The Pre-Raphaelites: Britain’s Romantic rule breakers

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Some paintings will always be identified with the place where you first saw them. You may even feel surprised to see them somewhere else. This is how I felt when I visited the Mori Arts Center Gallery, one of Tokyo’s high-rise art venues, to see “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde.”

The paintings are from Tate Britain, a beautiful neoclassical edifice situated next to the Thames River in London, with, if I recall rightly, slightly creaky polished floorboards.

It was there that I saw most of the works in this exhibition many times over. For me, these paintings are almost part of that venerable building. Delighted as I was to see them again, I couldn’t help feeling they had somehow been “uprooted” from their home. But this just emphasizes what a good show this is.

Following last year’s Turner exhibition, Tate Britain has again pulled out all the stops to showcase the cream of its Pre-Raphaelite collection, including works by John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and the movement’s poster boy Dante Gabriel Rosetti. The show is also well designed and sets out the story behind the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of young art rebels, and that which inspired them.

Although well-known around the world, the Pre-Raphaelites deserve to be better known here in Japan where 19th-century Western art automatically brings to mind the Impressionists. Like that later movement, the Pre-Raphaelites were rule breakers who saw themselves as revolutionaries. The title of the show draws attention to their avant-gardism; but, for modern audiences, deceived by the Victoriana present in their work, this may not be so apparent.

Their revolution was against the academicism that looked to Continental Europe and the “Grand Style” of the High Renaissance for inspiration, exemplified by the Italian artist Raphael (1483-1520). This had been championed in England by the painter and first president of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), a man whom Pre-Raphaelites particularly loathed.

The academic style emphasized compositional and color harmonies, muddy hues, and conventions of lighting, such as making one corner dark and the opposite light. It also limited subject matter to themes considered “grand and uplifting,” by which was meant ancient and foreign. For the Pre-Raphaelites such cliché and technicalities created an emotional gap between the artist and his work.

The group essentially attempted to revive the emotional directness of art by breaking away from such rules, although the movement also had its own preferences and conventions, such as a dedication to intense colors and fine detail, as well as occasionally preachy subject matter.

The break with the past opened up new themes and areas that, for a time, created a sense of excitement, and led to potent and emotionally-charged works.

In “The Vale of Rest” (1858), Millais splits the canvas into two almost equal parts, a twilit sky and a shadow-shrouded foreground. He daringly places the figures, two nuns preparing a grave, entirely beneath the darkening horizon, as if they too are somehow being interred, in what is a powerful memento mori.

Their rejection of the grand European tradition also gives their work an occasionally nationalistic tinge. One of the greatest works in this line is William Dyce’s “Pegwell Bay, Kent — a Recollection of October 5th 1858.” At first sight, this is an unassuming seascape, but the barely perceptible comet in the sky unlocks themes of time and space, echoed by the chalk cliffs, a symbol of the British Isles built up over millions of years, and the small figures reputedly looking for fossils.

The bay itself was chosen for its historical symbolism, being the site of two events that had a profound effect on British history and identity, the arrival of the first Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century and the landing of St. Augustine in 597, which was the start of the re-Christianization of much of England.

Themes from British history, Arthurian legend and Shakespeare’s plays were popular subject matter for the Pre-Raphaelites. Millais’ “The Order of Release” (1852-3), shows a Jacobite rebel from the 1745 Highland Rebellion reunited with his family; while his most famous work “Ophelia” (1852) shows the Shakespearean character in her watery grave.

The attempt to convey strong emotions through art could occasionally backfire. Works that strive too hard for pathos may occasionally slip into bathos and create unintended comic effects. There is a touch of this in William Holman Hunt’s “The Awakening Conscience” (1853), one of my old favorites from the Tate. The mistress’ sudden pang of conscience seems about to catapult her out of the picture. But even when they misfire, there is much to enjoy in the works of this movement of earnest and ardent young Victorian artists.

“Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde” at the Mori Arts Center Gallery runs till April 6; open daily 10 a.m.- 8 p.m. (Tue. in Feb. till 5 p.m.). ¥1,500. www.prb2014.jp