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Art: God Was in the Details

8 minute read
Robert Hughes

A London show reveals the triumph of the Pre-Raphaelites

The big spring exhibition at London’s Tate Gallery, “The Pre-Raphaelites,” has been a roaring popular success. In attendance it has been surpassed at the Tate only by exhibitions of John Constable and Salvador Dali—fittingly, since it rivals the intense Englishness of the former while competing with the fulsome, more-than-photographic detail of the latter. The time is long past when hard-core modernists, secure in their belief that nearly everything England produced between the death of Turner and the arrival of Roger Fry was either hopelessly sentimental or irredeemably quaint, assigned the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to the dustbin of history. Presumably it will not be long before some canvas by William Holman Hunt or John Everett Millais, the kind one might have got 30 years ago for £500, becomes the first Pre-Raphaelite picture to fetch a million in the auction room.

Yet Pre-Raphaelitism never quite went away. It acquired an armor-plated niche in the English imagination. Its present triumph, symbolized by the Tate show, has nothing to do with dubious cultural cliches like “postmodernist irony.” There is no irony in Pre-Raphaelitism. Everything there, from the pale, swooning damozels down to the last grass stem, is the product of unutterable sincerity. Those painters would rather have died of lockjaw than paint anything that was not direct, heartfelt and didactic.

The group was small: a secret society of seven artists, led by three men—Hunt, Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti—and followed, eventually, by a small trail of satellite painters. And it was self-consciously “revolutionary”: the year was 1848, and a secret society of dangerous young subversives had become one of the special phantoms of the English mind. The P.R.B. wanted to reform English art, to drag it from the swamp of maudlin genre and low-grade history painting. They believed, with the ardent simplicity of young minds, that this decay had set in three centuries before, with Raphael. Hence they wanted to go back before Raphael, appealing to a moment in history—the Middle Ages on the cusp, as it were, of the Renaissance—when art seemed not to be entangled in false ideals and academic systems. Their bywords were purge, simplify, archaize. Like all true cultural revolutionaries, they were conservatives at heart, and they were lucky in having as their megaphone and mentor the greatest art critic ever to use the English language: John Ruskin.

They needed whatever friends they had. The gnomic initials P.R.B., appended without explanation to their signatures in the 1850s, had the combined effect on many critics of a red flag and a leper’s bell. “Monstrously perverse,” was a typical comment. “Plainly revolting,” was another. Charles Dickens, no less, saw “a hideous, wrynecked, blubbering, red-haired boy in a nightgown, who appears to have received a poke … and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness, that she would stand out from the rest of the company as a monster.” The painting in question was Millais’s Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop, 1849-50, whose image—little Jesus hurting his hand on a nail, in prefiguration of Golgotha—might strike a modern eye as lavishly sentimental and winsome, but was overrealistic to Dickens.

Creatures of their time, the Pre-Raphaelites venerated those twin totems of Victorian thought: science and religion. Their objections to the popular English art of their time rested, in fact, on both. They were permeated with the belief that nature was the fingerprint of its creator and that studying it was the best way to acquaint oneself with his designs. Ruskin had inveighed against the “unhappy prettiness and sameness” of established English painting, “which cannot but be revolting to any man who has his eyes, even for a measure, open to the divinity of the immortal seal on the common features that he meets in the highways and hedges hourly and momentarily.” He summed up his idea of landscape painting as “rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing.”

God was in the details: in the petals of a cornflower or the veins of an elecampane leaf, in the grain of stone or the purling of a brook. That is why the details of Pre-Raphaelite landscape, ostensibly the fruit of candid observation, take on such a hortatory, didactic air. One knows, looking at Millais’s portrait of Ruskin in his sober frock coat on the rocky verge of a Scots cascade, that every wrinkle of the gray gneissic crag he stands on is meant to speak of the geological span of the creation and to imply a sense of time at the opposite extreme to the rapid movement of the water, so that the life of man is presented as a kind of middle term between the geologically permanent and the merely transient.

The habit of medieval thought had been to explain the world of animals and plants as images of the virtues, the vices, of God’s nature and the events of the Bible. Nature presented itself as a web of moral symbols, and the Pre-Raphaelites tried strenuously to revive this cast of mind. Every detail tells a story and wants to be decoded. It can be quite a tiring business “reading” a full-scale Pre-Raphaelite allegory, like Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd, 1851-52. This sunny, pastoral scene of two rustics flirting was actually a warning against the re-establishment of the Roman Catholic Church in England. The girl in the red skirt refers to the scarlet woman of Rome; the lamb in her lap is about to sicken from the green apple of false knowledge it has bitten; the sheep, wandering unattended into the corn, are the strayed flock of the Anglican clergy, and so on.

This novelistic way of cramming a painting with narrative was not unusual with the Pre-Raphaelites, even when they had no religious intent. Ford Madox Brown’s The Last of England, 1852-55—young middle-class emigrants to the Australian gold fields, sunk in melancholy as the white cliffs of their homeland recede—contains, as it were, paragraph on paragraph about Victorian class and diet. Though modern eyes are more likely to fasten on the peculiar, almost surreal shape of the wife’s pink hat ribbon whipping in the channel gale, Victorian ones were ravenous for those social details around the picture’s rim.

The painters went to extremes of trouble in their pursuit of accuracy. Millais, having found a suitable country stream as the setting for his Ophelia, 1851-52, complained that swans kept gobbling the water weeds as he painted them; his model for the drowned Shakespearean maiden, Elizabeth Siddal, had to spend session after session floating in a tub of water until she nearly caught her death of cold and was rescued by her irate father, threatening writs.

This process of observing more intently entailed finding a new kind of pictorial “look,” very high and fresh, quite unlike the system of chiaroscuro taught in the academies. Generally, English artists had painted on dark canvas, bringing up high lights with opaque white. Millais and Hunt developed a fanatically elaborate technique of painting with transparent colors on a wet white ground, laid inch by inch, like fresco. It was meant to reproduce the dazzle of direct sunlight. Like the methods of the impressionists a quarter-century later, it was a technical fiction, and it is startling to see how the same purpose—to convey the optical freshness of nature while working out of doors—could have produced two such different systems.

Not all Pre-Raphaelite painting, however, was about that kind of realism. The late work of Rossetti, when he was able to shake off his more oppressive pieties and stop doing his filleted literary homages to Dante and Boccaccio, disclosed his intrinsic sensuality in an extraordinary series of rosy, Titianesque portraits of his cockney mistress Fanny Cornforth and his model Alexa Wilding. The sumptuous Wilding was Rossetti’s “Venetian ideal of female beauty,” and in Monna Vanna, 1866, he framed her passionate face in a lush swirl of gold-and-white sleeve, coral necklace, feathery fan and flowing hair. Nor could anybody call Edward Burne-Jones’ strange, gray, airless and Michelangelesque figure compositions “realist.” After 1860 this symbolist phase of Pre-Raphaelite art was busy preparing the ground for William Morris and the arts and crafts movement, for art nouveau and thus, to some limited extent, for modernism itself. The fact is that nothing, not even the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, is as isolated as its critics once believed. And in our time—haunted, like theirs, by thoughts of historical revival—the Pre-Raphaelites have much to reveal not only about the possibilities of refracting the past into the present, but also about the limits of nostalgia.

—By Robert Hughes

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