Friday, 5 November 2010


There’s been so much written about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood already, that I’m hovering over my keyboard, wondering whether I should add to the thoughtful, and sometimes thoughtless, essays floating around the Web. And it’s not just the Web either, we’ve just had yet another TV series about the band of idealists. Franny Moyle sings their praises. Germaine Greer writes a particularly spiteful piece about them in the Guardian newspaper. But as I was pondering on whether or not I should add my two penny worth, it occurred to me, that no-one is talking about the paintings.

Okay, there’s a lot of stuff said about their personal lives, their incestuous love affairs and their sexual encounters with their models, but no-one says anything about the pictures; they talk about how Lizzie Siddal caught a chill, shivering, in a bath of chilly water, as she posed for John Everett Millais, while he painted her as Ophelia. Or how Rossetti dug up Lizzie’s corpse to retrieve his precious book of poems. And, of course, there’s John Ruskin’s failure to consummate his marriage to Effie Gray. She subsequently married Millais.

Yes, yes, I too am talking about the much publicised biographical details, but from now on, this essay is going to be about the paintings, I promise.

Here is what the PRB wanted to achieve. From the Web.

Before the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood formed, prominent art critic John Ruskin advised his readers: "Go to nature in all singleness of heart...rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing; believing all things to be right and good, and rejoicing always in the truth" The Brotherhood and subsequent generations of Pre-Raphaelites took these words to heart. They condemned contemporary British painting--indeed, all art created since the time of Italian Renaissance painter Raphael--as contrived. The art of Leonardo and Michelangelo was corrupt. These artists, they claimed, arranged their subjects more for the overall artistic effect of the composition than out of any desire to portray what one might actually find in nature. The Pre-Raphaelites also disliked Impressionism, calling it too vague to portray the natural. The art of their contemporaries, they believed, was "slosh."

Believing all forms of art to be interrelated, the Pre-Raphaelite artists often took subjects for their paintings from famous works of literature; alternately, many of them wrote poems to accompany their artwork. (You can see these poems around the margins of some of their works.) Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (particularly Morris) took an interest in illustrating books as well; Morris produced the wonderful, acclaimed Kelmscott Chaucer later in his career.

One of the best known paintings to come out of the movement was Millais,’ “Ophelia.” I can only imagine the reaction of the public seeing this painting unveiled. Millais uses wonderful, eye catching colours. Vivid, bright, scarlets, oranges and golds. Peacock blue and jade also play prominent roles.

Ophelia has her lips parted in what is probably her final breath. Her skirts are diaphanous; already she is dissolving into the stream. Nature pays homage to her beauty; roses and tiny lilies bow their heads to her as she passes.

The Ophelia, shines with exuberance, even though the narrative speaks of death; suicide. The subject matter is morbid, yet life oozes from Millais’ canvas.

The group took the vast majority of its subjects from medieval romances or Biblical stories, possibly because of its admiration for Italian poet Dante Alighieri. Shakespeare was another popular source; Ophelia, particularly, was painted over and over again.

By painting their canvasses white before they began, the Pre-Raphaelites achieved a look of hyper-natural light and near transparency. Their poetry, likewise, used such an excess of description that it's sometimes called "word painting."

Although the Pre-Raphaelites embraced Ruskin's call for naturalistic painting, they violently opposed Victorian materialism--the tendency in their society to see things as nothing more than physical, denying any deeper meaning. Almost every one of their paintings points to something beyond what appears; the subjects of these works of art, often people, are symbols of something greater. For instance, Rossetti's "Roman de la Rose" illustrates a medieval romance in which the rose, the beloved, stands for the human soul; its lover is Christ. The Pre-Raphaelites borrowed Biblical language for such symbols, calling them "types."

William Holman Hunt paints “The Awakening Conscience” in 1853. The complex composition is loaded with symbolism.

Hunt’s approach to art was often highly moralistic. Here he shows a kept woman in a modern setting, in order to explore contemporary issues of sin, guilt and prostitution. The young woman rises suddenly from her lover’s lap. Inspired by the light pouring through the window from the garden, she realises the error of her ways. Hunt captures this fleeting moment of consciousness with characteristic exactitude. Many of the intricate details, such as the bird trying to escape from a cat, emphasise the picture’s underlying message of possible redemption.

John William Waterhouse painted “The Lady of Shalott”, in 1888.
“The Lady of Shalott" is a Victorian ballad by the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892). Like his other early poems – "Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere" and "Galahad" – the poem recasts Arthurian subject matter loosely based on medieval sources.

The poem was particularly popular amongst artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, who shared Tennyson's interest in Arthuriana; several of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood made paintings based on episodes from the poem.

According to scholar Anne Zanzucchi, "in a more general sense, it is fair to say that the pre-Raphaelite fascination with Arthuriana is traceable to Tennyson's work". Tennyson's biographer Leonée Ormonde finds the Arthurian material is "introduced as a valid setting for the study of the artist and the dangers of personal isolation".

Here is the tale.

The Lady of Shalott lives in an island castle in a river which flows to Camelot, but little is known about her by the local farmers.
She has been cursed, we don’t know by whom, and so she must constantly weave a magic web without looking directly out at the world. Instead, she looks into a mirror which reflects the busy road and the people of Camelot which pass by her island.
Then, one day she sees the handsome Lancelot. The effect of seeing him is profound. She stops weaving and looks out her window toward Camelot, bringing about the curse.

"Out flew the web and floated wide-
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
'The curse is come upon me,' cried
The Lady of Shalott."

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood tell, and re-tell old, old stories. They give us symbols that speak to us in a strange, language, a language that is ancient. Because the language is buried in our unconscious we understand. The symbols are from our dreams and nightmares. Our memories and fleeting thoughts. The Pre-Raphaelites’ lucid language, expressed through canvas and brushstrokes compliment and anticipate the theories of Carl Jung by many decades.

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