Sunday, 23 September 2012

Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain

Tate Britain currently has an exhibition about the pre-Raphaelites. It's subtitled "Victorian Avant-Garde" because the Tate is not the sort of place that feels comfortable having pretty pictures up without a thesis. So the thesis, such as it is, is that they were pretty shocking in their day, and I suppose it does manage to convey this a bit. What I mostly came away with was a sense that their works were tremendously diverse, and that after their initial idea about painting nature I would find it hard to define them in any way.

I'm not a huge fan of the Pre-Raphaelites in general. Like with the Impressionists, I adored them when I was about fifteen, and then felt that I had grown out of them. (I made an attempt recently to like the Impressionists again, and I realised that I do really like their work on the rare occasions when they're not painting flowers or pretty ladies.) Pictures of dense-haired women holding pomegranates leave me rather cold. But there were enough interesting or unexpected things in this exhibition to make me glad I went.

I particularly liked two early works by John Everett Millais, which seem to show a sense of humour -- I do not associate the Pre-Raphaelites with a sense of humour. A brilliant pen and ink drawing entitled "The Disentombment of Queen Matilda" which is viewable on the Tate site here; and a scene from the story of Isabella and her pot of Basil, which is from the Walker Gallery in Liverpool and viewable small-size here. It's not just the nasty brother's powerful kick at the dog, and the mild way Lorenzo stoops as, in his pre-composted state, he shares an orange with Isabella, but the excellent serried rows of prim eaters behind them. Millais was only 19 when he did both of these, and they have an interesting energy.

Their religious paintings are a bit more inadvertently funny. I really like Millais' Christ in the House of his Parents, which upset people like Ruskin at the time because it showed a working carpenter's family, but which seems quite innocuous now, even rather kow-towing (as I suspect The Life of Brian will to everyone in a hundred years' time). In it Mary is alarmed because the child Jesus has hurt his palm -- it's prefiguration, you see. Once you've seen several of these sorts of pictures -- a bare-chested teenage Jesus stretches his arms in the middle of his work while Mary reacts in horror to his crucifixion-like shadow on the wall, Jesus fetches firewood to his house while Mary trembles at the two that have fallen down to form a cross -- it's hard not to presume that in the Pre-Raphaelites' mind poor Mary was a nervous wreck constantly starting at every possible prefiguration of the crucifixion. Their sort of piety is the thing that's most hard to enjoy about the Pre-Raphaelites.

William Holman Hunt was certainly the worst culprit. His Light of the World, showing Jesus with a lantern at twilight knocking at an overgrown door in a significant manner, was hugely popular at the time. One of the three versions he painted actually travelled all over the world as a sort of moral booster for the Empire. My mother had a copy on her wall as a child (I saved it for sentiment's sake when she tried to throw it away recently) and there's a print in a dusty corner of the vestry at my parents' church. It's no longer easy to like. Nor is the other famous Holman Hunt, the Scapegoat, showing the poor goat of the Day of Atonement in the desert, fainting and surrounded by the bones of its predecessors. But I had never before come across his Triumph of the Innocents, a remarkably crazy version of the Flight Into Egypt. This contains the traditional elements -- Mary and the infant Jesus flee on a donkey led by Joseph. But surrounding them are strange glowing cherub figures representing the innocents whose massacre by Herod they were fleeing. The cherubs glow with wierd ectoplasm, throw flowers, and dance on top of the water of a stream. Their wounds are healed though their clothes are still slashed. Even odder, they bring with them bubbles, some of them quite large, which apparently represent pious thoughts by the people of the time. This is High Victorian sensibility at its most unconsciously insane. There's an even more lurid version in the Walker. Ruskin thought it 'the greatest religious painting of our time'. (Robertson Davies has some interesting things to say about the power of bad religious art in his Cornish Trilogy.)

There were some other interesting paintings -- I really liked this Burne-Jones now in Stuttgart, where wing-footed Perseus fights a twisting sea-monster to free Andromeda. But by far the most interesting room was the William Morris room, with its different media. There was a fantastic bed designed and embroidered by his daughter May Morris. A tapestry whose design was commissioned by a wealthy merchant took his wife and daughter eight years to complete. There's a gorgeous manuscript copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, written by William Morris and decorated by him, Burne-Jones, and Murray Fairfax. There were some amazing tapestries of the Grail legend. It's the sort of thing that's hideous when badly done by Past Times, but I could have looked at these originals for hours. There's also a great wardrobe painted by Burne-Jones with pictures from the Prioress' Tale.

One thing that did puzzle me at the time was that I thought there were other figures who were part of the whole Pre-Raphaelite thing, particularly Frederic Lord Leighton of Flaming June fame. I did sort this out later, but I will explain in another post since this one is already long enough...

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