From Salvation to Wallpaper, the second half of the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition feels more artisan. It exudes the realism that the RPB (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) were noted for, the rejection of conventional Biblical iconography, their work was reflective of the intense period of scientific, dialectical and industrial process and change that was occurring with such speed in their time.
Room 4 I don’t know what it is, but I’m always overcome with fascination by Holman Hunt’s “Scapegoat”: when you look at it, you kind of ‘watch’ it, you view the story in the colours, you reflect on the fact that Hunt actually painted a dying goat, that he was also intense enough to take himself off to the “promised land” to paint en plein air (before the Impressionists did, note) to pick up the feel of the holy vibe and sacred air. To breathe the air that Christ breathed. The whole painting is imbued with a purple haze, the berry-hued embers of the day veil the whole painting, symbolic of the ending of life. For those of us forgetful or totally unaware of our Biblical stories, the Scapegoat was sent by God to bear the burden of human sin. This poor goat in the painting is panting, his mouth open, eyes rolling, he is stumbling and staggering on the hard harsh salt-plains, his long grey-white hair dishevelled, like Christ’s crown of thorns he wears bright blood red crimson threads bound between his horns. The whole is symbolic.
Hunt also painted “Finding the Saviour in the Temple” (1854), and there’s the best looking rabbi I have ever seen! I wonder if you can tell which one I mean! Again, like Millais’s painting of Isabella (which I mentioned in the previous review – Part 1 of the Review) some of them seem to be looking in different directions, there is no focus. Maybe I’m used to Caravaggio or something, but their focus is all over the place. They are all portraits, and sit on the canvas like mannequins. This is not to say, it’s without skill, grace, charm and perfection! Far from it! It’s composition, detail, colours, lighting, is jaw-dropping when you see it in real life. I would like to draw your eye to the far right of the painting, a blind man sits on the temple steps, his hand outstretched for alms, such detail, the lines of his face almost in competition with the scaffolding of the construction site painted immediately behind his shoulder in the background.
Maddox Brown’s “Jesus washing Peter’s Feet” is a dark painting when you see it for real. I hadn’t studied Peter’s face before, he looks really old, his head bowed down, really concentrating on what Jesus is doing, frowning, his hands clasped, it’s hard to make out if he’s humbled by the experience or falling asleep. But it’s the muscles in the hands that gives it away, they are tense. See the detail in the raised vein. The disciples in the shadows behind shows the feeling of discomfort in the group, one holds his head like something out of Breugel’s brush.
Take 15 minutes and stop and stare at another of Maddox’s works: “Work”. Just think. Imagine the noise. The voices and chatter of the people, the shouts and songs of the workmen, the excited barking of the dogs, the slurping of drinks, the enticing calls of the street sellers, booted footsteps, horse-shoes on stones, kids running and playing in the foreground, electioneering placard bearers in the street below. Now take another five minutes and see another twenty things you missed in the first 15 minutes! It’s a terrific painting, and one which embodies what the PRB are to me: their desire for detail, their portrayal of real life, workmen, kids, life, energy, free spirits running wild across the canvas. And all the while messages ring out regarding class, work, emancipation, fair rights, suffrage for everyman.
PEN AND INK : STOP, before you leave the room or get distracted by Hunt’s “Awakening Conscience” or the “Light of the World” (which is much darker than any reproduction that I have EVER seen, no publisher I suppose wanting to produce a murky dark print), seek out the cabinet in the centre of the room. There are some exquisite pen and inks in there.
BIG BOW SHAPED LIPS : Room 5 is indeed full of luscious beauty. Rossetti’s full-lipped, red-headed muse slips around the walls like a seductive siren. Always her lips half open as if in a permanent state of expected ecstasy. She is quite masculine in the rest of her facial proportions however, but that makes her lure even more potent, strong yet vulnerable, an Italianate beauty.
CARPETS AND ROOM STUFF Room 6 Paradise (apparently). This is a room full of textiles, cabinets, a 4 poster bed, wall paper, a massive carpet, stained glass windows, there are horses, knights, maidens, flowers and stems dance in pinks, blue greens and reds. This is where we meet William Morris. He founded the decorative arts collective Morris, Marshall, Faulkners & Co. Rossetti, Brown, Webb and Burne-Jones were patrons.
There continues here the theme of decorative books, and there is a beautifully illustrated “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam” translated by Fitzgerald of course. It’s an illuminated book in the oldest sense, by hand, ink, watercolour, gilding on vellum. It is by the joint hands of Morris and Burne-Jones. We are back again to the collaborative nature of the PRB. You can feel the movement, the power, the wave and speed that these guys worked together. The one firing and inspiring the other, like all good collectives and partnerships should. It is no wonder, that the PRB hold such a place in the hearts of all free-spirits and free-thinkers. They were free with ideas, they shared knowledge, they constantly wanted to learn more, to push themselves and their boundaries. They were prolific. But most of all, and this is where we can all learn from them, they worked together for the good of each other. They inspired and supported each other. Of course there were rivalries, but in the main, their belief in their art and what they were trying to achieve and the message they felt compelled to deliver was the overriding factor.
Before you leave the room, there is a massive tapestry hanging above your head. Look out for the Monty Python knight….
The final room is full of BIG paintings, Edward Burne-Jones slinks his petrol blue-greens on huge romantic passionate canvases. Gilt frames, drama, stories. Yes, it’s a room full of mythologies. The soft dusky teals, cyans and azure blues spread passionately across papyrus hued carved architecture
“Love among the ruins” (1893-94), again Burne-Jones, rose thorns entwine among broken column drums, little blue campanulas grow like fragile glass, allegorically reflecting the fragility of the woman also in blue and clinging to her man. It is full of intense romantic passion.
The build of the woman is strong, like a classical sculpture, but she has a feminity. I think that is the fascination we have had with the “Pre-Raphaelite” ideal. The women are strong, they have amazing bone structure, they are broad and look fit, they exude sexuality and yet they have a vulnerability which makes them accessible and incredibly attractive and attainable. The men are all handsome, a little wayward, strong, fit, knights, brave and courageous but they too have a sensitivity and vulnerability that makes them accessible. It is this yin and yang, this romantic ideal that we all seek.
PART 2: Rooms 4 to 7 of the Pre-Raphaelites, Victorian Avant-Garde at the Tate Britain 12 Sept 2012 – 13 Jan 2013