As I walked around the new Pre-Raphaelite show at Tate Britain, I was insistently reminded of something. It wasn’t, as the exhibition argues, a cutting-edge artistic movement, the mid-19th-century predecessor of Cubism and Dada. No: What came to mind was costume drama.
I mean this more as an observation than a criticism. As a blockbuster survey of a subject, the Tate’s is very well done.
It widens the subject interestingly to include photography, furniture, sculpture and wallpaper, and does so with much more clarity than the cluttered “Cult of Beauty” show last year at the V&A, which covered some of the same ground.
Deservedly, it will be a great success. I enjoyed it, despite being positively phobic about some of the artists involved, particularly the creepily obsessive, remarkably incompetent painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The fact that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is so adored by much of the British art-loving public in turn tells us interesting information about the Brits. Namely, that they are still, at heart, 19th-century romantics, and love pretending to be someone they are not -- which is where costume television and films come in.
Pre-Raphaelite paintings are full of wonderfully well-researched props and clothes, just perfect for the time and place in which the story of the picture is set.
Millais’s “Mariana” (1850-1), for example is, essentially, a great shot. She stands up, stretching and arching her back, fed up -- who wouldn’t be? -- from sitting by the stained-glass window embroidering all day.
You can imagine the designer selecting just the perfect Renaissance belt to go over her blue velvet gown, slipping down at the front, as the catalog observes, while “clinging to her hips and emphasizing her buttocks.” It’s a terrific role, but she still looks like a Victorian person dressed up to play the part.
That’s true even of the pictures set in what was then the present, such as Holman Hunt’s “The Awakening Conscience” (1853-4), in which a whiskered fellow’s mistress suddenly sees the light and gets off his knee.
Their love nest in St. John’s Wood is like a shop full of slightly vulgar fixtures and fittings.
What comes to mind is a period film or a dramatized novel on television. It’s perhaps no accident that Ford Madox Ford -- author of “Parade’s End,” the new TV adaptation of which is captivating British audiences -- was the grandson of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. Nor that Evelyn Waugh’s first book, long before “Brideshead Revisited,” was about Rossetti.
Modern Britons dream about being Edwardian gentry, Downton-Abbey-style. Their Victorian ancestors fantasized about being chivalrous medieval knights and languishing maidens. (Millais quoted a poem by Tennyson in which Mariana lamented, Bridget Jones-like, “My life is dreary - He cometh not!”)
The interior design wing of the Pre-Raphaelites, led by William Morris, specialized in providing the wardrobes, carpets and curtains necessary to live out that fantasy. And they did so brilliantly. Personally, I think the PRB was much more successful in the decorative arts than in painting.
Another reason why the average Pre-Raphaelite painting puts you in mind of film or television is that their trademark sharp-focus realism was heavily and obviously influenced by photography. Millais’s “The Woodsman’s Daughter” (1850-1) looks like a photo-collage (there’s no space around the figures at all).
So this exhibition contains a big clue to the British character: Half the nation has been living in a never-ending period television series. Despite the Tate’s spin, that just doesn’t seem very avant-garde.
“Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde” opened yesterday and runs through Jan. 13, 2013 at Tate Britain, Millbank, SW1P 4RG. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk or +44-20-7887-8888.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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