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

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power