From September 2012 to January 2013, The Tate Britain
hosted an Exhibition titled The Pre-Raphaelites – Victorian Avant Garde. While the exhibition has closed and gone on first to The National Gallery US , and is now at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, the Tate’s commitment to making art accessible to all means that the exhibition is there on the Tate’s website, for all to see, long after its closing in the Museum.
The lush beauty and sensuality of the paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites seems to embody the ideal notions of purity, beauty, chivalry, and elegance. Their works are Romantic than Victorian, depicting figures and scenes from Shakespeare, the Old and New Testament, and Arthurian Mythology. Indeed, you can hardly think of these subjects without a work of the Pre-Raphaelites flashing into your imagination.
However, there was a depth and rebellion in their works that may be said to be the first of Britain’s modern painting. As the Tate remarks,
Combining rebellion and revivalism, scientific precision and imaginative grandeur, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood shook the mid-nineteenth-century art world and were effectively Britain’s first modern art movement. Led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, the Pre-Raphaelites rebelled against the art establishment of their day and were committed to the idea of art’s potential to change society. Their unflinchingly radical style, inspired by the purity of early renaissance painting, defied convention, provoked critics and entranced audiences.
One of the most haunting of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings is The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse. As Lucinda Hawksley says in her remarkable book, The Essential Pre-Raphaelites,
“Waterhouse is able to capture the despair on the Lady’s face with poignant accuracy. His symbolism of just one last candle left to be blown out before her death adds to the dramatic import of this painting…. Paying careful attention to Tennyson’s words [in the poem], Waterhouse chose to illustrate one phrase in this painting:
She loos’d the chain and down she lay.”
THE VIDEO SERIES
The Tate has seven videos on its site from presentations by museum curators to a fascinating series on the Muses of the Artists as embodied by modern – day models who bear an uncanny resemblance to some of the famous models/muses of the Pre-Raphaelites. One is a video of Karen Elson who resembles Elizabeth Siddal, an artist herself (left, Siddal, Lady Affixing Pennant to a Knight’s Spear ) who posed for Rossetti’s Ophelia (talk about haunting!).
The exhibition Catalogue alone will give you a great view of the art in the exhibition. The Tate’s displays the Catalogue in e-book format so that the viewer can not only flip through the pages to view the art, but can easily enlarge the images by a simple scroll-over . This is an excellent example of use of the new media to enhance the viewer’s experience with the simplest user interface so that the technology does not overwhelm the viewer or the art. The Catalogue also has great descriptions of the works, plainly stated without any of the pretentious artsy jargon that can be such a turn off.
The Blog posts are a short but intreguing series on the Pre-raphaelites. Here is one ,
“That Dante Gabriel Rossetti adored women is apparent when you look at almost any of his paintings. Whatever the title, the main subject is almost always his full-lipped, doe-eyed models. The subjects of Rossetti’s paintings were often indicative of the way he envisioned the women in his life. When he was in love with Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal, he painted her as Beatrice, the beautiful and unattainable woman loved by the medieval poet Dante Alighieri (after whom Rossetti was named). When Rossetti began an affair with Jane Morris, wife of his friend William Morris, he attempted to assuage his guilt by convincing himself William was a cruel husband who kept Jane imprisoned (the reality was very different). This resulted in paintings such as Proserpine (1874) and La Pia de Tolomei (1868-1880) – telling stories of women in impossible situations.”
THE ROOM GUIDE
The exhibition Room Guide brings you right into the museum. It takes you to all of the seven rooms of the exhibition, shows you the major themes of Pre-Raphaelite painting from Nature (Room 2) to Mythology (Room 7), each with a beautiful and highly detailed reproduction of a representative painting. Jump to room 7 and see Sir
King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid 1884, by Edward Coley Burne-Jones.
THE TEACHERS GUIDE
You can download the Teachers Guide on Millas which is a tremendous resource, with text and glorious reproductions of the artist’s work and can be used with students of all ages. Here is a sample of the text,
“Introduction to Millais
John Everett Millais (1829 – 1896) is widely regarded as the greatest British painter of the nineteenth century and created many of the iconic images of the Victorian age. This exhibition at Tate Britain provides the first major survey of Millais’s work in forty years, presenting the artist’s most famous painting, Ophelia.”