Pre-Raphaelites: Rebels with a cause

A new exhibition at Tate Britan sets out to show that the Pre-Raphaelites were more than aesthetes idealising the past. Some powerful paintings help it succeed

The question dogs away at the onlooker like some pesky sore molar: to what extent can this group of artists (there were just three of them at the outset) who first proclaimed their collective identity as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in September 1848, that year of revolutionary ferment in Europe, be claimed for modernity?

We are used to talking about artists of the 19th century who are commonly acknowledged to be forerunners of the moderns: think of Cézanne and Van Gogh, for example. But are not the Pre-Raphaelites, for all their achievements, more correctly characterised as irredeemably Victorian, part of all that art had to grow out of? Surely it cannot really be argued that these painters give us even so much as an inkling of what we have come to associate with the idea of the spirit of the new as we know it from, say, Picasso, Braque or Juan Gris, those ways of representation, often wild and jarring, that seem to be pushing open the doors of perception, to be making room for a kind of art that acknowledges subjective absorption, undercurrents of unreason, and all the grand post-Freudian cavalcade. Surely the Pre-Raphaelites are altogether too tame and too dull, too locked into their own historical moment. This show tries to persuade us otherwise.

Here is the curators' argument. These artists, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, all barely 20 when they signed up to the movement, were all rebels with a cause. They hated academic painting as defined by what was approved of at the Royal Academy – all that murkily toned, chiaroscuro-dominated, old-masterish mimicry, with its dependence upon classical mythology for so many of its themes, and its inclination towards the muscular idealisation of the human body. They wanted to reach back to a species of art-making that pre-dated the followers of Raphael – call it the art of the Italian "primitives" if you like – an art that put more emphasis upon flat surfaces, sharp outlines, bright colours and the idea of truth to nature. The new style was to be realistic – often hyper-realistic – and the colours vivid and sharp. Their mantra was this: paint what you see.

And where were they to go for their themes? This show lays it out, room by room: to nature, history, religion, contemporary life, literature (Dante, Shakespeare and Tennyson turn up again and again in these paintings), mythology, and the Middle Ages.... Hang on a minute though. The Middle Ages? Now how do you square the idea of an art made for the present with a passionate yearning for the Middle Ages? Well, this has something to do with the influence of that enormously important Victorian critic John Ruskin, who saw in the Middle Ages the embodiment of a simpler life and a simpler, hand-crafted art. At this point political radicalism comes into play. To work in the Middle Ages was to toil honestly, not to be the slave of industry. Ruskin saw in the sculpture of the Middle Ages "signs of the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone". So the past was to be harnessed in the interests of re-invigorating the present.

When we come to look afresh at the paintings themselves, these arguments do not entirely convince. Some of what is claimed is undeniably true though: these artists were indeed looking afresh at nature. They were painting in the open air about a decade or more before the Impressionists began to claim that practice for themselves. Or perhaps part-painting in the open air. John Everett Millais, for example, spent days painstakingly recording his natural setting for Ophelia beside the Hogsmill River at Malden in Surrey, flower by symbolic flower, before returning to the studio with a canvas in which he had left a convenient hole for the rapturously floating human body of its heroine. Nature was observed with an unusual degree of attention – it is as if in some of these canvases, you are looking at each individual leaf through a microscope. To imbibe the spirit of the present also meant being aware of, and profiting by, the new art of photography, cropping their pictures in interesting ways, learning how to document the ever perilously shifty movements of water. There is also the issue of heightened colour. The colours in some of these paintings almost shriek at us. These painters were indeed throwing off the grim murk of the average history painting, a tradition that was utterly moribund by the middle of the 19th century.

But so much of this show seems to be of its time and no more. How much has to do with the fact that these images are almost too familiar to us, and have therefore lost any ability to shock? The Pre-Raphaelites so often seem to have designs upon us in their paintings. They are heavy-handed moralists from first to last – why otherwise are so many of these paintings encumbered with inscriptions? These paintings so seldom seem to be imaginatively free-floating and unbridled spaces. In an age that was openly challenging religious orthodoxies, why are so many of the religious paintings in this show so slavishly orthodox, and so symbolically heavy-handed? Well, both orthodox and unorthodox, you could say. There is often a degree of waywardness in the way they are painted or in their settings – Holman Hunt travelled all the way to the Holy Land to find an authentic context for what he regarded as a new approach to religious art. But how revolutionary a painting is Holman Hunt's The Light of the World, that ever shining beacon of British Protestantism, when all is said and done? Is it not at heart a dull and maudlin piece of work? We need to look very closely too at the claims this show makes for these painters as painters. They often do not paint very well at all. Their figures are often awkwardly and stiffly posed in relation to each other. The painting of faces is often poor – wooden, mechanical.

And then there is Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, that man who reversed his Christian names in order that the name of Dante, the poet he so idolised, should come first in people's minds when he, Rossetti, was shown into the drawing room. Can there be many artists who have painted women quite so patronisingly as Rossetti? Is it even possible to stare for more than a second or two at Rossetti's pouting, inflated, over-sexed cream puffs without wincing?

Only in the very last rooms of the show does the curators' argument seem to make some sense. By this time the idea of Pre-Raphaelitism has evolved through Aestheticism and into something else altogether, a kind of painting that has begun to shrug off the idea of particular subject matter, and is inclining towards Symbolism and even Surrealism. In these late works by Edward Burne-Jones and Holman Hunt, for example, we are at last beginning to see, and by this point quite vividly, how the past was beginning to link hands with all that would come after it. Burne-Jones's huge late canvases, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid and The Golden Stairs still have the power to arrest us, the second in particular. Is this endless descent of young women down a gently curving flight of stairs (so that we see them, successively, right profile, face forward and then left profile) not a kind of phantasmagoria of which the Surrealists would surely have approved? Consider the way in which these women seem to stare into one another's eyes as if they were considering the possibility that they might be mirror images of each other. This painting does indeed seem to reach forward into the near uncontrollable wildness of all that was to come.

Pre-Raphaelites – Victorian Avant-Garde, Tate Britain, London SW1 (020 7887 8888) tomorrow to 13 January