Were the Pre-Raphaelites the first Avant-Garde movement? Or just a group of rebellious school boys?
Three curators, Alison Smith, Tim Barringer, and Jason Rosenfeld are asserting that they have uncovered a Victorian Avant-Garde and we can find it in the Pre-Raphaelites.
She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’
-Lord Alfred Tennyson – Mariana – 1830
John Everett Millais
explores Tennyson’s poem of the same name. The painting shows a young woman, isolated, and yearning for her lost lover Angelo who abandoned her. Instead of depicting Mariana in prayer, we are confronted with every curve of her figure. Like many of the Pre-Raphaelites, Millais did not shy away from sexuality. During the Victorian era, the Pre-Raphaelites were some of the only painters to paint women as sexual beings.
The founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood John Everett Millais, William Holman-Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rosetti absolutely rejected the mechanistic approach of the Mannerist artists. Opting for natural poses and un-idealised faces, they sought to convey simplicity and warmth in their figures as well as honestly portray contemporary clothing and scenery.
Partially inspired by the German, robe wearing movement the Nazarenes; the Pre-Raphaelites rejected the academy.
And as curator Alison Smith states –
‘the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to put art at the centre of society’
Their work wasn’t just true to nature, they engaged with and utilized all that the dawn of the industrial age had to offer.
Millais’s breathtaking Ophelia is so brilliant it almost jumps off the wall. Each stunning flower, every single minute stone, reinforces the Pre-Raphaelite’s attention to detail and the binding premise of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – Truth to nature.
Curator Tim Barringer tells us that this exhibition is a
‘re-reading of the Pre-Raphaelites’
The Pre-Raphaelites disengaged with the Renaissance greats not only in form and subject matter, but also in technique. Painting onto a white canvas, instead of black, giving their paintings that unmistakeable glow; painting outdoors before the Impressionists picked up a brush. These rebellious students were refusing to conform to their lecturers’ demands, stepping out and breaking the rules wherever they went. The culmination of this exhibition is perhaps the greatest shock. William Holman Hunt’s Lady of Shalott, painted in 1905 long after the end of the Brotherhood, is an example of an artist staunchly staying true to his Pre-Raphaelite roots. What I see is an artist unable to grow and evolve. Or more over, refusing to do so. Nothing about this ornate, cluttered and confused painting left a feeling that the Pre-Raphaelites were the dawn of a Victorian Avant-Garde. Where does simple, warm, or un-idealised factor into this work? Truth to imagination fits here much better than ‘truth to nature’
Mariana, John Everett Millais, 1851
Ophelia, John Everett Millais, 1851-52
Lady of Shalott, William Holman Hunt, 1905-Megan ConeryThe Pre-Raphaelites are on display at Tate Britain 12 September 2012 – 13 January 2013