Medieval Moderns: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, NGV International, 11 April – 12 July 2015
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) burnt brightly and quickly. Forming in 1848, the seven original artists – John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James Collinson, Thomas Woolner, William Michael Rossetti, and Frederic George Stephens – worked cohesively for little more than five years. Only Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti remained directly involved in the movement. While Hunt continued as a largely independent artist, Rossetti later became a driving force in the second generation of the Brotherhood centred around William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Despite the brevity of their activity, the PRB had a profound influence upon the Industrial era. Rejecting the enforced hierarchies of beauty and genre of the Academy, they adopted Ford Madox Brown’s search for humanity and nature in art. Their aim to revitalise the simplicity and purity of the quattrocento and the British Medieval heralded a new era of faithful representation, singing colours, and literary historicism. This attracted artists including Arthur and Edward Robert Hughes, Francis Bedford and Walter Howell Deverell, and was the main inspiration for the later Arts and Crafts Movement. The PRB was at the centre of the Victorian world. Responding to and influencing art, industry, decorative arts, literature, and fashion, the PRB attracted fervent praise and virulent criticism in equal measure. Its members became notorious as the Bright Young Things of their day, with the fatal mix of overblown decadence and sincere aspirations that the label connotes. Medieval Moderns: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is the first major exhibit in over forty years to showcase the impressive NGV International collection, and it immerses the viewer in a Victorian revolution.
For an exhibit with a relatively small footprint, Medieval Moderns packs an impressive sensory punch. Millais’ ‘The Rescue’ (fig. 1) is the first work you see when entering the exhibition space. One of the key paintings of Medieval Moderns, ‘The Rescue’ represents Millais’ often extreme efforts to capture quotidian snapshots of nineteenth century London. The artist is said to have obsessively watched fires in the city at any time of the day or night, and to have filled his studio with smoke to accurately recreate the effect. With its view of London at the top right and the ubiquitously fashionable Persian carpet burning in the foreground, this is an emphatically Victorian image. Yet the pure emotion of the figures, achieved through Millais’ use of non-professional models and the crowded diagonal composition, make viewing ‘The Rescue’ also a fundamentally human experience. The colour and drama of the painting sets the mood of Medieval Moderns.
This is not a ‘white box’ exhibit. The four interconnected rooms of Medieval Moderns are papered and painted in the rich colours and vibrant patterns of the Victorian era, and the doorways assume the pointed arch form beloved by its Gothic Revivalists (Fig. 2). This nod to the prevailing aesthetics of the PRB period does not aim to artificially recreate the past; it instead creates a viewing experience of what curator Laurie Benson has termed ‘a holistic vision’ of the nineteenth century. This is furthered by the main ideas of the exhibit, as expressed in the thematically arranged rooms. The first introduces us to the main artists, with significant works from each of the Pre-Raphaelites, their forerunners and their followers. The latter included Edward La Trobe Bateman, the painter and landscape designer who came to Australia in 1853. His series of views in the ‘Plenty Station Set’ apply an exquisite attention to detail and an uncompromising realism of the PRB to a north-east Victorian railway station, emphasising the extent of the movement’s influence (fig. 3).
The key Pre-Raphaelite themes lead the next two rooms, with the major genre of portraiture occupying the third. Although female artists were not welcomed to the Victorian scene, the PRB was – for a self-named ‘brotherhood’ – more accommodating than others. The portraiture room includes works by Julia Margaret Cameron, as well as Burne-Jones’ arresting portrait of the writer and patron ‘Baronne Madeleine Deslandes’. These works again emphasise the social relevance of Pre-Raphaelite concepts. The Australian connection is also reiterated, with Woolner’s ‘Dr. Godfrey Howitt’. Purchased last year through the Marie Terese McVeigh Bequest, this portrait epitomises the consistency of NGV collection of PRB works since the 1880s. The breadth of Pre-Raphaelite activity – and of the NGV collection – is seen in the varied media exhibited in the first three rooms. In a period of increased industrialisation and fast-moving technology coupled with the persistence of traditional crafts, the PRB essentially had their choice of medium. This is most noticeable in the fourth room, which hints at the PRB turn of the century reincarnation as the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Viewing the decorative arts, texts, and paintings in the fourth room conjures up browsing through one of the more fashionable late nineteenth century homes. Amongst the works are the Kelmscott editions of English classics produced by Morris & Co. The texts are a tour de force of the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of combining art with life and of recognising the dignity of the creator. Superbly illustrated, printed, typeset and bound, each of the Kelmscott editions took years to produce. There are always challenges in displaying texts. Placed beneath glass, open to only one page, they most often become static and distant. This is overcome in Medieval Moderns through a touchscreen edition of the Kelmscott Chaucer on a lectern (fig. 4). The text can be flicked through, while the cased originals remind us of their physical presence. As has been shown elsewhere in the gallery, the display of decorative arts alongside contemporary paintings invites transposition to the cultural mindset of the artists and their audience. Medieval Moderns takes this to the next level. Whereas the other rooms are painted in solid colours, the fourth is papered in a striking, oversized black and white Morris design taken from the borders of a Kelmscott edition (see above).
The connection made between the audience and the works is crucial to the success of any exhibit, but arguably more so for one of the PRB. Given the long association of the NGV with the PRB (both in terms of collecting and exhibitions), as well as the recent attention given to the movement in international exhibits, many of the works in Medieval Moderns will be familiar to visitors. Medieval Moderns manages to present the visitor with a fresh take on these familiar works. A main feature of the exhibition is the inclusion of fragile pieces often hidden from view, such as preparatory drawings for the focus works. This inclusion prompts a different way of looking at familiar paintings, such as Burne-Jones’ ‘The Wheel of Fortune’. Looking at this painting alongside the studies Burne-Jones made for it reveals that the painting’s sorrowful resignation owes as much to its structure as to its subject (figs. 5-7). Concern with shading and line have seen the artist focus on the strained musculature of figures bound to the wheel, and perfect the bowed, weary heard of Fortune. The same dramatic modelling and exquisite draughtsmanship achieve the sinuous elegance of ‘The Garden of Pan’ and the ethereal introspection of ‘Baronne Madeleine Deslandes’. Pairing of these works with their preparatory drawings highlights the constant, yet mutable, elements of Burne-Jones’ oeuvre.
The labels occasionally draw attention to the relationships between the drawings and the completed works, such as Deverell’s ‘Grey Parrot’ and its study which feature Elizabeth Siddal (figs. 8-9). Romantically believed to have been plucked from the obscurity of toiling in a milliner’s shop by Deverell – other versions have her introduced as a promising young artist –Siddal became the favoured model of the PRB. Her own artistic and literary talents were overshadowed by her roles as ill-treated partner of Rossetti and the equally disabused ideal beauty of the Brotherhood. As Deverell was beginning his study for ‘Grey Parrot’, Millais was completing ‘Ophelia’ (now in the Tate). Siddal had only recently recovered from the illness she famously suffered after posing for Millais’ masterpiece in a bath of cold water, and had entered what was from all accounts a stifling relationship with Rossetti as his muse and lover. The label for the Deverell study emphasises that although the parrot’s chain was removed in the final work, the woman and bird are unified by their closed eyes. This subtle direction of the viewer towards relationships that underpinned the PRB, without enforcing a particular view, is typical of the exhibit’s ethos as a whole.
With the wall text predominately concerned with augmenting understanding of the period, often through quotes from the artists and their audience, the viewer’s gaze is largely unrestricted by an academic framework. Comparing the works to their preparatory studies, the artists with one another, and the different media in which they worked, is utterly engrossing. The only disadvantage of this is its impermanence. Medieval Moderns is a temporary exhibition. While some of the key works will return to permanent display, the fragility of drawings and books necessitates their return to storage. This is ameliorated to some extent by the catalogue, which effectively translates physical viewing of Medieval Moderns to its textual exploration. Richly illustrated, Medieval Moderns. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood largely follows the themes of the exhibit. In addition, each of the works shown is accompanied by an essay that expands upon the label. Individually authored by the catalogue’s contributors, these read as much as personal insights into the works as academic inquiries into their significance. Throughout these, emphasis on the rebellious innovation of the PRB remains a constant idea.
William Michael Rossetti declared that the PRB ‘meant revolt, and produced revolution’. Their new direction shook the establishment to its core. Vitriolic condemnation came from such society doyens as Dickens who dismissed PRB works as ‘odious, repulsive, and revolting’ for their unapologetic realism and purity. Walking around the exhibit, which welcomes close examination of the works, the innovations that prompted such scorn are most vivid in the details. Madox Brown’s ‘The Baptism of Edwin, King of Northumbria’ is impressive in its pure colouration and confident line (fig. 10). However its subject appears relatively unimpressive, until you notice the altar boy blowing the incense smoke under the king’s arm. This touch of humanity, juxtaposed with the ideological centre of the composition, sparks an entirely different reading of the work. It is from here that the PRB efforts to show the past and presents as they were lived, not as the Academy imagined them, can be traced. This was seen at the beginning of the exhibit, with Millais’ ‘The Rescue’, and is also a defining feature of Hunt’s ‘The Shadow of Death’ (represented in Medieval Moderns by studies and a hand-coloured engraving). By the date of this picture, efforts to show the ‘Man Christ’ – as the painting’s exhibition pamphlet defines the juxtaposition of the inspired Christ and the emphatically utilitarian workshop – were beginning to be welcomed. Nonetheless, the bare realism of much of the work, as well as the exorbitant sum of 10,000 guineas that it sold for, won Hunt international fame. He became, in Benson’s words, ‘the Damien Hirst of his age’. However in the last century, the PRB has suffered from what was erroneously perceived as overblown Victorian sentimentality. Although this is symptomatic of the inevitable retaliation against the recent past, it did not help the movement’s post-modern reputation. Enough time has now passed for this to be disregarded, and for the PRB to be brought out again and reappraised on its own terms. This is the defining achievement of Medieval Moderns. It shows a twenty-first century audience the dynamic, arresting, and fundamentally modern core of the PRB. In Melbourne, a city constantly searching for the new and exciting, this is a fitting reminder that everything was once revolutionary.
© Monique Webber, 2015