‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’ at Tate Britain

Astarte Syriace by Rossetti @ Manchester City Galleries

‘Big hair and heaving bosoms’ was the summary one friend offered me when I said I was going to see the new exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain, the latest in what feels like a number of relatively recent shows about this group of artists in London.

As I’d missed the others, it seemed like a good opportunity to catch up.  I had an idea of what to expect, those lush colours, the girls with lots of auburn hair, pouting their generous lips at us, with a pinch of tortured religious allegory and social moralising thrown in.

What I didn’t understand was the suggestion that the group represented a Victorian avant-garde.  I supposed contemporary avant-garde contrariness leads me to expect something ugly and angular, difficult to understand and troubling, whereas, to my untrained eye, the Pre-Raphaelites represent the antitheses of this, being highly decorative, hyper realistic and mainstream.

I have to admit that the exhibition has made me none the wiser on the question of the avant-garde: they had a bit of a manifesto, the terms of which you’ll have to get from someone else as I don’t really understand it, and they rejected the stuffiness of the academic teaching at the Royal Academy, but that seems to be about it.

What it clear from the current ownership of many of the paintings, by the City museums in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds is that they were quickly taken up by the wealthy industrialists of those cities in the late Victorian era, and history tells us that Millais for one was only too happy to join the establishment, accepting a knighthood and becoming president of the Royal Academy towards the end of his life.

I tried not to get too bothered by my inability to understand the curating philosophy behind the show, and instead to look at the works on display.  I hadn’t really thought about what a lot of them together would look like.  It leaves the same kind of feeling that you have on your teeth when you’ve eaten a whole bag of sweets, that need to drink something astringent and salty.  It is hard to see them other than through the lens of everything you’ve ever seen that’s been produced since; and inevitably, to my eye, they represented nothing so much as kitsch.

The labels beside the pictures speak of their desire, especially in the allegorical and religious works to capture a real humanity, to set them in a real physical environment, but to my eye, the carpenter’s shop looks far too neat and tidy and the bare feet of the poor children look too clean, and there is a fairy tale look to many of them.

It was a surprise too how many really hideous paintings there are, perhaps included to show how variable the painters’ output was; children’s cheeks bringing to mind plastic fruit, and lurid colours rendering Biblical scenes garish.

In the end it is the sensual images of the big haired women by Rossetti which are the most satisfying, perhaps because the message of sensuality and beauty is one that still communicates to a contemporary viewer, albeit in a rather over the top and bonkers way.

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