There seems to have been a plethora of recent exhibitions and books concerning mid -Victorian artists recently; the superlative Pre-Raphaelite Lens; the admirable Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum; and now this meticulously assembled show of the most notable works by the artists we know as Pre-Raphaelites and their close followers. The position of these artists within English, British and European history has always been problematic, for it seems that the narrower the view we take, the more important they become. Within the English canon their position is fairly well-established, their British context is much less tenable once we move away from the London art establishment, and as for their place within any kind of European development, their influence and importance diminishes markedly. Indeed, one American art critic once described the PRB as an artistic cul-de-sac. The sub-title of this presentation, Victorian Avant-Garde, makes the intentions of the curators quite explicit, namely, to claim that the Pre-Raphaelites were a genuinely progressive art movement which was at the forefront of cultural change. In these works, therefore, or so the argument should go, we should discern the rejection of outmoded forms and subjects, and see young artists pushing new boundaries. A new art for a new age.
1848 was the year of revolutions: the publication of the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels to a deafening silence, the great Chartist demonstrations in England, the beginning of the Second Republic in France, attempted rebellions in Ireland and Hungary, and the establishment of first Federal government in Switzerland. It seemed that the modern world was in turmoil. In the more narrow environment of the arts this was not quite so obvious, but no less problematic. In France, Gustave Courbet was about to bring Social Realism to the attention of the Paris Salon, and here in England, a small group of young artists, disillusioned by the artistic establishment embodied by the Royal Academy, founded a secret society, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
The story of Rossetti, Holman Hunt, Millais and their Brotherhood is so well known that it does not need repeating here. This exhibition provides a unique opportunity to see a large number of the well-known and -loved works together, and there are several which are genuinely outstanding. But the issue of 'avant-garde,' provocatively proclaimed in the exhibition title, and exhaustively argued in the catalogue, is both a hindrance and a help. A hindrance, for we are hard put to discover much proof of a lasting modernity, a modernity which still has the capacity to touch the contemporary viewer. A help, because some of the more complex visual metaphors would be almost incomprehensible without an understanding of the group's early aims, and what they were hoping to achieve. However, the curators are to be congratulated for their boldness, for claiming the group as the forerunners of modern art in this country forces the viewer to re-evaluate preconceptions about many of these familiar works, and that is never a bad thing.
In any exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelite movement much attention must be paid to the early works of the young artists. These paintings clearly signal the first tentative steps of artistic rebellion, but some of the later paintings also show how confused the artists became as they attempted to pursue those aims over time. It is these first experiments which are in many ways the most interesting. As we know, they were not particularly well received, but even now some still have the power to shock, their colours so bright that they genuinely light up the room.
A long-time favourite of those who admire this group is Millais's first painting after the Brotherhood was formed in 1848, Isabella. In many ways this work represents what is so interesting about the Pre-Raphaelites, but also seems to contain the seeds of the movement's own failure. The story that it tells is quite obscure, but it needs to be known if we are to make sense of Millais's peculiar arrangement of figures, animals and setting. It comes originally from Boccaccio, and was retold by Keats in his poem of 1818, Isabella; or, The `Pot of Basil'.
The scene is medieval Florence. While at dinner, two brothers notice that their sister and Lorenzo, a clerk at their warehouse, are obviously in love and having an affair. It is this point in the story that Millais depicts. Later they kill the clerk and bury his body in the forest. Their sister finds her lover's body, removes his head and hides it in a pot of basil. The brothers become suspicious of the attention that she lavishes on the pot, discover what it contains, and flee the city in guilt. Of course, Isabella dies of a broken heart--a cheerful story all round, then. More seriously, however, this painting is highly important for what it tells us about the Brotherhood's early aims, and possibly allows us to appreciate the difficult task faced by the curators in convincing us that these artists were at the cutting edge of artistic experimentation.
Let us consider the subject first. When artists want to demonstrate that they are at the forefront of modernity, they often set out to depict their world as they see it, in a manner which is individually theirs. Think of Vermeer's closely constructed interiors, or Turner's expressive depictions of steam and light. There are probably thousands of examples of artists who have attempted to communicate significant ideas about their art and life through the representation of what was, to them, their modern world. Later European artists, most notably the Impressionists, would take their lead from Baudelaire, who wrote the following at about this time: "Modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, which make up one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable. This transitory fugitive element, which is constantly changing, must not be despised or neglected." This call to combine eternal themes with the portrayal of modern life was to become a rallying cry for many artists in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
The question that must be asked, though, is why the Pre-Raphaelites thought that by choosing such old source material, they could make a statement about the modern world? Of course, a central tenet for the Brotherhood was pictorial realism. We can easily detect that Millais researched the costume of the period, used friends and relatives as models, and sought to paint in a manner out of step with current Royal Academy practice. On these grounds alone, a case for modernity can be made. However Millais adds several more layers to the work, by making the full story explicit in this one scene. The lovers exchange blood oranges, a symbol of their love and fate. One brother crushes a nut while violently kicking out at the dog whose head rests on Isabella's lap. The second brother looks at the lovers through a half-filled wine glass, no doubt contemplating the blood which will be spilled. A large herb pot in the background has obvious significance, but the critics have not made much of the shadow in the lap of the nut-crushing brother.
This single picture makes the case for the PRB and their modernity quite clear. While advocating the necessity of pictorial realism and then abandoning traditional concepts of narrative, Millais was proclaiming a new kind of art. Nevertheless, lingering doubts remain as to whether this was radically innovative, or merely a repositioning of existing techniques and knowledge by young artists aiming to startle the existing art establishment. By the end of this show, it is fairly clear which it is.
We know that the Brotherhood only lasted for a few years. By 1853 the young painters had decided to go their separate ways and their careers followed familiar paths. Millais was the most commercially successful, much sought after as a portrait painter, eventually becoming--shortly before he died--President of the Royal Academy (the very institution which the PRB had targeted from the beginning). Almost alone of the original artists, Holman Hunt continued to work in the same manner. I now want to turn to his version of the earlier Millais work already discussed, partly for continuity, but also to demonstrate how the Brotherhood's rough-hewn early ideals were not capable of sustained development.
In Holman Hunt's version, we see a languishing Isabella within an exotic interior which contains several elements of mid-Victorian decoration. The inlaid furniture seems modern, as is the bowl in which the young lover's head has been placed. Indeed, the maiolica bowl had apparently been designed by Hunt, with a skull pattern reinforcing the non too subtle message. Isabella is clothed in see-through drapery which is both exotic and sexually suggestive, a combination which later artists like Frederich Leighton would fully exploit. From potentially revolutionary beginnings, the PRB mantra had, at this point, become a caricature. Meticulously detailed and wonderfully crafted paintings had become an end in themselves. The connection with the modern world was lost: this was an art for art's sake which celebrated pictorial realism, but not its contemporary relevance.
Despite the doubtfulness of the 'avant-garde' argument, this is definitely an exhibition worth seeing. There are tremendous pictures here by Rossetti, Hunt and the others, which are a genuine pleasure. However, the final impression is not of a forward-looking movement that sought to change the art world forever, but rather of a quite traditional group who initially challenged the Establishment but were then absorbed into and became the Establishment itself.
1848 was a year to which it would be interesting to return. The same year that these young English artists were setting out to supposedly revolutionise our art world, across the Channel Courbet was about to begin work upon his two great paintings of Social Realism, The Stonebreakers and Burial at Ornans. A few years later, in 1863, Manet's seminal work LeDéjeuner sur l'Herbe was rejected by the French Salon and hung at the Salon des Refusés, where it scandalised the city. That same year he began work on Olympia, a painting which can still shock with its overt sexuality. Compared with these works, it is difficult to accept the PRB as genuine ground-breakers. The dictionary defines 'avant-garde' as "The pioneers or innovators in any art in a particular period." That the artists associated with the PRB were influential is now a given; that some, like Ford Madox Brown, were conscious of the social inequalities of their contemporary world is also clear. It is, however, far from proven that the movement was the forerunner of late nineteenth or early twentieth century art. An exhibition which displayed some of these works alongside French and German paintings of the same period—now, that would be interesting!--Paul Flux