Love & Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate

February 8, 2019
John Everett Millais, 'Ophelia' (1851-52)

Exhibition titles are of the same order of marketing as those advertisements that claim by signing up for some course you can make millions or learn to speak another language in two weeks. Naturally if you don’t succeed it’s always your own fault. So when we come across a show titled Love & Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate, at the National Gallery of Australia, if you find much of this work to be truly hideous it’s your own taste that’s to blame.

This raises the further question: “Can a work be a certified ‘masterpiece’ and still set the viewer’s teeth on edge?” It could be argued that a masterpiece is a category sanctified by time and art history, regardless of individual responses. It would be easier to accept this idea if only the word wasn’t used in such a profligate manner.

To expose my own taste, in a manner that I usually try to avoid, I can’t help seeing the phrase “Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces” as a contradiction in terms. When I look at the Pre-Raphaelites I see sentimentality, ponderous story-telling, unnatural colour, and an obsession with detail and finish that sucks the life out of a canvas. What’s more, they have always struck me as hypocrites and poseurs. Most of the group had no interest in religion but painted religious subjects as an attention-seeking gambit. When an artist did grapple with faith and doubt, as was the case with Holman Hunt, the paintings showed a complete inability to think outside the parameters of one’s own culture.

William Holman Hunt, ‘The Light of the World’ (1900-04 version)

In an attempt to imbue his religious paintings with the greatest possible accuracy Hunt undertook several journeys to the Holy Land beginning in the 1850s, but when he painted a new, larger version of his iconic, The Light of the World in 1900-04, he made Jesus Christ look more like a Scotsman than a Semite. It has been impossible for western artists to rid themselves of the fairy-tale idea that Jesus was a strapping, white lad with reddish-brown hair. It took Pasolini to blow that image away in his film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, in 1964.

The three founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 were Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They were soon joined by James Collinson, Frederic Stephens, Thomas Woolner and Dante’s brother, William Michael Rossetti, who acted as scribe. This original association was to last only five years, but the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites would persist into the Edwardian period, drawing in dozens of fellow travellers. This is one of the reasons British art proved so resistant to the evolving currents of Modernism.

When Britain felt it had a genuine vanguard movement, set to sweep the world, it was a tepid form of Neo-Romanticism that was completely overshadowed by American Abstract Expressionism.

The chief aim of the Brotherhood was to counter the tendencies of art in the centuries following the high Renaissance. As they saw it, the problem began with Raphael and was brought to its apogee by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first President of the Royal Academy. They argued that art had fallen into stale mannerisms, and called for a return to the brilliant colour and precise detail of the early Renaissance. In fact they knew little about Raphael and even less about the art they championed as an ideal model.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Beloved (The Bride)’, 1865-66

The Pre-Raphaelites were the original rebels without a cause. Their most sacred goal seemed to be publicity, while their ‘revolutionary’ program was aimed at taking art backwards. Consistency was not part of the program. They flirted with the art and literature of the Middle Ages, but adored the Romantic poets. They approached their work as a form of painstaking illustration at a time when artists such as Turner and Delacroix were painting with a new freedom of expression.

The historical low point for Pre-Raphaelite art was the 1960s-70s, the era of abstract art, minimalism and conceptualism. When these movements had reached a logical end point, beyond which no further reduction was possible the stage was set for a return to narrative painting, and the works of the Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian Olympians became newly valued.

If there is a ‘masterpiece’ in this show, it would have to be Millais’s Ophelia (1851-52), a painting that shows Hamlet’s girlfriend floating dead in a pool of water. Millais almost managed to kill off the model, Lizzie Siddall, who caught a chill from lying fully clothed in a bathtub for hours on end. Nevertheless, it’s a highly original conception and a staggering display of technique.

Of all the Pre-Raphaelites Millais was the most talented, and in time would become wildly successful, due to his mature conviction that an artist should always give the public what they want. In many anecdotes Millais’s mind appears commonplace to the point of stupidity.

John Everett Millais, ‘The awakening conscience’ (1853-540

For all his artistic brilliance there are numerous paintings that make one want to laugh out loud. Take, for instance, The awakening conscience (1853-54), which shows a ‘fallen woman’ in an apartment that has been fitted out by a wealthy lover. Sitting on his knee she has a sudden revelation that this sinful path must be abandoned. It’s a vignette of modern sleaze transformed into a beacon of Christian sentiment. To underline the woman’s status as a victim Millais includes a cat playing with a small bird.

It’s an image that cries out for parody. Imagine, for instance, Michael Cohen sitting on Donald Trump’s lap, his eyes thrown wide open.

The other painting in this exhibition with compelling claims to masterpece status is J.W.Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shallot (1888). A latecomer to the Pre-Raphaelite ideal, Waterhouse was a far more natural painter than any of his peers, even allowing for his obsession with poetic and mythological subjects.

In Tennyson’s popular poem the Lady of Shallot meets her doom by venturing outside her ivory tower and floating off in a boat in search of Sir Lancelot, for whom she has conceived an infatuation. The moral of the story was that women were frail creatures that should never leave home unsupervised, but Waterhouse doesn’t try to turn his painting into a Victorian morality tale.

J.W.Waterhouse, ‘The Lady of Shallot’, (1888)

The lady may be in medieval robes, her boat decorated with a lavish embroidery, but the picture is essentially a landscape painted in a naturalistic manner. Were the subject shown in peasant garb digging potatoes, it might pass as a work by Jules Bastien-Lepage.

Speaking of landscape, the big surprise of this exhibition are the works of the underrated John Brett, notably a panoramic view of 1871 – The English Channel seen from the Dorsetshire Cliffs – in which the play of light on clouds and ocean is interrupted by one tiny silhouette of a boat.
If all Pre-Raphaelite pictures were so serene, so resistant to corn and make-believe, the group may have proved more resistant to the vicissitudes of art history.

John Brett, ‘The English Channel seen from the Dorsetshire Cliffs’ (1871)

As I absorbed the works of Hunt, Rossetti, and the unspeakably mannered creations of Edward Burne-Jones, I couldn’t help thinking that these affectations were all made much later than Gustave Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans (1849-50), and contemporaneously with a picture such as Claude Monet’s Impression Sunrise (1872), which will be the centrepiece of the next NGA blockbuster, to be held in June.

Courbet’s painting was truly revolutionary in that it made a country burial into the subject of the kind of grand-scale work that had previously been reserved only for kings and conquerors. Monet’s painting, which gave its name, inadvertently to the Impressionist movement, was heavily influenced by the late paintings of J.M.W. Turner, which he had studied in London.

For Hunt, Impressionism was to be seen in moral terms as an abomination, an offence against God and religion. It was a nutty idea, but then Hunt was unorthodox in all his views about art and faith. Rossetti may have been the greatest feat of self-invention among the Brotherhood, but Millais grew richer, and Hunt stranger with each passing year. Appropriately enough, for a group with such literary leanings, the entire story of the Pre-Raphaelites plays out like a rumbustious Bohemian comedy. If the art were a match for the stories this would indeed be a show of masterpieces.

Love & Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
14 December, 2018 – 28 April, 2019

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 9 February, 2019