Saturday 15 September 2012

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde

I'm just off the train from London and I've been to see Tate Britain's latest exhibition...

Without much more ado, here is my review.  Firstly, may I preface this with this disclaimer:  Whatever comments I have about this exhibition must be set in the context that I am beyond delighted that the Tate have done an exhibition on Pre-Raphaelite art, there is nothing but good coming from that.  I get the chance to see some of my favourite artworks up close and personal.  Everyone is a winner.  The following points are questions as much as criticism, but this all springs from a basis of 'thank you for allowing me to see all this splendid art!'

Away we go then...

Right, what do you get for your money then?  Well, you get 7 rooms filled with astonishing works of art, not only 2D but also sculpture, tapestry, a bed, a rug, books... you get the idea, this is an attempt to show how Pre-Raphaelitism influenced a good many things more than just painting.  In fact, seeing the sculpture was a bit of a highlight for us...

Paolo and Francesca Alexander Munroe
By 'we' I mean Miss Holman (Lady Adventuress and Character Assassin) and I, and we loved Paolo and Francesca.  The thing about sculpture is you just don't get how damn lovely it is when it's just flat on a page, so for example you can't see the exquisite crown pin in the back of Francesca's hair, the soft frill on the neckline of her dress at the nape of her neck, the intensity on his face.  Mind you, that hat is pretty knock out.

The next thing that is amazing is the chance to get right up (within reason) to some old friends and learn something new, like....

How many times have I seen this picture?  In print it must be thousands of times by now, and even in person, I've seen it dozens of times and yet never, I repeat, never had I noticed the little robin watching Ophelia drown.  Yet, there he sits, bold as brass on the left hand side near the top.  And he is lovely.  In fact there are a lot of the little details that can be seen clear as clear when you're in the same room, like the butterfly on the sword of The Wounded Cavalier or the woman selling oranges being hassled by the police in Work.

Now on to the questions.  Starting with the premise of the exhibition: that this is an attempt to place the Pre-Raphaelites within the structure of the history of modern art.  This has been discussed at great length, not least by us after the exhibition, but yes, I think it can be credibly and easily argued that the Brotherhood were  part of one of the first (if not the first) modern art movements.  They had a manifesto, they engaged in politics, they engaged with modern life, contemporary concerns and the thrust of the modern world, and they did it across a number of mediums.  They were also a part of a 'modern' world, so possibly the question should be how were all the other contemporary artists not modern? However, I had a couple of problems with the title.  Firstly, it confused the journos no end, as was obviously from an awful lot of awful reviews I read this week.  You say Avant-Garde and people think of twentieth century abstract art, sorry but it's true.  The result was that reviewers seem to get sniffy and superior because it is most patently not abstract.  Not only that, I did feel that by couching the title in such a loaded modern art term, there is a suspicion that the Tate are trying to make the Pre-Raphaelite movement palatable, 'it's okay, it's secretly modern!  It's clever to like modern art so you're safe to like this!' Alright, it's a bit shallow, but I have a terrible feeling that some people think like that.  Lord knows I've met a few...

I would have felt more commitment to the title if two things had been in evidence.  Firstly, let me use one of the most famous early Pre-Raphaelite pictures...

So here we have Christ in the Carpenter's Shop from back in 1849, and we all know Millais got slaughtered for its outrageous, modern, daring style.  I don't get it.  I'm stood in front of it in 2012 and it just looks like a picture of Jesus having hurt his hand in a jolly fine metaphoric manner.  What I needed was an example of what this was a reaction against, right next to it.  I wanted some treacle-coated, English-speaking Madonna and child next to Millais' sideshow freaks, then I would get it.  If this is 'avant-garde', show me how.  Shock me.  Go on, I dare you.

Connected to that, if these pictures are the birth of modern art, the avant-garde, show me what they influenced.  According to the catalogue, a drawing connected to Rienzi influenced Picasso during his Rose period.  How?  What?  You can't say that and leave it if the thrust of your exhibition is that the Pre-Raphaelites are in the foundation of modern art.  Show me how, don't tell me, I'm at a visual experience, I need to see it.

Talking about seeing things to understand them, bravo Tate for hanging the following together...

Oh joy!  Ding Dong, Jesus Calling!  It is the first time I've seen them hung together and it was a pleasure, even though the meaning has been changed by Hunt's changing of his picture.  Now she's rising to accept Christ happily into her house and heart, a good little convert, a modern day Magdalene, which is possibly a fairer narrative than the original.  As we know, the face was scraped and painted back for being too horrific, so our girl isn't rising in enlightened surprise, she is really jumping in guilt and horror because Judgement Day just came a-knocking.

It is a shame that The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini! weren't hung together though.  Mind you they were parted by the hanging scheme, which started out as chronological (sort of) and then became thematic.  I would have preferred a chronological approach throughout if the point of the exhibition is how we get from 1849 to modern art, or at the very least a final room showing how the art (which didn't stop with the death of the Brotherhood)  affected/embraced/annoyed modern art and artists.  Yes, I missed Waterhouse, the last perpetrator of Pre-Raphaelite style and he was there painting damsels during the First World War...

'I am half-sick of shadows,' said the Lady of Shalott (1917)
This chunk of deliciousness was painted the same year as this...

The Card Players Fernand Leger
I think my question is if Pre-Raphaelite art is the germ of modernism (see what I did there?),  tell me why we've never seen it before?  Why does it look so different, at what point (if any) did it stray from this path?  What does Waterhouse have in common with Leger because the one thing missing from this attempt to align Pre-Raphaelitism with the story of modern art was, well, modern art.  I actually think it's a valid argument, but I don't think it was visually argued at all.

But I did get to see this...

Not to mention the twin giant goddesses that are Astarte Syriaca (Rossetti) and Isabella and the Pot of Basil (Hunt) which have to be seen to be believed because they are enormous and splendid.  Thank you, they were amazing.

On a personal note, thank you Tate, from the very bottom of my heart, for saying the words 'Fanny Cornforth' without saying 'nuts', 'slinging' and 'spitting'.  You even challenge the notion that she was a prostitute.  Well done.  She didn't come from a farm in Sussex, but you did far more than anyone else has ever managed in treating her well.  When I saw the photograph of her and the mirror I could have cried.  You treated her proper and I thank you.

I'm almost done, but I have a question about the shop.  We had our Avant-Garde, so where was my Kitsch?  I wanted more fun things in the shop!  I wanted an Ophelia pen where she floats about in the top half, like my beloved Lady of Shalott pen I had years ago.  That was brilliant.  Plus, you didn't stock my book in your shop, but I'm not holding that against you.  Well, maybe a bit.  We missed the more accessible things, the fun things, the cardboard William Morris who dances when you pull a string (yes, it exists).  There was a claim in the pre-publicity that the merchandise would be special, but it wasn't specific enough, it wasn't something that would make me shout 'Pre-Raphaelite!' when I saw it.  I liked the satchels and the beads, but really the only specific item was the scarf from The Beloved and it was £50.  Where was my t-shirt?  Yes, I am that shallow, but I still get happy from slipping on my William Morris tshirt from the V&A exhibition in the mid-90s.

I'll leave you with the keynote to my blog which is thank you, thank you Tate, thank you for taking the time and effort to arrange the exhibition, and I know how long it took you because I heard about it a goodly while ago.  You took a risk, you made it interesting and gave us plenty to talk about.  I don't agree with everything but you made me talk and think about it which is what I want people to do when it comes to my beloved Pre-Raphaelite art.

The exhibition runs until 13th January 2013 and I thoroughly recommend a visit.


  1. Thanks for that post Kirsrty I am going up from Cornwall to see my Mum and meet up with a friend to go to the exhibition, I am really excited about it. Woman's hour had apiece about the women artists included,did you hear it. All the best angela

  2. Very well put. And how wonderful that the Pre-Raphs' still make people ask questions - that even a hundred and fifty years later, it is still impossible to pigeon hole them! And yes, they should have your book there, and they probably should have Raine and Stephanie's T-shirts too. (Now that really would be avant garde!)

  3. I'm stuck in America (bummer) so I have to wait for it to come to D. C. But I had to peek at the Tate site to see what they're selling! Yeah, I want a t shirt too! But I do love the bird stamp and the glass beads are pretty (the red ones look like some I've seen in some Pre Raph works). I would love more things wit Morris prints. But my main complaint . . .
    How is this a Christmas card??,5,shop,tatesouvenirs,currentexhibitions,preraph
    I guess it does have an angel on it.

  4. As I am now obsessed by the robin in Ophelia, I wanted that to be on everything and that could have been a Christmas card. I know, it's an angel, it's Christmas..... I did think things were too expensive, or else there weren't enough cheap things for poor people such as I.

  5. Great review Kirsty, though I think their art was much more shocking in mid-Victorian times than it is now. And Waterhouse was more a fantasist than a real PRB.

  6. Yes! Yes, it definitely was more shocking to the Victorians, but in order to appreciate that I need to see what it was shocking against, what was the norm, in order to shock me all over again. Elizabeth Prettejohn does a fantastic chapter on Legacy at the end of the catalogue and I think Waterhouse is arguably the last carrier of the Pre-Raph torch (other than Cowper, but he was unhinged) and so I think it is a pity not to include him in terms of what happened with their influence.

    Thank you for your comments!

  7. I was really looking forward to your review of the exhibition!
    I'm basically traveling to the UK just to see it, and I trust your opinion so I wanted to know what you thought.
    It's a true pity that Waterhouse left out but some of the paintings you mentioned will be worth the journey!
    And thanks for telling us they're not selling your book, you saved me a lot of time (that I'll use looking for it elsewhere!)

  8. It's well worth the journey just to see these pictures together, or in the case of Rienzi, at all. Who knows when the next time there will be such a back-to-basics display of the greatest hits of Pre-Raphaelitism, so this was a joy to behold on the very highest level.

    I know, shame on the Tate for not stocking my book! It's shocking! ;)

  9. Thank you for this review. I just saw the exhibition and agree that it would have been helpful to the exhibition's thesis to show contrasting works. Still for those of us who love Pre-Raphaelite art, it was a treat to see so many gems in a single exhibition. I was also disappointed by the offerings in the shop. I've worn out both my William Morris and my William De Morgan t-shirts and would have loved to get a replacement :). I've also just been to Birmingham and saw the Love and Death exhibition. So, I've got my fill of PBR (for a while, anyway).

  10. Glad you enjoyed it, we have been spoiled this year! Mind you, I'll be off to Compton to The Watts Gallery soon to see their de Morgan, followed by their Fortescue Brickdale exhibition next year, so may the spoiling continue!

  11. I just saw your comment regarding the exhibit at The Watts Gallery. I LOVE the de Morgans! Now I have to see if I can fit in a visit before I depart the U.K.

  12. Visited the exhibition this weekend. I also agree with your comments that the organisers did not really prove their point about the PRB being avant-garde and a forerunner of the impressionists / modernists etc. Still, it was truly wonderful to see so many of our favourites in one place. I must have stood in front of "Autumn Leaves" for at least 10 minutes. I also loved the audio guide (in my opinion absolutely essential on these occasions - I loved the way they played Wagner's Tannhauser while describing the Venus picture. And the guide succeeded in making me appreciate more a picture I have always disliked - Hunt's version of the Lady of Shallot (I feel that Waterhouse's depictions are so much better, but I can see that Hunt has caught the power and energy of the moment in a way that Waterhouse fails to; I still think the painting would have been better without all the gaudy decoration, the panels with graeco-roman wrestlers etc). What I wish they had done is include more of made the artists' biographical details and especially the names of the models. I think a lot of the facination with the pre-raphs is to do with the amazing events and life stories of the artists and their circle. An unahamedly populist "Desperate Romantics" tie-in exhibition would be wonderful!

  13. Just to add that we were really flagging after 3 hours and only 2/3 of the exhibition "done" so we came back the next day to finish off - can't normally do that but one of the benefits of being a member at the Tate!

  14. I think they could have gotten away with just doing a 'Pre-Raphaelites are pretty!' exhibition, without having to justify it because most of the reviews in the paper I read were disgruntled journos grumping about being lied to - 'This isn't modern art! They lied! Curse them!'

    Honestly, we'd love it whatever nonsense they needed to hang on it. Just the chance to see that much gorgeousness in one room, it's such a pleasure! :)


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx