This mammoth collection of over 150 paintings, photographs, tapestries and sculptures is an incredibly ambitious attempt to provide a showcase on one of the most exciting, controversial and intense group of painters to ever grace the art world.
Helping the audience fully appreciate the passions, ideologies and stigmatism associated with each individual artist, the show is divided thematically. Starting with a bold and informative introduction, all seven rooms explore individual concepts including nature, beauty and religion. Boasting celebrated works by the founding members of the movement (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais), the walls are also filled with important precedents to the movement such as Johann Friedrich Overbeck. Daunting and demanding, the seven rooms are filled with enough world-famous pieces to write a dissertation-a-day on the Victorian Avant-Garde.
Every man and his dog has an opinion on the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Some love the plush sensuality, passionate sexuality and otherworld mystery that hangs like an ethereal cloud above each work. Others hate everything to do with them. But thanks to the Tate, guns can be temporarily holstered, as the exhibition explores the importance of the brotherhood and not simply the aesthetic quality of the works. Painting at a time of jarring social divides, seismic industrial expansion and radical scientific progress, the brotherhood came, saw and conquered the avant-garde, shaking up establishments and uprooting traditions and it is this that the gallery seeks to express. Works such as William Holman Hunt’s Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus (1850-1) for example, may not be to every one’s taste, but what the exhibition confirms is its importance in chromatic history.
…being all mood and no symbol…
Reflecting the huge importance of the movement, the show itself is vast, and it is the works that have been traditionally praised that really stand out. Room Three is a particular highlight, filled to the rafters with famous works including Millais’ flowing depiction of the leading Victorian art critic John Ruskin, standing strong in front of a torrent of gushing water. Holman Hunt’s patriotic portrayal of the English coastline in Our English Coast, 1952 (Strayed Sheep) (1952) also inhabits the room, as does Millais’ illustrious Ophelia (1851-2). Even more evocative when seen first hand, the wispy brush strokes that are blended together to create an opulent foliage, conflicts with the serene melancholy of Ophelia and construct a powerful snapshot of the Shakespearean tale.
Reaching the end of the show, Room Seven explores where the Pre-Raphaelites went. Just as we reach the exit of the exhibition to each go our separate ways, we see The Golden Stairs (1880) by Burne-Jones and the direction that he started to go during the demise of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. By being all mood and no symbol, the enigmatic painting cannot be read, signaling the arrival of Symbolism. Chill October (1870), by Millais was a work greatly admired by Van Gogh and its stark naturalism rejects further the academic principles of landscape while others demonstrate further the acute concern with the unconscious.
…take a trip to learn of their artistic achievement.
For those that despise the mechanistic dullness of the Renaissance, the melodramatic enthusiasm of the figures and the garish hues seen in many of the works in all their vibrant intensity, is a theatrical melting pot to be celebrated. For others however, it is a toxic, bubbling cauldron filled with kitsch outlandishness. Whatever your opinion, Tate Britain’s tireless attempt to make viewers put aside their differences and find a mutual acceptance of the brotherhood’s importance is something to be admired. As a lover or hater, take a trip to learn of their artistic achievement.