Thursday 10 January 2013

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde - Get it before it's gone

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is really where my interest in art history began. The Royal Academies exhibition Pre-Raphaelite and other Masters: the Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection in 2003 was the exhibition that first left me really wanting to know all I possibly could about the paintings, the painters and the subjects of the works hanging on the walls around me. Since then I have been to lots of other inspiring exhibitions and studied some fascinating periods of art history but I have always maintained a fondness for Rossetti and the gang.

At the age of 13 I was only really able to appreciate the beauty of the paintings, the vibrant colours, the elaborate textures and the incredible natural details. Of course these aspects are all present in this exhibition and the paintings are a feast for the senses particularly the fifth room which focuses upon the groups preoccupation with beauty.

One of my personal faves

But the exhibition does not rest upon it's laurels and merely present a 'beautiful' exhibition, it seeks to reexamine the brotherhood within their context, looking at their interest in science, contemporary theology and concerns with contemporary morals and society and how their paintings, sculpture and decorative objects express these concerns. The exhibition challenges the viewer to see past the beautiful and luxurious images which give the impression of artists merely attempting to paint sentimental scenes and instead presents the idea that the brotherhood were breaking new ground through their engagement with the present.

One of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition for me was the inclusion of painted furniture and stunning tapestries which I had not seen presented alongside the paintings before. It certainly gave you an impression of the breadth of their influence upon British art, particularly the arts and crafts movement. 

This stunning wardrobe painted by Edward Burne-Jones is just one magnificent example of this.

The exhibition was huge and packed with things to see, read and engage with, frankly there are some paintings there that you could stare at for hours and continue to notice details you had missed. The magnificent Lady of Shallot in the final room being an excellent example. I did hear several viewers lament that it was not the more famous John William Waterhouse representation of the Tennyson poem, however I found myself almost preferring the drama of Holman Hunts work lesser known work, the billowing red hair, the chaotic floor, the vibrant colours and the thread from her weaving strewn around her. Don't know what you think?

The Lady of Shalott John William Waterhouse
The Lady of Shalott William Holman Hunt

But the details I think shouldn't be missed, and most often were, were the poems engraved on many of the paintings frames. Reading these, often written by the artists themselves, gives you a new insight into the painting and the wider work of the brotherhood.

It has taken me woefully long to get to this exhibition between getting back from traveling and the chaos of working in retail during Christmas so if you read this and it peaks your interest then get down there quick as the exhibition ends on the 13th. The galleries advice regarding tickets for the last days is that the advance booking tickets are sold out but that they can be bough on the door on the day (in the morning to avoid disappointment). If you are reading from Russia then lucky you as the exhibition is traveling to Moscow's Pushkin museum in July of this year.