The Tate sees Pre-Raphaelitism to incorporate ‘rebellion, beauty, scientific precision and imaginative grandeur’, and as such curates its exhibition with these clear set of bookmarks. Rebellion indeed is a key aspect to the movement; William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood whilst studying at the Royal Academy of Arts and thus rejected a tradition to which they were expected to conform. Though these young artists were forging their own pathway, rebelling, they were focussed on purity and the natural form. As such their work emanates beauty, passion and a sheer dedication to art. It ceases to be ‘rebellion’- riotous, aggressive or confrontational- and instead it becomes exactly what it strived to be: art for art’s sake. In the presence of their work, I found it difficult to believe that art could be anything else.
In my mind one of the greatest aims of art is to capture an emotion and preserve it, trap it in amber, and make it last. Whether that something is a single person’s beauty, the piety of a generation, the distress of a minority or the stillness of an ocean. Thus, what is perhaps more prevailing as an argument is not what we define art, but what we define beautiful. The Pre-Raphaelites had their own obsession with beauty: they wanted to return art to its ‘painterly and spiritual purity’ prior to Raphael, an artist they saw as an embodiment of the Renaissance. Gone were highly stylised physical forms, in their place Rossetti et al revisited a medieval fantasy world of chivalry, vivid colour and natural simplicity, all with a strong literary subject matter. It is indeed a beautiful world that you step into. The languid sexuality of the Pre-Raphaelite women is desultory, yet totally mesmerizing. Their beauty is beguiling in its colour and focus; they are surrounded by the accoutrement of the medieval woman- looms, garlands, pianos, flora and fauna.
These paintings, in real life (pardon the paradox), are utterly captivating. The Tate has a particular way of creating an exhibition which allows its viewer to pass through a movement with a high level of art historicism, the curatorial blurbs are both edifying and clear, yet also with a sky high level of aesthetic pleasure. People amble round the large, blood red rooms peering at the captions, nodding wisely at the wall text, but mainly just staring at the arresting physical beauty of these paintings.
‘Lilith’, Adam’s first wife immortalised by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was one such painting that rendered me one of the staring masses. She stares lazily out of her painting, her face framed by floral garlands, both bored and fascinated by her own beauty. The viewers become voyeurs of a literary, botanic world that they cannot possess. Many of the paintings are in the form of a triptych, or series which furthers their purpose as a vehicle of storytelling. It is easy to see why these paintings provoked accompanying poetry by their creators, as a means of expressing their vision whole-heartedly through image and word. This new vision may seem dreamy and nostalgic, but the Brotherhood behind it stirred controversy by abandoning academic convention and embracing sexual yearning, artistic introspection and spiritual purity.
Rebellious, but enchanting.