Pre-Raphaelites: Art's Victorian vanguards

The Pre-Raphaelites were rock and roll. Unapologetic, passionate and true believers in their philosophy, this band of artists sought about bringing a new conversation to art. To hell with Raphael they said, and everything (late) Renaissance art brought with it. To go forward was to return to the past.
This movement, which holds a special place in the history of British art, is the focus of a new exhibition at Tate Britain entitled Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde. A veritable blockbuster of a show, it is fittingly subtitled, such was the wonderful notoriety this motley crew of English painters garnered during the nineteenth century.
Founded in 1848 by a trio of precocious and unsettled young artists, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (20), John Everett Millais(19) and William Holman Hunt (21), the Pre-Raphaelites, in their rejection of the artistic sensibilities of the time, sharply tore into what they thought was an unintelligent and tedious epoch of painting.
This persuasion was reflected in the art produced by Raphael, one of the leading painters of the High Renaissance, who is celebrated – or in the case of the Pre-Raphaelites, loathed – for his simplistic and composed style.
Their name was a statement against the zeitgeist, the beginning of a new history and a symbol of protest which argued everything beyond Medieval and Gothic art had lost its lustre, its authenticity and energy. Art had, it might be reasonably be deduced, ceased to exist.
But their fondness of, coarsely put, the “good old days”, wasn’t at all regressive. In fact, what they wanted, more than anything, was to capture some of the elemental spirit that underscored direction of medieval artists and give it a contemporary edge.
As Tate Britain so sagaciously alludes to in its subheading to this exhibition, the Pre-Raphaelites, which also grew to include Ford Madox Brown, Thomas Woolner, Frederic George Stephens, James Collinson and William Michael Rossetti, was truly revolutionary, Victorian society’s avant-garde thinkers.
This can be seen in Millais’ Ophelia (151-52), which is often described as one of the best examples of Pre-Raphaelite art, a perfect arrangement of colour, form and narrative that depicts the eponymous character’s death in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Here we see nature truthfully realised, heightened even, a perfect moment ruined by what is inevitable: Ophelia will drown. The attention to detail, almost obsessive, helps to amplify the pathos of it all, beauty against beauty, almost impossible.
This show is made up of 150 different works, and is not just specific to painting, with sculpture and even photography included. Some of the highlights include Brown’s confrontational Work (1852-63) and Rossetti’s richly painted The Beloved (The Bride), which was executed in 1865.
What we get from both paintings, and indeed the entire exhibition, is the brazenness of youthful discontent, the visual materialisation of independence. It’s a kind of eureka moment that marks the transition from adolescence to adulthood, where the reality of the world is finally unravelled.
We either continue to believe in fairytales or seek about making our own dreams a reality. History remembers the Pre-Raphaelites. Those lads, they really did rather well.
Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde is at Tate Britain until January 13th 2013.
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