Thursday, 13 September 2012

Pre-Raphaelites, Tate Britain

Tate are calling it The Victorian Avant-Garde. That certainly puts me on my guard, given that the pre-Raphaelite movement has always struck me, as a precursor to the Aesthetic Movement, as being concerned with art above political or aesthetic confrontation.

Well, I struggled to find the avant-garde in this exhibition, partly, I suppose, as there was little context alongside the exhibited are in which to couch it (the Picasso/English Masters exhibition earlier his year had it built into the title, for example). The iconoclasm seems to exist merely in the use of ecclesiastical arched frames, culminating in William Holman's famous The Light Of The World (1852, right).

Biblical figures and scenes are co-opted in the pre-Raphaelite movement but as interesting narratives rather than proselytising art. The emphasis is on story and style rather than message or philosophy. There's a lot of pathos rather than moralising in pictures of Christ in childhood, for example and a later Ford Madox Brown picture of Christ's silhouette caught falling on crossed beams of wood in his father's workshop is deleteriously camp, completely self-absorbed.

Madox Brown's fine picture Work (1852-65), a moralising road-building scene set in Hampstead, is an exception, although it does suffer from the excess of detail that these pictures can be burdened with. Edmund Millais sublimates this most effectively and the ever-popular Ophelia (another arched frame!) benefits from the almost forensic approach to rendering nature. It is the parity nature is accorded with the mysticism of the Biblical narratives that makes the pre-Raphaelite movement interesting, presenting nature as hyper-reality as the industry of Victoriana takes over from the now-taking roots of the psychological enlightenment of early Romanticism.

Such burgeoning of reality has to break though. The later rooms show the stylistic abstractions of William Morris, the figurative visions of Burne-Jones and the poor, over-perfumed pre-impressionist art of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It's no surprise that the narrative psychedelics of Burne-Jones' tapestries should have appealed to Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, who has loaned two tapestries of his own collection for the exhibition.

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