Saturday, December 8, 2012

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde

Combining rebellion, beauty, scientific precision and imaginative grandeur, the Pre-Raphaelites constitute Britain’s first modern art movement. A new exhibition at Tate Britain brings together over 150 works in different media, including painting, sculpture, photography and the applied arts, revealing the Pre-Raphaelites to be advanced in their approach to every genre.

Led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) rebelled against the art establishment of the mid-nineteenth century, taking inspiration from early Renaissance painting. The exhibition establishes the PRB as an early example of the avant-garde: painters who self-consciously overturned orthodoxy and established a new benchmark for modern painting and design.

It includes many famous Pre-Raphaelite works, and will also re-introduce some rarely seen masterpieces including Ford Madox Brown’s polemical Work 1852–65 and the 1858 wardrobe designed by Philip Webb and painted by Edward Burne-Jones on the theme of ‘The Prioress’s Tale’. An article by Alastair Smart in The UK Telegraph notes: “Drawing heavily for subject matter on Dante, Malory and other medieval tales, it’s common to pigeonhole Pre-Raph art simply as escapism from the travails of Victorian living.

"Occasionally, though, it offered hard-hitting social chronicle: Henry Wallis’s exhausted, exploited Stonebreaker, say. The movement’s many biblical scenes, in turn, were reflective of the complex religious reality of the mid 19th century. The established Anglican Church was growing unsettled by factions from within (Evangelical, Tractarian, Broad) as well as by a resurgent Catholicism from without – with particular issue over the material paraphernalia of worship. It was amid these debates that the Pre-Raphaelites set out to revive a Christian art tradition that had been wiped out in Britain in the Reformation.

"Often their approach was typological, with symbol-laden works like Rosetti’s Girlhood of Virgin Mary (complete with lily, vine, dove, lamp etc) intended to ensure spiritual meaning be decoded bit by bit, rather than revealed in one fell High-Renaissance swoop. Where the show really excels is in its erudite look at the historical backdrop of Victorian England, the writer concludes.

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