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.