Getting sentimental about the Pre-Raphaelites

by

Special To The Japan Times

Sometimes even provincial cities in the West seem to have much greater public art resources than Japan’s capital. This is driven home by a video at the “Pre-Raphaelite and Romantic Painting from National Museums Liverpool” exhibition now on at Tokyo’s Bunkamura The Museum.

The video shows the three museums from which the exhibits are sourced, each one a beautiful piece of architecture gifted to the city by a wealthy donor, and all containing excellent collections that can be seen entirely for free. What a contrast with Tokyo, where museums often resemble office buildings and free entrance is a rarity.

What we get at this exhibition — and also at the three Liverpool museums — is essentially a revolt against the modern world and the suggestion that life could be a lot more beautiful than it is.

This sentiment was also the original impetus behind the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the wider Romantic movement, of which it was a part. By the mid-19th century, the “dark satanic mills” of British industrialism had sparked off a militantly aesthetic and defiantly backward-looking movement, founded by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

There are a couple of Rosettis at the exhibition, luscious idealizations of the feminine that evoke the world of the early Renaissance, the period that the Pre-Raphaelite movement saw as its lodestone, and a single Holman Hunt, a luminous painting of an Italian child. But the exhibition is particularly strong in the works of Millais, with several on display, including particularly well-known ones like “A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford” (1856-57). This shows an Arthurian knight engaged in an act of charity.

“A Dream of the Past” is interesting because it was mocked at the time for its strong note of sentimentality, a danger that nostalgia-infused art often faces, and which often reached toxic levels with popular Victorian painters.

Millais’ other well-known work at the exhibition, “The Black Brunswicker” (1860), however, manages to avoid this pitfall. Here sentimentality vies with a sense of tragedy and foreboding to create the poignant scene of a German military officer bidding his sweetheart farewell.

Death is prefigured by the blackness of the officer’s uniform and the skull and crossbones motif on his helmet. While he opens the door to leave for the war, she tries to steal a few more seconds together by trying to close it. A small black dog wearing a ribbon identical to that on the women’s arm emphasizes the fidelity with which she will wait for her lover, whether he returns or not.

It is this ability to deliver allegories and tell stories that gives Pre-Raphaelite art its potency.

The exhibition also includes works by later Pre-Raphaelites, including Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s overly precise evocations of classical grandeur and Edward Burne-Jones’ medievalistic masterpieces.

“Pre-Raphaelite and Romantic Painting from National Museums Liverpool” at Bunkamura the Museum runs until March 6; daily 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (Sat. and Sun. until 9 p.m.). ¥1,500. www.bunkamura.co.jp/english/museum