering piano legs for fear of enflaming men!Of course, that happened, but it wasn’t a simple time any more than is our “New Elizabethan” era – a period of over 60 years, and stupendous change covering the lives of millions of people, with many “Victorians” having been moulded by the French revolution and their grandchildren dying after the Second World War! They had their revolutionaries and iconoclasts as do we, and it’s good to be reminded that’s what the Pre=Raphaelites were in their time – revolutionaries, not nostalgia jockeys.

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