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You Say You Want a Revolution: ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’, Tate Britain

2012 December 5
by lucinda matthews-jones

Beatrice Bazell (Birkbeck College, University of London)

Figure One: John Everett Millais,The Blind Girl (1856)

My mother stood in front of Millais’ The Blind Girl and marvelled: ‘You think you know these paintings, but actually you don’t.’ This will always be the major stumbling block, as well as the major    strength of any exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite work: in being so familiar with these beautiful, fascinating works we risk thinking of them as kitsch souvenirs of a bygone age, when in fact they change with every repeat viewing. Tate Britain can encourage such constant exposure, since they not only permanently house many of the movement’s best-known pieces in their permanent collection, but they staged a similar type of ‘blockbuster’ exhibition in 1984. So once again many of the most familiar images in Western art have been collected from all over the globe, ready to tour Moscow, Washington and Tokyo.

But I’m afraid that as a lover of nineteenth-century art I found ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’ just couldn’t live up to its own aims. The premise that the group, despite their founding allegiance to the best elements of past art, were radicals in the art world is one I wholeheartedly agree with; I just can’t understand how they inspired such a cautious exhibition. Both the Victorian era and our own are distinguished by astonishing leaps in the technology and innovations of visual culture, and the extent to which consumers may shape it, and question it. The curators point this out to us – both in the wall texts and in the introduction to the excellent catalogue – they highlight it with some of their beautiful selections from different media, and the case is constantly made in text that the Brotherhood and their peers were at the forefront of such innovations. The ‘themes’ of each room are an excellent way to convey the breadth of the movement’s interests and ambitions, if sometimes distorted by the limitations of space, and almost all the iconic pieces are here as well as some fascinating lesser-known ones. The Tate should also be credited with the inclusion of more female artists and Pre-Raphaelite collaborators than 1984, as well as a wonderfully diverse range of media, from oils and daguerreotypes to furniture and musical instruments, which all throw fresh light on how strongly-felt their influence was, and still is.

So why do I feel that our current art culture would irk them just as much as their own? On my first visit there were hordes of children with their parents, marvelling at the art on the walls, drawing it, asking questions about it, discussing it unabashedly. But the adults seemed cowed, deferential or even indifferent to works which in their time provoked joy, controversy, and despair at the culture which generated them. Our own visual culture can boast developments in which the Pre-Raphaelites themselves would have revelled, and I felt saddened and frustrated that this went unacknowledged. I don’t thirst to see screens everywhere, but I do feel that galleries should strive to exhibit in ways which stimulate our attention to art and scrutinise our creative desires, instead of demanding our reverence for what they have put on the walls. If our public art culture is still mired in the conservatism of the late 18th century against which the Pre-Raphaelites were pushing, let alone the 19th, then the Tate should, in its role as one of the pillars of the British art establishment, be making this plain to us, and asking us why that should be. If the Pre-Raphaelites could see this exhibition, they might well wonder what all their incipient radicalism was for.

Figure Two: Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents

I have a suggestion: Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents should occupy a lone stand in the middle of the very first room, set about with contemporary reviews rendered in different media. Give pride of place to Dickens’ anguished cri de coeur, in which he declares that it represents not merely retrogressive artistic impulses but depraved ones, showcasing ‘the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting’ (‘Old Lamps for New Ones’, Household Words, 15 June 1850). Because if the exhibition wants us to know them as revolutionaries, then we must be made to feel that these works are strange to us, and from a culture that we are not more familiar with than our own. The 2012 selections for the Turner Prize, that annual divider of public opinion about the state of our nation’s capacity to produce art, are currently on display in another room in Pimlico. If it seems that we want to be protected from the force of artistic radicalism in the past as well as the present, then neither the Tate nor the curators of this finely-honed exhibition should shoulder all the blame.

Beatrice Bazellis a PhD candidate at Birkbeck College, researching mid-Victorian cultures of representation and sexuality in literature, photography and art.

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