Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Tate Expectations

As you all can imagine I am over excited about the upcoming Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate this autumn.  Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde looks like it's going to be an orgy of gorgeousness, promising 150 works including paintings, sculptures, drawings and so on.  Be still my over-zealously beating heart.  I have not seen anything like this exhibition has the potential to be, the chance to see an overview of the Pre-Raphaelite movement at arguably the home of Pre-Raphaelite art (in London at least).  I saw the Millais exhibition there a few years back, I saw the Rossetti up in Liverpool and the Madox Brown in Manchester, but just imagine, the whole movement…. in a 150 works…

Now, I am in no way a pessimist, but in the last week I have been giving serious thought to how it would be possible to cover the movement, the most beloved movement, in 150 objects.  My God, can you imagine?  I can cover 150 using Rossetti alone, and probably Millais and Holman Hunt likewise.  Mind you, being a practical type of lass I had a long think about things and have come up with a list of things I really want to see.  Not that I’m demanding or anything.

It’s obvious that the Tate are smart enough to know that something along the lines of the seminal 1984 exhibition is not relevant today, we all know too much and there are new stories to be told.  This is why in recent years we have been graced with Pre-Raphaelite Landscape and Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists as exhibitions, not to mention exhibitions on people like John Brett and Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, who would not have been given house-room in previous Pre-Raphaelite stories.  What I am expecting from the Tate (no pressure) is for them to utilise their insanely good collection and I suspect they will, given these austere times, and loans from other museums can be horribly expensive.  It’s not like you can pop over to Birmingham and shove a load up your jumper while no-one is looking.  Not that I’ve tried that.

The ‘story’ the Tate are telling with the new exhibition is of the new, the avant-garde.  It is their claim that the Pre-Raphaelites were the first modern art movement.  If you wanted to explore their modern-ness, their modernicity (totally made up word, but I like it), what would you show?  More to the point, what do I want to see that the Tate have in their store?  Let the post proper commence!

Turner’s Death Mask (1851) Thomas Woolner
When I think about modern art, I always think of Turner.  It is undeniable that Ruskin was greatly influenced by Turner, even though it is challenging to see the impressionist style of Turner’s work gelling with the exacting nature of Ruskin’s theory.  Woolner’s death mask is a marriage of Turner and Pre-Raphaelite, not only in subject, but in the embrace of death, the unafraid capturing of the subject in passing that came to haunt so much of the output of the movement. This leads me to the next pair…

Chatterton (1856) Henry Wallis
Ophelia (1851-2) J E Millais
Possibly, these two paintings were what got me into Pre-Raphaelite art in the first place.  I vaguely remember being a teenager and going to the Tate.  In the Pre-Raphaelite art room I stood in front of these two and fell in love.  It is impossible to appreciate how exact the face of Elizabeth Siddal is rendered in Ophelia, no book illustration has ever done it justice.  It is like seeing her, it’s uncanny.  Likewise, the red of Chatterton’s hair, the white of his skin, together they are just perfect and he makes a beautiful counterpoint, the male Ophelia, fragile and glorious, giving the message that it was secretly desirable to live fast and leave a beautiful young corpse, which is so very twentieth century in feeling.  The glamour of self-destruction has its poster boy and girl in these two.

The Awakening Conscience (1853) William Holman Hunt
I’m only allowing myself to pick one from each artist, or I’ll be here all day!  My Hunt was a tricky one as my knowledge of Hunt is not as expansive as for others and I find it hard to see any great changes in his work over the time.  This is entirely my problem, not his, and on the whole I think his work started brilliant and continued in the same vein, whether or not I like the subject of his pictures.  There is something archetypally Pre-Raphaelite in the minutely observed environment of the kept woman of The Awakening Conscience.  Like Millais’ riverbank, where every flower is recognisable, every square inch of this den of sin is treated with the same attention.  The cat, the glove, the marvellous wood-grain of the piano, the mirror/window, all is powerful and disturbing.  I wish he hadn’t have repainted, or left some indication of what he had intended because the woman seems to rise with enlightenment due to the knock of Christ at her door, if you follow the intended hang of The Light of the World next to this picture.  How would you feel if her expression had been one of horror?  That hang would be far more disturbing, implying that Jesus doesn’t knock when you get all enlightened, Deary.  Jesus is outside right now and he’ll be knocking when you least expect it, so you better put on a skirt.

I will be delighted to see Arthur Hughes included in the exhibition as I like Arthur very much.  I want to preface his name with ‘That nice boy…’ because he seems to have been inoffensive and pleasant and didn’t steal anyone’s wife, or the suchlike.  If I had to choose one, it’s easy…

April Love (1855-6) Arthur Hughes
I love his purple, and look at that ivy! You almost miss that man in the background, kissing her hand, but you know all is not quite perfect by her expression.  He does a nice line in bittersweet, a suggestion that all is not good, but not all bad, that terrible line where you would be encouraged to look on the bright side, but possibly, secretly you’d be viewing the dark side from the corner of your eye.

Mother and Child (1854) F G Stephens
I will campaign forever to get Fred Stephens recognised for his contribution to what we now understand and know of Pre-Raphaelite art.  The man is a PRB hero and it would be a travesty and tragedy to leave him out of any account of the history of the Pre-Raphaelite art movement, and as modern public relations people go, Fred did a good job.  Well, most of the time.  As a painter, like Hunt, he used the symbolic, the modern, but couched it in terms of acutely observed pieces in the above tableau.  Against the medieval, the literary, this aspect of Pre-Raphaelitism tends to get overlooked (I blame Rossetti, because he was rubbish at it), but it provides a link to the work of artists at the fringe of the movement, who spoke more to the traditional and mainstream, for example Augustus Egg.

A Pet (1853) Walter Deverell
Likewise, poor Walter, so important in his discovery of Elizabeth Siddal, but so overlooked in all other ways.  He didn’t live long enough to provide a wide body of work to chose from, but this is so sweet and makes a nice change from dark maidens and overly tense situations.

Oh dear, I’ve come to Rossetti.  The Tate own some of my favourites, and I’m particularly taken with the study for the Head of Love (1870) from Dante’s Dream, not to mention the pencil sketch of Fanny, but I have to go with this one…

Fazio’s Mistress (1863-73) D G Rossetti
According to a couple of sources, not least the artist, this is the closest portrait of Fanny Cornforth, and is absolutely beautiful.  It is also an example of a picture altered by Rossetti, who was a right one for scraping back and repainting, but he promised her that he left the face alone because it was so like her.  It speaks to me of his love of his mistress, even during the 1870s when according to legend he had forgotten her in favour of Jane Morris.  This picture for me is the best of Rossetti, in many different ways.

Broken Vows (1856) Philip Calderon
Kit’s Writing Lesson (1852) Robert Braithwaite Martineau
There are a couple of interesting lesser known characters I’d like to see, including Robert Braithwaite Martineau and Philip Calderon, especially for his brilliant Broken Vows.  I love Broken Vows, it’s so stupidly melodramatic and I long to slump against an ivy strewn wall, clutching my side.  I suppose because of tight corseting, that is probably where her heart currently resides.  Martineau is another artist who died too young, but he does amazingly romantic pictures and I’d love to see his work given the exposure it deserves.

Lady Affixing Pennant to a Knight’s Spear (1856) Elizabeth Siddal
It is inevitable that there will be comment over the presence or otherwise of works by female artists.  I find myself in a contradictory position of feeling that there should be female artists represented, obviously, but I’m glad I don’t have to be the person who makes the decision.  Looking at the story of Pre-Raphaelite art dispassionately, how great a part was played by female artists, how much did they influence or progress the movement in comparison to their male counterparts?  The case of Elizabeth Siddal is straightforward; she was there at the beginning, her work was exhibited alongside theirs, her pictures were bought by a patron not known for his pro-feminist views.  Elizabeth Siddal is undeniably a Pre-Raphaelite Avant-Garde artist, but what of Evelyn de Morgan, Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, Joanne Boyce, Rosa Brett and the countless other women who worked in a Pre-Raphaelite style, under the influence of Pre-Raphaelite artists?  I am glad I am not the curator as you have to balance their lack of influence (for the most part) with the contemporary cultural imperative to deny them influence.  Would you pick a Burne-Jones over a de Morgan, for example? Or a Waterhouse over a Brickdale?  How can you tell the Pre-Raphaelite story without a thread of how models were also artists in their own right, for example Marie Spatalli Stillman and Maria Zambaco?

You see, it all starts out as jolly fun, but once you start thinking about it, it becomes so very complicated.  None the less, come 12th September, the Tate will no doubt open its doors on an exhibition that will cause me to fall in a swoony heap, fanning myself with a gallery guide.  I’ve only thought about the inclusion of the Tate’s own work, and I’m already dizzy.  If they borrow La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee or The Wounded Cavalier by William Shakespeare Burton I shall be quite undone as I am powerless to their utter beauty.  The Tate should invest in a number of gentlemen to catch me and apply smelling salts as I faint. 

Or floor pillows.


  1. For obvious reasons, you're not alone in your excitement ....

  2. Maybe we should sit quietly outside, smiling like crazy people until they let us in, occasionally clapping softly and giggling. I may have to be restrained...

  3. Woah, I'm so excited too! I've already booked the flight tickets. I wish they'll include female artists, that'd be so awesome. So you don't think they'll bring works from abroad, do you? Sigh...

  4. What a thoughtful post - we can only hope that they organisers read it! I shall be booking a train ticket down when I work out when I'm free. There and back in a day is exhausting, and I'm only from Yorkshire...

  5. I'm so glad you wrote this, let the countdown begin! I am thrilled they are taking the 'first modern art movement' angle, since I've been teaching it that way for a while. Also, F.G. Stephens FTW!

    We must organise a gathering...

  6. An interesting read. I've booked my ticket and am really looking forward to it.

  7. I too am wondering how this show can break new ground after so many focussed and individual PR-related exhibitions over the past 20+ years. Maybe a whole new generation will discover the PRs.

  8. Well, mine and Miss Holman's tickets are booked for the 15th September, so we'll see how they do then... (I'm guessing it'll be amazing, whatever they do) :)

  9. I am so excited, it should almost be illegal :D I'm flying to visit relatives in Italy from London rather than Edinburgh just so I can fit in my first (of many? ;) visits that first week!

  10. Good woman! That's proper planning :)


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