The Pre-Raphaelites combined realism with symbolism, the developments of early photography with the myth of an idealised medievalism, the hyper-real with fantasy, morality with sensuality, truth to nature with spirituality. These are odd combinations which in the early phase of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were held together in creative tension but which separated, more often than not, in the later work.
The Pre-Raphaelite process of intense looking, as the Tate’s room guide notes, "resulted in a new, distinctively modern, style which absorbed photography’s precision of focus, flattening of forms, composition and radical cropping of the visual field." Modern forms of narratives taken from the Bible, classical mythology, literature or world history were developed in paintings and sculptures by using a realist style which emphasised accuracy of dress and accoutrements.
"As a result, the Pre-Raphaelites painted scenes from the Bible with unprecedented realism. Millais made studies for Christ in the House of his Parents in a real carpenter’s shop, and painted the Holy Family as everyday figures rather than ideal types. This shocked viewers such as Charles Dickens, who found Millais’s Virgin Mary to be ‘horrible in her ugliness’."
"Hunt was so committed to truthful representation that he made the arduous voyage to the Holy Land, where he could paint the actual settings of biblical events." While there he began painting The Scapegoat using a real goat beside the Dead Sea. The painting, while a marvellous tour-de-force, comes up against the limits of a strict naturalism to convey the aspects of the symbolic. Without knowledge of Old Testament laws regarding the scapegoat and of the way in which these inform understandings of Christ’s crucifixion, the redemptive intent of the image is entirely lost in place of, in the words of Peter Fuller, "a terrible image […] of the world as a god-forsaken wasteland, a heap of broken images where the sun beats."
"Around 1860, the Pre-Raphaelites began to turn away from this realist engagement with nature, society and religion to explore the purely aesthetic possibilities of picture-making. Beauty came to be valued more highly than truth, as Pre-Raphaelitism slowly metamorphosed into the Aesthetic movement. In 1855 Millais started creating compositions ‘full of beauty and without subject’, such as Autumn Leaves. But Rossetti was the dominant force in the era of ‘art for art’s sake’ after 1860. After his return to oil painting in 1859 his work became more sensuous in both style and subject. Rejecting sharp outlines and pure colours, he adopted the rich impasto and saturated hues of Venetian art from after the time of Raphael."
"This ‘poetic’ strand is exemplified in the work of Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones where attention is focused on the human figure frozen in a drama." Burne-Jones’s work, in particular, rejects the modern external world in favour of idealised visions of the past. It is ironic that much of this later idealised classical or medieval inspired work was created as part of a socialist project (Morris & Co) which, through its anti-industrialisation stance, meant its work was essentially only affordable by the middle classes.
Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant Garde is a fascinating show with a wonderful selection of classic images. As with the Impressionists, work that was considered shocking, even ugly, in its day is now viewed as the very epitome of beauty. At the same time that this exhibition highlights the modern and avant-garde aspects of the PRB it also, inevitably, reveals the tensions which made their revolution unsustainable and which, as their contradictions unravelled, resulted in work that was sometimes unintelligible, sometimes sentimental, and sometimes hopelessly enmeshed in an idealised past.
The Waterboys - The Big Music.